The Biden ProblemRoundup
tags: Joe Biden, 2020 Election, ageism
Andrew Meyer is a professor of history at Brooklyn College. He blogs at Madman of Chu.
Because I tuned in late and initially caught only the last half of Thursday night's Democratic debate, I was very surprised hear pundits in its immediate aftermath describe Joe Biden's performance as "strong." I had been shocked at how disastrously Biden answered questions toward the end of the evening, particularly this question posed by Linsey Davis:
Mr. Vice President, I want to talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” You said that some 40 years ago, but as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?
This is where Joe Biden is most vulnerable in any attempt to unseat Donald Trump. Trump, if matched against Biden, will no doubt pursue the same strategy that succeeded in securing him a narrowly technical electoral college victory against Hillary Clinton. A perfect storm of factors helped Trump in this feat, most of which (Russian interference, the Comey letter, the Clinton camp's own missteps) were not the product of his campaign's devising. But one proactive message that Trump's people broadcast with real effect was that of Hillary's supposed equivalency to Trump. Yes, so this story went, Trump is venal and corrupt, but so is Hillary. Yes, Trump lies. But so does Hillary. Since morally they are the same in all the ways that matter, voters should feel free in choosing the candidate that they prefer politically.
Surely many (if not most) voters did not buy this yarn. It is difficult to know how many believed it, because their numbers are almost certainly not to be found in the tally of those who voted. Anyone who cared enough about the race to cast a vote in favor of either candidate probably would not have had their opinion changed by this kind of transparent ploy. But enough Democratic voters were demoralized by the idea that "a vote against Trump doesn't really matter that much" to give Trump a 77,000 vote margin of victory in three states.
This exact message will not work in a campaign against Joe Biden- no one will ever believe that Biden is the moral equivalent of Trump (Why Biden is not vulnerable in this way when Hillary was is a question that is too complicated to address here. Suffice it to say that some of it had to do with empirical facts, some of it had to do with larger forces such as gender). But Trump will be able to run an "equivalency con" on Biden with regard to race. "However bad Trump's statements on race may be (so this line of attack will go), Joe Biden has said things almost as bad. Democratic support of Biden over Trump is thus hypocrisy of a kind with Barack Obama's friendship with Jeremiah Wright. Democrats will forgive racism in those who agree with them, but use it to bludgeon those with whom they disagree."
It is precisely because race and racism remain such a highly charged and urgent issue in the minds of voters across the political spectrum that this tactic will have broad and deep effect, even more than the equivalency campaign waged against Hillary Clinton. Anyone who doubts this can take warning from the commentary of Anand Giridharadas, which helped inspire me to write this post. During the debate, for example, he tweeted:
Joe Biden's answer on how to address the legacy of slavery was appalling -- and disqualifying. It ended in a sermon implying that black parents don't know how to raise their own children. This cannot go on.
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