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Column: Warts and all, Biden is Democrats’ best bet to defeat Trump

  • Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a rally with members of a painters and construction union, Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Henderson, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher)



For the Valley News
Saturday, May 18, 2019

Of the 20-plus candidates who have so far entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden is the only one whose entry has provoked audible groans. Given all the diversity and youthful vitality of his rivals, many members of the Democratic Party — especially younger ones — cannot see why we would even consider nominating an old white-haired man.

Strangely enough, I seem to recall that just three years ago, the Democratic left was positively swooning over another old white-haired man. But Bernie Sanders is a lifetime lefty, a scourge of millioneahs and billioneahs, a tireless champion of such things as “Medicare For All.” Since he is now, awkwardly enough, a millionaire himself, he may have to fulminate against billionaires alone, but he remains a passionate progressive.

By contrast, Joe Biden is an intolerably moderate centrist. And that is just one of the warts on Biden’s white face. The biggest of all, of course, is what he did to Anita Hill in 1991, when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee that vetted Clarence Thomas as a nominee for the Supreme Court. If Biden wins the Democratic nomination, we will be endlessly reminded — above all by legions of

Russian bots and social media trolls — that he led the charge against the credibility of the eminently credible Hill after she accused Thomas of sexually harassing her. Even now, 28 years later, Biden has failed to satisfy her with an adequate apology.

Much more recently, Biden has been accused of inappropriate touching, placing his hands on the neck and shoulders of a woman and even kissing the back of her head without asking permission. He is just now beginning to realize that this kind of behavior offends some women.

Want more warts? Having just turned 80 (from which gray eminence the 76-year-old Biden seems a mere stripling), I’m old enough to remember that in September 1987, during Biden’s first run for the presidency, he was shown to have plagiarized a speech given by a British politician and shortly afterward dropped out of the race. And even now, after all his experience, he has not yet broken the habit of saying dumb things — such as that China is “not competition for us.”

In the face of such failings, we may well dream of a perfect candidate. Perfectly incapable of a single gaffe. Perfectly eloquent. Perfectly sensitive to all constituents. Perfectly fluent in all languages, including Norwegian. Perfectly charming on all occasions. Perfectly progressive. Perfectly moderate. Perfectly re-assuring to all.

While we dream of a perfect candidate, however, we could be sleep-walking into the nightmare of President Donald Trump’s re-election. That’s a prospect that should wake us all up. So instead of counting the warts on Joe Biden’s face, let’s take a closer look at his assets.

With 36 years in the Senate and eight years in the White House, he is vastly more experienced than any of his rivals, thoroughly versed in two of our three branches of government: legislative and executive. Is it possible to overstate the value of such experience as an alternative to — as an antidote to — our current president? Having assumed the highest office in the land with absolutely no political experience, Donald Trump has become a raging bull who treats every single rule, law, treaty, norm, regulation and subpoena that stands in his way as so much bone china that he is licensed to smash.

What we need above all right now is a president who knows how to put the pieces of our government back together, how to restore the system of checks and balances on which our nation was founded, and how to revive the institutions without which we are prey to both presidential lunacy and the Soviet-style information warfare it invites.

But nominating Joe Biden does not mean caving to hidebound institutionalism.

As chief political counselor to President Barack Obama, Biden played a crucial role in the 2010 passage of the most progressive piece of legislation since the Civil Rights Act of the mid-1960s: the Affordable Care Act, which for nearly a decade has withstood every Republican attempt to repeal it.

Biden was also an early supporter of gay rights. In May 2012, when Obama’s views on gay marriage were still “evolving,” Biden said that he was “absolutely comfortable” with it.

Just as important, as a native of Scranton, Pa., in the heart of the coal country, Biden has long earned the trust — that priceless, indispensable quality — of the working class, precisely the voters Trump thinks he owns. And finally, as a man who served the nation’s first black president, Biden has also earned the trust of a great many African Americans.

In short, he combines the mind of an institutionalist with the heart of a progressive.

Biden’s lead over his Democratic rivals in the polls conducted this month averages almost 23 percentage points. (His closest rival is Bernie Sanders, followed most often by Elizabeth Warren.)

While poll numbers are bound to fluctuate, these results confirm what nearly all other evidence tells us: Biden is the strongest candidate we have to run against Trump — if Trump survives his legal challenges to run again.

James Heffernan, of Hanover, is a professor of English emeritus at Dartmouth College.