Biden has declared his candidacy for President. I find that event both reassuring and sad. It’s reassuring because it acknowledges that he is the only available candidate who can beat Trump. It’s sad because Democrats remain tepid toward the President, conceding unenthusiastically that he is the candidate with the best chance of winning, but are lukewarm toward him otherwise. Donald Trump’s danger to our democracy consumes our attention, throwing his performance on other important national issues into shadow.
First and foremost, Biden has broken forty years of Congressional gridlock. As a result of years of confrontation, the rhetoric of politics had become the rhetoric of war. Negotiation had become collaboration with the enemy, compromise became treason, effectively creating a dysfunctional government. The demands of the Sixties movements that the government take notice of injustices were legitimate; that is what uprisings do—demand attention. They were nevertheless polarizing, and the resurgence of unrestrained capitalism and fundamentalist Christianity felt, to me, like a counterrevolution, intensifying the conflict. The rise of Trump compounded it. Biden managed to work with this unmanageable situation and get substantial legislation through, an achievement that demonstrates the power of bipartisan negotiation to get important things done.
Political life is now populated largely by activists raised in the era of protest. Younger candidates of either party know little about bipartisan work because they have cast it as treason. Loyalty is to the party, not the country, each side claiming to be the true patriots. That Biden has managed to hold left-wing Democrats together is remarkable and a sign that Democrats have developed a new maturity. I pray they keep it up. The Republican declaration that they will not sign any debt limit bill that doesn’t meet all of their demands demonstrates the kind of “negotiation” they have engaged in for the many years (otherwise known as extortion) and the kind of trouble they are in. The contrast between Biden and that group should be stark enough to generate a little enthusiasm from the Democrats.
Biden has managed all of the above while leading us through a pandemic, its resulting economic crisis, and a war in Ukraine—the sign of a deft, hands-on leader. One can argue that he’s used executive power too much or not enough, but our national habit of blaming everything on the sitting President is dangerous; it fuels the belief that the President can, and should, handle everything—reminiscent of Donald Trump’s promise that he could fix everything and the credulous cheers of his base. The Supreme Court put abortion into the hands of the states. Biden accordingly left it there. He respects the division of power that is central to the Constitution.
Yes, he’s lived a lot of years, but there’s little sign he’s aging. In fact, he looks and sounds as though he’s thriving. Those who grew up during the “revolution” of the Sixties or were raised by that group, don’t find him exciting. Protesting is far more to their taste, and romantic attachment to “revolution” lies deep in the national psyche. But protest does not accomplish change; it only starts it. Those who declared our independence from King George are our national heroes, but we owe our lives to those who made democracy work.
During the years when my husband and I were active in politics, we divided Democrats into “Romantic” and “Pragmatic.” I don’t hear that distinction made much anymore, but it’s useful here. Romantics (Jeffersonians) believe humankind is good; it’s the system that makes them bad. Conservatives (Hamiltonians) believe mankind is bad, but the system can control their worst behavior. Pragmatists (Madisonians) believe humankind is both bad and good, and the system can improve them. The Sixties activists were decidedly Romantic, as, in my view, are the Progressives today. Romantics call themselves idealists as opposed to the pragmatists who’ve “contaminated” their ideals with “corrupt reality.” Hillary Clinton is an example of a Pragmatist, as is Biden; they believe in getting as much progress toward your ideals as you can and still get things done. Their ideals provide the motivation and strength to keep plugging. Thanks to Madison, I’ve heard political scientists argue, we have a Constitution and haven’t become a bunch of banana republics—though Republicans seem determined to carry us back in that direction. The opposition of Democrats to Clinton in 2016 and their consequent desertion to Bernie Sanders that gave the victory to Trump demonstrates the romantic attachment that group has to calls for “revolution.”
It’s time Romantic Democrats take note. Protests raise awareness of issues; they don’t fix them. Idealism inevitably collides with reality and either turns to cynicism or matures into sustained and unexciting but necessary work. It’s time to give up the belief that youth is a time of golden purity and everything beyond that is inevitable corruption. “Never trust anyone over 30” was the war cry of the times. They need to recognize the value of age—and wisdom. It’s going to take more than a recalibration of their negativism to win this next election.