Trump Has Killed Democrats’ Sense of the Possible

Biden’s elevation to front-runner is a testament to how much the president has shaken Democrats’ faith.

Joe Biden
Brian Snyder / Reuters

To former Vice President Joe Biden’s benefit, electability has become the unofficial buzzword of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Although it’s still early, most polls show Biden as the clear front-runner among Democrats. A CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll was just the latest to give him a solid lead. Among Iowa’s likely Democratic caucus-goers, 24 percent named Biden their first choice for president—a significant lead in a fractured field that has more than 20 candidates.

Biden’s early strength isn’t particularly surprising. He’s an experienced politician. And his service alongside former President Barack Obama has given him a priceless advantage. On Saturday, to celebrate “Best Friends Day,” Biden even tweeted a picture of bracelets entwining his first name and Obama’s—a not-so subtle reminder that the former vice president was a fixture of the good old days.

Nevertheless, Biden’s elevation to front-runner is a testament to how much President Donald Trump has shaken the faith of those who believe the White House could better reflect what America looked like.

This is perhaps Trump’s most crucial victory yet: successfully persuading Democrats—especially African American voters—not just to lower the bar, but to abandon the idea that inclusion and bold ideas matter more than appeasing the patriarchy.

More than likely, the Democratic nominee for president won’t be the person with the best and most progressive ideas, or the person most capable of galvanizing a fractured country. The nominee just has to beat Trump, even if the cost of that victory is reinforcing the idea that only an older white man is capable of getting this country back on track.

In a recent piece explaining Joe Biden’s early polling success, David Mark, a writer for NBC News’s digital site Think, wrote: “For starters, there’s Biden’s demographic edge in the primaries. Biden, 76 and white, broadly fits the profile of the Democratic electorate that will select the nominee.”

But older white Democrats aren’t the only ones who are bullish on the former vice president. In a Quinnipiac poll conducted in late April, 61 percent of nonwhite Democrats said Biden had the best chance of beating Trump.

Already many Democrats are cutting Biden much more slack than they’re giving other candidates. There is, for example, a double standard in how some African Americans judge the presidential candidate Kamala Harris—who was an Oakland prosecutor before becoming a U.S. senator from California—far more harshly than they judge Biden.

Harris has been criticized repeatedly by African Americans for her record as a prosecutor; many accused her of aiding a system that has disproportionately punished and targeted black people. There was even a hashtag created on Twitter, #KamalaHarrisIsACop, that her detractors employed to point out her failure to protect African Americans in the criminal-justice system.

Even though Biden wrote the 1994 crime bill whose mandatory-minimum sentencing rules sent many black men to prison, the former vice president’s support among African Americans remains significantly stronger than that of both black presidential candidates in the field—Harris and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. A poll released by BlackPAC last month showed that 72 percent of African Americans view Biden favorably, compared with 49 percent for Harris and 47 percent for Booker.

Remarkably, the negative energy directed toward Harris for serving as a prosecutor has not been aimed at Biden, who said recently that, although the “three strikes” provisions of the 1994 law were a mistake, the bill “had a lot of other good things.” While the explosion of mass incarceration was already in progress before the crime bill was signed, the legislation was still devastating for black and brown people. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the black incarceration rate rose from 1,200 per 100,000 in 1985 to 2,450 per 100,000 in 2000. For black men in 2000, the rate was 3,457 per 100,000.

For many African Americans, who understandably feel particularly vulnerable in Trump’s administration, prioritizing a defeat of Trump over progress is a means of survival. Biden’s treatment of Anita Hill, questions about his handsy behavior with women, his opposition to marijuana legalization, the accusations of plagiarism, his flip-flop on supporting the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion services—none of it has weakened Biden’s position.

Unfortunately, the lesson even Democrats have learned from Trump’s election is that certain voters are willing to tolerate anything if they believe in a candidate. Especially if that candidate is an older white man.