Outside the faux-barn event space in Fairfield, Iowa, the sky was foggy black, and rain had turned the long gravel driveway to mush. But despite the weather, several dozen Iowans showed up on the Saturday before New Year’s to hear from the man they believe offers a bright beam of sunlight for these rainy times.
What’s attracting these supporters to Joe Biden are his rose-colored glasses. The central allure of the former vice president’s campaign—the promise undergirding it all—is that he can unite a historically polarized nation, one whose divisions may now be further amplified by the crisis with Iran.
Biden has repeatedly suggested that, as president, he’d get members of both parties working together again to churn out legislation. Earlier this week, Biden even said that he’d consider choosing a Republican running mate. His is a gauzy vision of a bipartisan America, one that has led progressives to dismiss Biden as a naive old man yearning for a return to a past that never was. But some voters want to go back in time too. “He’d bring the country together a lot more than it is,” said Melinda Johnson, who lives in Fairfield and plans to caucus for the first time next month for Biden.
The dominant narrative says that Biden is a formidable force in 2020 because of his supposed electability—the confidence Democratic voters have that he is capable of beating Donald Trump in a head-to-head contest. But his vision of a post-Trump America was an even bigger factor for the voters I spoke with in Iowa. These supporters care about winning, but they also believe that a Biden presidency really would lessen the anger and vitriol in American politics, bringing about a return to decency and civility. Fundamentally, his voters’ sentiments underscore the choice many Democrats think they have to make in the 2020 election: Should they push for a post-Trump revolution, or simply a return to normalcy?
So far, at least, Biden’s appeal seems to be working. He has been polling as the national front-runner for most of the race, though in Iowa, he’s polling on par with Senator Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The 77-year-old is dominating the primary field among black voters, and a recent New York Times/Siena College Poll in six key swing states showed that Biden is the Democrat who fares best in matchups with Trump.
Biden has pitched himself as the candidate who can ensure that Republicans and Democrats will not only get along, but actually work together. “Our politics has gotten too ugly, too mean, too divisive,” Biden told the crowd in Fairfield. “With this president out of the way, we in fact can begin to change the dynamic.” He knows Republicans; he’s friends with them. “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends … you are seeing the talk, even the dialogue is changing,” Biden said at a campaign event last spring, drawing criticism from progressives that he was being unrealistic.
His stump speech is a long and gentle meander through a forest of feel-good-isms. Biden talks about “decency” and “honor” and “restoring the soul of America.” At the event in Fairfield, Biden recalled his mother’s old saying about not “denigrating people,” getting a laugh from rally attendees when he described how she would wash his mouth out with soap when he used profanity. Everyone in the audience is referred to as “folks,” and sometimes, when he’s feeling especially passionate, his voice wobbles in an old-timey way, like he’s George Bailey defending the Building and Loan to the hateful Mr. Potter.
Biden’s fans get almost misty-eyed when they talk about his time in the Senate and in the Obama administration, where he cultivated relationships with Republican lawmakers. “He knows so many of those people,” Patty Miller, a teacher, told me in Fairfield when I asked whether she expects Biden to bridge the partisan divide in Washington as president. “When he’s elected, and things settle down—things will have to settle down—then I think he will.” Paul Gandy, a Fairfield lawyer who said Biden is one of three candidates he is considering, told me that he’d expect Congress to work much more effectively with Biden as president: “I’d look for him to do what he says he’s going to—which is build consensus, reach across the aisle, pass legislation in the Senate, have conversations with Republicans and independents, and move the nation forward.”
While it’s possible that Democrats could win both the White House and the Senate in 2020, Biden’s critics claim that it’s impossibly naive to imagine that a Republican-held Senate would be eager to work with a Democratic president. Perhaps no one should know that better than Biden himself: The Obama presidency, during which he was vice president, was marked by historic Republican obstruction, with the GOP-led Senate filibustering a slew of bills and ignoring many of the president’s judicial and Cabinet nominees. It culminated in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s holdup of Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Nor is it immediately clear what kind of bipartisan compromises legislators could actually make, because Democrats and Republicans are moving further and further apart on their top priorities. Health-care costs, an issue that ranks as the No. 1 priority for Democratic voters, doesn’t even register in the top five for Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center. And two-thirds of Democrats list climate change as a top concern, compared with 21 percent of Republicans. Such wide gulfs can’t be bridged simply with better relations between the two parties.
But Biden, on the campaign trail, doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about policy. And his supporters I talked with certainly aren’t all that focused on it. They’d love to scroll through Twitter without seeing angry rants from the president. They yearn for a four-year period where they can safely ignore the goings-on in the White House (a desire that’s likely been heightened by the developments with Iran). A President Biden would “get back to the real issues in government, not ridiculous things,” Sandy Stever, a health-care worker, told me at the event in Fairfield. “Like, why are we building walls? That sort of thing.” Simply by winning in 2020, Biden would be “restoring U.S. standing in the world … he could do that immediately,” said 71-year-old Susanna McCann, who is considering caucusing for him.
Other candidates, like Buttigieg, make similar appeals to unity and bipartisanship. But unlike Biden’s supporters, Buttigieg’s fans tend to voice particular policy priorities, such as their desire to create a “public option” to compete with private health insurance. It’s as though Biden is running in a completely different primary race than his Democratic opponents. While most of the other candidates are deeply enmeshed in a war of ideas—debating the merits of Medicare for All and free public college and a wealth tax on the ultra-rich—Biden’s main appeal to voters has been his summoning of a few particular sensations: nostalgia, stability, civility.
“I would really hope he’d restore a feeling of decency in the country,” Becky Shrek, a Fairfield resident, told me when I asked her what she’d want to see from a Biden presidency. “Basically, that’s it.”
This desire for kumbaya exposes the stark difference in how Democratic voters view the 2020 election. For many, especially those in the left flank of the party, Donald Trump is a symptom of a much larger problem in American politics—one that calls for new leadership and major structural reforms of the country’s economic and political systems. “If the best Democrats can offer is business as usual after Donald Trump, Democrats will lose,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts told supporters at a rally in New Hampshire on Thursday. But others see Trump as the key obstacle to the nation fulfilling its potential.
At the end of his speech in Fairfield, Biden asked the voters in attendance to consider three questions before the caucus in February: Which Democratic candidate is most likely to beat Trump in November? Which of them is best positioned to help down-ballot candidates win? And which candidate can work with Republicans in Congress to “get things done”?
But there’s another question Biden didn’t ask that he may as well have: Do Democrats want a brand-new kind of politics—or something closer to the pre-Trump status quo?