Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Fair or Not, Biden Must Go

by Neil H. Buchanan

This column addresses the 2020 U.S. presidential election.  Because I have not written directly on this topic for the past two months, I feel the need to begin by reiterating two points that I have made many times over the past few years:

(1) In anything like a fair election (even the ones that have passed for "fair" in this country), Donald Trump would lose to anyone the Democrats nominate; but

(2) Even if he loses, Trump will not leave office.

After updating those two caveats, I will explain why Joe Biden should withdraw from the presidential race -- or , if he will not volunteer to do so, why the Democrats should ease him out involuntarily.

On the matter of Trump's likelihood of winning the election outright, it is beyond the scope of this column to talk about the many ways that Republicans have suppressed voting and -- adding an even bigger question mark -- how the pandemic will affect the way that Americans vote (and which ones will be able to do so).  Beyond those two matters, however, it has struck me as insanity since 2016 for people to talk about Trump as anything but a huge underdog for reelection in 2020.

Yes, there are the advantages of incumbency, but if the standard tropes of political analysis are suspended on one side -- Trump can insult people, praise neo-Nazis, and cater only to his base without sinking like a stone -- then they are suspended on the other.  What makes being the incumbent advantageous (even when the economy was good) is simply not applicable to Trump.  He is too alienating to those who are not in his cult.

The final nationwide popular vote totals in 2016 had Trump at 46% and Clinton at 49%, and that was with low turnout among people who hated Trump but thought themselves too pure to vote for Hillary Clinton, counting on others to keep Trump out of the White House.  Trump's approval ratings in office have been stuck in the range from the high 30's to the low (very rarely mid-) 40's.  In other words, he is exactly where one would expect a person with his base to be.

Nothing Trump has done in the past three and a half years could possibly draw in new voters, and everything that he has done has repulsed those who did not vote for him.  This is why every election since 2016 -- most notably the rout of the Republicans in Virginia in 2017, the blowout of the gerrymandered Republican U.S. House majority in 2018, even the result of Wisconsin's recent Supreme Court election -- has been so good for Democrats.  Trump is poison at the ballot box, and even many races that Republicans have won have been eked-out victories in Trump country.

And sure enough, one of the recent major polls shows Biden with 49% and Trump with 43%.  I do understand why Democrats do not want to be overconfident, having been burned so badly by Trump's odd Electoral College path to the Oval Office in 2016, but that is not a reason to act as if they are underdogs.  Confidence, properly handled, can breed momentum and not complacency.

Second, even though Trump will almost surely lose in November, I still see no reason to believe that he and the Republicans will accept that outcome.  Just to offer one recent data point on this matter, an op-ed in today's Washington Post by the deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) notes that Trump is legally required to be preparing for a peaceful transition of power, but he and his people are flouting that law.  That is by no means the strongest reason to believe that Trump will refuse to leave, but it adds to the overwhelming weight of the evidence.

This rather lengthy preamble is necessary, I think, because any discussion of electoral politics should not proceed as if this were anything like a normal U.S. election.  Trump was and is unpopular and his opponents are highly motivated, but it is likely not to matter at all.  Even before COVID-19, we were probably already in the end times for the rule of law.

That said, Joe Biden has to go away.  I write this, by the way, not because I was among those who thought that he would be a terrible candidate (he is, in fact, so far surprisingly not bad) or because of his uninspired and damaging neoliberal policy views.  Indeed, I have every reason to believe that the Democrats will nominate someone whose broad policy views are similarly repellent to progressives like me.  New York's governor Andrew Cuomo comes immediately to mind (bashing teachers for low test scores, eliminating progressive tax provisions), but there are plenty of non-Bernie Sanders choices out there for timid Democrats to choose from.

And I am also not taking this Biden-should-go position because I think that the analogy between Biden and Brett Kavanaugh is in any way accurate or fair, as I will discuss below.  Instead, I have reluctantly concluded that the Republicans' cynical games combined with the media's mindless habits make it reasonable to conclude that giving in is better than fighting.

As the title of this column suggests, I am in no better position than anyone else to know whether the sexual assault allegation against Biden is true, which means that it is possible that he will be driven from the race by a lie.  Or by an awful truth.

Two op-eds in the last few days -- one by Elizabeth Bruenig in The New York Times, the other by an Iowa-based reporter in The Post --  convincingly make the case that Democrats must not allow themselves to be seen as dismissing the allegations against Biden and that he should not be the nominee.  Neither is gleeful about it, and neither am I.  Although I find their sincere arguments persuasive, my argument here is a resigned response to systemic cynicism.

I was among the people who called for Democrats to force out Al Franken from the Senate, even though his admitted actions -- including the unproven allegations -- were not in the category of Tara Reade's claims about Biden forcibly penetrating her vagina with his fingers.  My argument then was that no one has a God-given right to be a U.S. Senator, and Franken will have lived a good life even after leaving the Senate under a possibly unfair cloud.  I certainly do not buy the revisionism that Franken was railroaded, which apparently led to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand being iced out of Democratic power centers, in punishment for her leadership role in pushing Franken out.

And this is where an analogy to Kavanaugh's situation actually is apt.  There, I argued that even a not-completely-proven allegation of sexual assault should not be viewed as potentially "ruining an innocent man," because never becoming a Supreme Court justice is in no sane world the definition of being ruined.  Biden has wanted to be president forever, and now he might not be. Bummer for him, but not a cosmic wrong against the universe.

It made no sense for Republicans to continue to back Kavanaugh, especially after he melted down in his second appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  They could have put an equally hard-right person on the Court in his place, but without his baggage.  Democrats can do the same with Biden, just as Franken was replaced by the very good now-Senator Tina Smith.

What is the best argument against my suggestion here?  Essentially, one could argue that it is possible to treat Reade fairly without abandoning Biden absent better evidence.  This, however, requires a level of nuance that we do not see in American political coverage.  Over the last year of so, I argued many times that we should not be afraid to defend the label "democratic socialist" (even though I am very much not a Sanders guy), but the people who coalesced behind Biden told us that even Elizabeth Warren's very pro-capitalist messaging was too hard to explain in sound bites.

The Post's always-insightful columnist Paul Waldman (who was also no fan of Biden) noted today that the pundit class is already calling for Biden to be "transparent" by providing access to his voluminous records in the same way that they obsessed about Clinton's email server ("She needs to address this"), which is going to swallow up a lot of the non-pundit press's time with inquiries that will necessarily lead to unsatisfying ambiguity -- but a lot of negative-sounding coverage of Biden.

Noting that the press simply gives up in frustration in the face of Trump's deliberate lack of transparency, Waldman concludes: "Yes, Biden should be transparent. But let’s apply the same standards to Trump that we apply to him."

Good luck with that!  Hey, you reporters should be fair and nuanced -- this time -- rather than engaging in another feeding frenzy against a candidate who will carefully try to balance transparency with reasonable political considerations.  That always works out well.

Waldman's own newspaper has shown that this ship has already sailed.  The Post's media watchdog, Erik Wemple, has somehow decided to treat the Kavanaugh-Biden comparison as obviously compelling rather than requiring more nuance.  Consider, for example, Wemple's praise last week for Fox News's Tucker Carlson:
"The mysterious sequence of events raises the prospect that Reade was the victim of retaliation, something that might anger the Democratic sensibility.
"Carlson pounced on this double standard. 'Just to be clear, we’re not demanding that Democrats assume Joe Biden is guilty. They shouldn’t. No one should be assumed guilty. We certainly don’t assume he is guilty. But it’s a little weird that they don’t take this seriously. That would mean, in fact, we’re starting to conclude that their attempt to destroy Brett Kavanaugh wasn’t based on any genuine belief that he committed those crimes,' said the host.

"'Instead, it’s looking increasingly like a cynical political ploy: Destroy a man and his family, his children, his two little girls in order to get power. It looks like that’s what they did. You should keep that in mind going forward.'

"Not a bad summation, even if it does come from a network that doubled as a sexual harassment hot spot during the reign of late network chief Roger Ailes."
That, in fact, is a terrible summation.  Democrats did not "[d]estroy a man and his family, his children, his two little girls in order to get power."  Again, there was no destruction of anyone, only an attempt to keep an unfit man off the nation's highest court.  And whatever they did, Democrats did not do this "in order to get power," because that seat was (as noted above) going to be occupied by a hyper-conservative in any event.

And if anything is "a little weird," it is the claim (endorsed by Wemple) that Democrats are failing to "take this seriously."  I have not heard or read of any Democrat who dismisses Reade's allegations out of hand or says anything that could be interpreted as failing to "believe women" in the sense of taking allegations seriously and assessing them in the light of all evidence.

The very next day, after Biden denied the allegations in an interview with Mika Brzezinski, Wemple was back, saying that Brzezinski "pressed him on the glaring vulnerability of top Democrats when it comes to sexual assault allegations: their over-the-top, believe-women statements during the confirmation fight over then-federal Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh."

Describing Democrats' "believe-women statements" as "over-the-top" is nothing short of bizarre.  In fact, Democrats did not press forward with some allegations against Kavanaugh by other women, because after taking a serious look at those allegations, the stories seemed unsubstantiated.

Which means that all of this is ridiculously unfair.  And the big problem is that Wemple is not generally a Fox News admirer.  He spends the bulk of his time, in fact, as a Trump antagonist and critic of the dangerous antics of Carlson, Sean Hannity, and the rest.  Wemple, then, is actually a perfect leading indicator of how this will go.  Every Democrat will find himself -- or especially herself -- on defense against illogical claims that they are being hypocrites by continuing to back Biden.  The "to be fair" editorials from The Times and The Post almost write themselves.

Joe Biden might have sexually assaulted Tara Reade.  Even so, he would be a much better president than Donald Trump, who brags about sexual assault and insults his accusers' looks and intelligence.  In the larger moral cesspool of modern American politics, I might even try to understand -- but not in any way endorse -- the conclusion that "one sexual assault should not be disqualifying."

Joe Biden might not have sexually assaulted Tara Reade.  If so, heeding the calls to step aside will deny him his lifelong dream of being president.  Life is unfair, and if a lifetime in the Senate and the Vice President's residence is not enough, too bad.

Paul Waldman is right that there is an equitable and reasonable way for the press to treat Biden and Trump.  Sadly, we know that it will not go that way.  If Biden stays in, I will of course support him against Trump, even though I believe women.  And I will end up writing a bunch of defenses of Biden and his supporters that should be unnecessary.

So if Biden wants to do the best thing for the country, he needs to help find a way forward that does not include him.  If he will not, his party should understand that loyalty to a friend is not in the interest of the nation, the party, or even themselves.