Four years ago, Democrats slouched to the polls and voted, holding their noses figuratively. Somehow the party had come up with a presidential candidate whom no one liked very much: Hillary Clinton.
Pitted against a risible president, Donald Trump, who is a climate change-doubting, class-dividing, race-baiting, immigrant-bashing, law-bending, treaty-tearing, dictator-loving, truth-challenged, dissembling incompetent, this time it should be an easy White House win for the Democrats.
This time, there should be white-hot passion for Democratic challenger Joe Biden, the candidate who would restore our moral base, our international standing, salve our wounds, and give us a sense that the nation is moving forward to a sunlit future. But there is no surge of feeling, zero passion.
Biden is the candidate who would deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the environmental catastrophe that is unfolding with pestilences of a biblical scale: serial hurricanes striking the Gulf Coast and wildfires from hell in the West. He is the man who should give us confidence in our systems, from health care to voting, to the rule of law at the Justice Department. But there is no surge, no passion.
Instead, the closest thing to enthusiasm I find among voters is resigned, faint praise. “He’s a decent man,” I’ve been told over and again. I’ll have a struggle in not offering the next Democrat who tells me in a woeful voice that Biden’s “a decent man” a physical rebuke.
One may discount the great man or woman view of history, but there is no great argument for the “decent man” view of history. You can have decent men who were great, Truman and Reagan, but you can’t move the needle of history with flaccid decency.
Poor old Joe Biden — yes, he is old for the job at 78 — is defined mostly by having been there, like the TV-watching gardener played by Peter Sellers in the movie “Being There.” He was in the Senate for a long time, he was vice president to Barack Obama for two terms. He clears the being-there bar, but it is a low bar, very low.
No one is passionately against Biden. Trump’s attempts to paint him as a socialist ogre about to take us to Stalinism have fallen flat. Flat because they are unbelievable, and they are unbelievable because that isn’t Biden.
Biden has always been the quintessential man of the center of the situation. The pressure on his left wing, coming from senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, and the group around Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is going to be a problem and a discomfort for Biden. He must also wonder where in that world his vice-presidential pick, Kamala Harris, so far defined more by her ethnicity than her philosophy, will fit.
If, as still expected but not guaranteed, Biden makes it across the threshold in this election, his greatest strength will be his address book. His best strategy will be to use surrogates to fight his political wars. That means a strong Cabinet and a great White House staff.
Given Biden’s limitations, his chief of staff will be a critical player. He needs to give his Cabinet secretaries their heads. One of the many weaknesses of the Trump administration has been the pusillanimous nature of the Cabinet: Men and women who see the role only as pleasing the capricious and solipsistic president — a chorus of lickspittle people singing hymns of praise to the chief.
Biden doesn’t need to point up Trump’s weaknesses: They are manifest. He needs to point up his own strengths beyond his affability and, yes, beyond his decency.
I’ve been watching Biden for years, nodding “hello” to him, and sometimes talking with him, the way it goes for reporters and politicians in Washington. I get the distinct feeling Biden isn’t the man he was eight years ago, when he would’ve been a more appealing candidate within his limitations. He seems diminished, his fire reduced to an ember.
As it is, Democrats and renegade Republicans will slouch to the polls to vote against Trump. Few in their hearts will be voting for Biden. There is a passion deficit.