Joe Biden is as close as it gets to the real deal for Democrats. I thought of this when, in a speech at the University of Miami this week, Biden said of Donald Trump: “A guy who ended up becoming our national leader said, 'I can grab a woman anywhere and she likes it.’ They asked me if I’d like to debate this gentleman, and I said 'no.' I said, 'If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.'"
Biden is the only candidate I think has a chance of whupping Donald Trump in a fistfight. And while this is surely a retrograde way to evaluate someone’s political chances, this is the America we are currently living in.
Liberals are generally criticizing Biden for this outburst of toxic masculinity—which helps explain why they lost to Donald Trump in the first place. It seems they have learned nothing.
Why did Donald Trump mop the floor with nice, optimistic conservatives like Jeb Bush and John Kasich? Why does Mitt Romney look small compared to him? And why is Jeff Flake no match for the Donald?
These men were more qualified, experienced, and virtuous than the porn-star loving casino magnate. What is more, unlike Trump, they were (wait for it) right about a lot of things! Consider, for example, Flake’s opposition to protective tariffs. Or Mitt Romney’s warning that Russia was our greatest geopolitical foe. He was right as rain. But the American public chose to ignore this Cassandra, only to embrace someone four years later who seems to have a man-crush on Vladimir Putin.
There are a lot of reasons why Trump bested better men, but a now-famous Bill Clinton maxim helps explain it—and also helps provide a road map for stopping Trump in the future. "When people are insecure,” Bill Clinton has advised, “they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right.”
Well, Americans were insecure in 2016—especially those on the right who believed their country was going to hell in a handbasket. They weren’t worried about the niceties of free-trade policies or showing compassion toward immigrants. They wanted, as Clinton described, someone who was strong. And they got a strong man, indeed.
Clinton understood this. He had brains and brawn. Physically imposing and a witness to what happened to “nice” liberals like Michael Dukakis, Clinton could oscillate between empathy and machismo. Only the best politicians (in recent times, only Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton) have this range.
But others can aspire to that greatness. And it occurs to me that the key skill needed to match up against Trump is strength. And that is something that can’t be faked.
Sure, you could take a few tae kwon do lessons and maybe defend yourself on the street. You could walk tall with your shoulders back and project an air of confidence. Doing all of these things might help you avoid looking like an easy mark—a victim. However, these measures would be meaningless when you’re fighting Mike Tyson. He would see through that charade in two seconds. Not only would it be ineffective—it would probably piss him off. This is what it’s like trying to con a bully like Donald Trump. You have to be the real deal.
This wasn’t a very presidential thing for Uncle Joe to say. But it’s better to be strong and wrong.
And Biden isn’t fronting. This is who he is. There’s a story about a young Joe Biden who was lifeguarding at a predominantly African-American swimming pool in Delaware that I think makes this point. The story culminates with Biden warning a local gang member named “Corn Pop” who was getting out of line: “You might cut me, Corn Pop,” Biden allegedly said, “but I’m going to wrap this chain around your head before you do.”
I don’t know if this story is true; I suspect it is embellished. But part of me thinks it’s at least partially true. And part of me thinks that it at least sounds real—which is more than you can say for most of the words that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth. (Remember the story about him being willing to run into a school barehanded and take on a shooter?) Part of being tough—in the Trumpian sense—is having the audacity to tell a story like that (whether it’s true or not) and never show the slightest hint of regret or embarrassment. Maybe it takes a bullshitter to beat a bullshitter?
By the way, Donald Trump responded to Joe Biden’s comments with a tweet. In my mind, Joe got the better of this exchange, as long as he doesn’t back down.
Before we go on, I guess I should reveal why I’m invested in this Biden idea, despite all of his flaws. From about 2010 to 2016, I devoted most of my energy to figuring out how Republicans could avoid this moment. I even wrote a book called Too Dumb to Fail, in which I warned Republicans about the anti-intellectual trend on the right and the coming populist/nationalist movement. They promptly ignored my advice.
Since then, I have devoted much of my thinking to how we (all Americans) can overcome the polarization and anomie that led to Trump.
To get a better understanding of our current situation, I have talked to people like Joe Trippi (the main strategist who helped Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in Alabama) and the authors of the new book Why Democracies Die. Now, it’s important to understand that these folks generally view Trump as a potentially serious and unique threat—not merely as a normal Republican to defeat. Regardless, a couple of themes have emerged. First, there is a sense that (1) the best way to stop Trump would be to form a coalition between “Never Trump” Republicans and Democrats; (2) a portion of the American public is hungry for civility and compromise, and they are exhausted by the current chaos; and (3) the incentive structure for winning a Democratic primary rewards anger and polarization, while punishing compromise and comity.
Joe Biden might be the only man who could thread this needle. He is old school enough to appease at least some Republicans who couldn’t stomach Hillary Clinton—as well as some of the working-class white voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio who voted Trump. His experience as Barack Obama’s veep might give him just enough cover from the progressive left to survive a primary election.
It’s always important to be tough, but that’s doubly true if you want to talk about things like civility and decency. You can’t look weak temperamentally and get away with talking about things like compromise and civility. You’ve got to overcompensate for that kind of soft rhetoric with a tough exterior. That’s Joe Biden.
It won’t be easy. Biden isn’t the best progressive for this #MeToo era. He’s an old white man. He has run twice and lost twice. He’s gaffe prone and has said racially insensitive things. He didn’t support Anita Hill when she claimed sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. He seems to be, shall we say, “handsy” with the ladies. If he’s going to slide to the center and woo working-class voters, he will surely run afoul of some liberal orthodoxy.
But if the special elections (see Conor Lamb and Doug Jones) have taught us anything, it’s that a moderate Democrat can win in places where a Pelosi Democrat might fear to tread. What is more, we have seen what happens to people who allow Trump to define them (see “Pocahontas,” “Liddle Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Low-energy Jeb”). One gets the sense that Biden will give as good as he gets.
As Democratic voters size up the field of aspirants desperate to prove their progressive bona fides, they may want to ask themselves: “Can we win with weak and right?”
And he fights!