Joe Biden's entry into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has opened up a division in the party, and it's not just about the candidates' demographic characteristics or policy records. It's about their view of our country.
Biden's left-wing critics think he's soft on the banks and on accused sexual harassers. But they also think he's soft on America itself.
In his announcement video, the former vice president presented Donald Trump as a threat to American principles. Biden acknowledged that "we haven't always lived up to these ideals," but warned that they would be lost forever if Trump is re-elected.
If Trump loses in 2020, on the other hand, history will regard his single term as "an aberrant moment in time." Biden declares, "Everything that has made America America is at stake."
The problem with this message, according to some progressives, isn't its hysteria about Trump. It's its complacency about America.
"Biden's announcement seems premised on the idea that we need to revert to the world we had before Trump, rather than dramatically rethink the world that produced him," Dara Kass complained in Slate.
Josh Voorhees, also in Slate, wrote that "Biden is telling many Americans who oppose Trump, particularly white ones, what they want to hear," namely that Trump is "a tumor that can be surgically excised from the body politic, and not a symptom of an underlying disease that's been present since the nation's birth."
Peter Beinart concurred in the Atlantic, writing that Biden "offers a deeply unconvincing historical narrative in which Trump lands upon the American political scene from outer space." He drew a contrast to Biden's rival Pete Buttigieg, who in his own announcement speech referred to America's past as "a bygone era that was never as great as advertised to begin with."
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Biden is getting a bad rap here. He did not deny that what he condemns in Trump's presidency has antecedents in American history, even if he did not make that point.
No candidate should be expected to tease out these fraught and complicated questions in a three-and-a-half-minute video. If he was telling the voters whom he is courting what they want to hear, that is just another way of describing campaigning in a democratic election.
Previous generations of liberals have achieved great things in part by sounding more like Biden than like his critics. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech was, of course, incomparably better than Biden's comments, but it too lauded American ideals and urged us to live up to them. Would King have been as successful if he had done more scourging?
A few days after registering his disapproval of Biden's remarks, Voorhees wrote that Biden was showing "surprising strength" in the polls. One reason his strength has been surprising is that many commentators spend so much time immersed in the online left that they overestimate its size.
Opposition to Trump is immensely widespread. The view that his election was an indictment of everyone who voted for him and of the country's basic character is rather less so.
It is not even clear that Biden, by avoiding the rhetoric of national sinfulness, is making a play especially for white voters. As Tom Edsall has written, "white liberals are well to the left of the black electorate on some racial issues." The former vice president is doing better among nonwhites than among whites.
There are plenty of reasons to oppose Biden, from his spotty record on due process to his bad judgment on foreign policy. But he's not going to pay a price for being too rosy-eyed about America, and he shouldn't.