by Max Boot
In 2016, the Republican Party had a mental and moral breakdown that has done lasting damage to the country. A bigoted and boorish reality-TV star came out of nowhere to win the primaries as more mainstream contenders bickered among themselves. Donald Trump surprised everyone by winning the general election, but the results of his unexpected presidency have been as dismal as feared: He is incompetent at everything other than undermining democratic norms.
In politics, as in physics, when the weight in a pendulum is raised far to one side, it will swing back far to the other side. So I have been terrified that the Democratic Party would react to the Republicans’ shift toward far-right populism by shifting toward far-left populism. My worst fears appeared to be coming true after Bernie Sanders’s strong showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. On Feb. 24, I wrote that “barring a Super Tuesday miracle, there is little hope for anything but a Sanders vs. Trump election in which there is no good outcome.” Now that miracle has occurred.
The political world had written off Joe Biden after a fourth-place finish in Iowa and a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire. “Joe Biden is down for the count,” I wrote on Feb. 12. Now he has gotten up off the canvas and delivered a body blow to the Sanders campaign. Biden won 10 of 14 states on Tuesday to take a lead in the overall delegate count. Never has there been more dramatic confirmation of the old adage — attributed to former British prime minister Harold Wilson — that “a week is a long time in politics.”
Much of the political commentary since this dramatic turnaround has focused on factors such as Rep. James E. Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) crucial endorsement, which enabled Biden’s huge victory in South Carolina on Saturday. Also cited have been the roles of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar in cutting down Biden’s moderate rivals, Mike Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg, in the debates. Biden was also helped greatly by his bond with African American voters — he won 58 percent of the black vote on Super Tuesday — and by the farsighted decision of Buttigieg and Klobuchar to exit the race and endorse him.
I suspect another factor at play as well. I believe that Biden was helped by the outbreak of the coronavirus and the resulting stock market correction. In a time of chaos and fear, a lot of Democratic voters might have been less willing to gamble on a radical ideologue such as Sanders. These are times that call for reassurance, not revolution, and that is what the Democrats will get if they nominate the avuncular Uncle Joe.
Something similar occurred in 2004 (when Democrats flirted with Howard Dean and John Edwards before nominating John Kerry) and in 2008 (when Republicans flirted with Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mike Huckabee before nominating John McCain). Centrists such as Kerry, McCain and Biden might not be very exciting, but they are safe and dependable — and in the current environment of radical uncertainty, that counts for a lot. The failure of either McCain or Kerry to become president reminds us that these old Washington warhorses are no surefire winners, but in the current field, it’s hard to see anyone else who would have a better chance than Biden.
The contrast between Sanders and Biden could be seen in their Tuesday night speeches. Sanders was full of hate for the “corporate establishment” and the “political establishment,” for drug companies and Wall Street, and for his chief rival, even if he didn’t attack Biden by name. This is typical of a candidate who, like Trump, has sought to mobilize his base rather than to expand it.
Biden, by contrast, has sought to appeal to all factions of the Democratic Party and to all Americans who are disaffected by Trump. His Super Tuesday night speech was full of “hope” — literally. Paraphrasing Irish poet Seamus Heaney, he said, “We can make hope and history rhyme because of what we sing.” That is the kind of inclusive message employed by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the last two Democrats to win the White House.
Biden has been pilloried by the Sanderistas for wanting to work with Republicans, but that is exactly the right message to win over the disaffected moderates, including many Never Trump Republicans, who gave Democrats control of the House in 2018. Just as Obama kept Robert Gates as defense secretary, Biden would be well advised to promise that he will appoint a Republican to one of his senior Cabinet positions.
The campaign is far from over. Sanders could still stage a comeback and, even if he doesn’t, Biden will face the race of his life against a dishonest incumbent who will stop at nothing to win. Trump is already suggesting that “Sleepy Joe” is senile and that “Crazy Bernie” is the victim of an establishment plot. But for the first time since Nov. 8, 2016, I have some hope for the future of our democracy. Thank you, Democrats, for acting sensibly and sanely to save our country from the consequences of the Republicans’ colossal irresponsibility.
Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam,” a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in biography. Follow