A collage of photos of Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren

All the Rage

Why Did We Ever Assume Biden, Buttigieg, and Beto Were Inevitable?

Our new political reality includes more women, more people of color, and with them, more substantive policy. And that opens up a whole new set of possibilities.

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The only surprising thing, about Joe Biden’s rapidly deteriorating presidential candidacy, is that someone thought it would be a good idea. In the post-Obama era, Joe Biden has carved out a niche for himself as a sort of nostalgia item. His time as Obama’s VP turned him into a beloved joke: “Uncle Joe,” the ice-cream-slurping, irrepressible id of the nation. In 2016, it was not uncommon for centrists (or, more often, sexists) to wistfully opine that he should have run against Hillary Clinton for the party’s nomination. When he declared his candidacy earlier this year, he was presumed to be unstoppable.

Then, the Democratic debates happened, and America saw the real Joe Biden: A confused old man, who has run for president twice and lost twice, and who appears totally incapable of either defending his spotty record or holding his own against a sharper, more energetic contender.

Kamala Harris, in particular, ran Biden’s presidential chances through the wood chipper; using the same razor-sharp prosecutorial style that has made her such a popular figure at Senate hearings, Harris cornered Biden on his opposition to school busing and demolished him to the point that he simply stopped speaking. According to one poll, after that debate, the public’s perception of Biden’s “electability”—the cornerstone of his campaign—had gone down by 17 points. The Joe Biden of 2019 is no different than the Joe Biden of 2008 is no different than the Joe Biden of 1988, it turns out: All three are stunningly inept campaigners, and the current iteration of Biden has a complacency that makes it easier for younger, more motivated challengers to undercut him.

This should have been predictable. Hell, it was predictable. What is startling about Biden’s seeming decline is how it coincides with so many other Great White Male Hopes suddenly floating belly-up. Going into this campaign season, we were faced with an armada of white guys with personality cults: Beto, Buttigieg, Bernie. Yet Beto has become a ghost of himself, shuffling from stage to stage and giving half-hearted displays of his Spanish. Buttigieg’s “moderate Christian white guy” act has managed to alienate anyone who might be interested in electing America’s first openly gay president, and he’s currently embroiled in the mishandling of a police-brutality case in his home town. Even Bernie Sanders, who entered the race as a front runner, has sunk down to fourth place in some polls, with high name recognition and equally high negatives making it unlikely he will break out of his slump. Maybe Sanders was always a fringe figure, who only entered the mainstream because he was the sole candidate running against Hillary Clinton for most of the 2016 primary. Maybe he’s just alienated a whole lot of people between then and now. Regardless, watching Sanders now, red-faced and screaming at news anchors about how he could have been president “if the system wasn’t rigged against me,” it seems clear we are watching the end of something.

The primary field shaping up behind these men is something new: Elizabeth Warren’s policy blitz, once written off as the try-hard strivings of a grown-up Tracy Flick, has allowed her to more or less set the conversation for the rest of the Democratic field. Harris, a more polarizing figure for progressives due to her work as a District Attorney and her entanglement with the carceral state, has fought her way out of the media blackout that seemed to surround her candidacy in its early stages; her steely intelligence and charisma make her look like a formidable opponent to Trump. Even the guys are more interesting now: I’m not voting for a man this year, but if you did, you could certainly do worse than Julian Castro, who is running on a platform of decriminalizing immigration, who name-checks the ERA and trans abortion rights at debates, and who seems ready to center the human rights crisis at our border in a way too few other candidates have done.

What would a Democratic primary look like, if it came down to a contest between women? What would it look like, if it were a contest between anyone other than white men—between Warren and Harris, Warren and Castro, Warren and Harris and Castro and Booker and Gillibrand? We don’t have an answer, because it’s never happened. It would not necessarily be nicer, or less problematic. (For one thing, least two of the female candidates this year—Marianne Williamson and Tulsi Gabbard—are full-on banana-nut muffins, albeit from different bakeries.) Women would still have to question themselves and their own feminism. (I believe Warren is the best candidate in the race, by a wide margin. But there’s something in how easily white women abandon Harris as irredeemably “problematic”—and I am, I stress, including myself in this assessment—that feels treacherous.)

But what is true is that the people running for the Democratic nomination have begun to look more and more like Democratic voters: Largely female, not predominantly white, and with legislative priorities—Warren’s universal child-care plan, Castro’s immigration platform, Gillibrand’s Family Bill of Rights, Kamala Harris’s work on equal pay—that clearly arise from the experience of being non-male and non-white in America. Our political representation is beginning to catch up to our political reality, and that opens up a whole new set of possibilities.

What is most surprising about the B-guys, in this new light, is that we ever accepted them as inevitable. This was, transparently, a dispiriting and disappointing field: Beto was an empty suit, Buttigieg was a corporate-tooled corporate tool, Bernie Sanders was an angry old man whose tunnel vision his supporters mistook for purity. Biden had already run twice and already lost twice, and he had not become a better leader or a more skilled politician in the meantime. Each of them entered the race hoping they could substitute personal charisma—or an association with Barack Obama’s personal charisma, in Biden’s case—for vision, or substance, or detailed plans. In doing so, they laid bare the meaning of privilege. White men, who are used to getting support simply for being white men, have never had to work as hard as everyone else.

These are dark times, and the level of anti-feminist backlash in the air makes it foolish to end on a rousing cry about how much better things are getting. But the long arc of history bends toward Joe Biden getting shredded. It is not enough for these white guys to just show up anymore. What one feels, watching the white male front runners and media darlings deflate, is not so much that they are shrinking, but that they are being brought back down to their proper size—a human size, the same size as anyone else. Now, at last, the real competition can begin.

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