Joe Biden’s kickoff video made me appreciate Mayor Pete all the more

Charlottesville. Neo-Nazis. Kluxers. Joe Biden homed in on Trumpish grotesqueries in the video kicking off his presidential bid—as if to say, “You need me to return us to the good old days of yore.” No one except bigots or Republican hacks would deny the cosmic-level threats here, or President Trump’s crooked and traitorous ways.

Why, then, did Biden’s well-crafted video disappoint me and make me grateful that more promising Democrats are running for president?

Simple. Albeit outstanding artistically, the video just reinforced a common perception of the 76-year-old Biden as more rooted in the past than eager to move on to the future. Ahead I’ll opine on my favorite of his primary rivals so far, the more forward-looking Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 37, while not glossing over Buttigieg’s own flaws. But first back to Uncle Joe.

A smarter video still could have reeled in viewers via Charlottesville images, but only briefly for the sake of contrast. We would have cut to Biden in a factory churning out clean electric cars, then to him on a hilltop overlooking a pastoral scene of windmills, then to Joe in a high-tech hospital room, then to him talking to workers at a bridge construction site, then to teachers at a multiracial, multi-ethnic school. All this time he would have been discussing the related issues—the environment, jobs and energy sources for the future, healthcare reform, infrastructure, education, race and immigration. Timely bread-and-butter appeals worked just fine for many Democrats during the 2016 congressional elections. America, on the other hand, is sick of Trump, even attacks on him. I love the idea of continued investigations leading perhaps to impeachment. But it’s most telling that even the Mueller Report, for now, hasn’t claimed its full due of public indignation toward the president.

The Charlottesville fixation wasn’t the Biden campaign’s only mistake in the anti-Trump video. Inflation-adjusted wages for working people have been more or less stagnant for years—before millions of young voters were even born. Is this the glorious past Biden wants to return us to? The same messes that commentators have rightly said helped give us Trump in the first place? Similarly, racism has long been a part of the American scene; and in an increasingly diverse Democratic Party, reflecting the country’s changing demographics, a 76-year-old white dude’s nostalgia just isn’t going to fly even though he says he has evolved. Same in regard to gender matters and me-too issues.

No, millions of voters have not been so enamored of America, either in recent years or going back to the late 20th century. Corporate-friendly politicians opened us up to free trade without adequate protections for workers through job retraining or decent payments to see them through the transition. The weakening of labor unions didn’t help, either.

Likewise, in past statements, Biden has unwittingly come across as too much of a creature of the Northeast, as opposed to someone in touch with the country as a whole. In 2017 at the University of Pennsylvania, Biden complained: “You didn’t hear a single solitary sentence in the last campaign about that guy working on the assembly line making 60,000 bucks a year and a wife making $32,000 as a hostess in a restaurant.” Please, Joe. The real median household income in the U.S. in 2017 was a mere $61,372, well below the $92,000 in the Biden scenario.

Now, compare Biden to Democrats more in touch with America’s current and future concerns. In Pete Buttigieg, we have a relatively young Rhodes Scholar and gay veteran of Afghanistan who has wreaked miracles in turning around South Bend, Indiana. High-tech start-ups there are thriving in a former Studebaker plant, and condos are springing up downtown. Even Buttigieg’s homosexuality, in the end, may be a tailwind rather than a headwind. The most gung-ho homophobes will probably go for Trump anyway. And even some culturally conservative voters may be swayed by Buttigieg’s brains, military service and religiosity.  

On top of everything else, the man is just plain likable. Buttigieg projects an air of calm, open-mindedness, empathy and optimism—a stark contrast to the self-absorbed, callous and grumpy Trump. Here is a devout Episcopalian willing at least to try to engage the evangelicals. He is “normal” and above-normal enough in various ways to counter the demonization of LGBT Americans. That, in turn, chips away at the credibility of Pence-style bigots, not just on gender issue but also others. Buttigieg exemplifies the competence that gender-related discrimination, just like racial and ethnic kinds, can cost the country in an era of stepped-up global competition.

Granted, Buttigieg comes with his own negatives, such as the controversy over the firing of a black police chief. Furthermore, many African-Americans in South Bend apparently regarded the mayor’s urban renew efforts as a form of at least accidental “Negro removal,” to use an old expression. If a Huffington Post article is right, that’s far from his only lapse in regard to the poor and minorities (the result not of bigotry but rather of classic technocratic lapses, such as not considering all data). What’s more, I agree with critics calling for more policy specifics from him, even though it’s clear he’s a fast learner capable of picking up ideas from others to complement his own.

The good news is that the defects are repairable—in part through the policy papers and other documents that Buttigieg has yet to share. Take race. Elizabeth Warren drew applause from black women after she came up with a plan to deal with the outrageous rate of maternal mortality among African-Americans. I want to see Buttigieg catch up in such crucial areas. As somebody interested in libraries as poverty reducers, I would urge Buttigieg to propose multiplying the number of K-12 and public librarians from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially people of color. Thousands of school librarians, particularly in minority communities, have lost their jobs in recent years amid mean-spirited budget cuts. Not the best way either to reduce poverty or help assimilate immigrants. I doubt that illiterates make the best medical technicians or computer coders.

For further inspiration, Buttigieg and his policy team should scrutinize The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future, by his rival Andrew Yang, which brilliantly lays out problems and possible solutions, such as a guaranteed income for all, including the millions of Americans whom automation will displace while enriching billionaire shareholders. Even National Review, albeit with caveats, has taken notice of Yang as a useful tracker of present and future crises.

How much better to look ahead with a fresh perspective rather than just talking over and over again about the same tired old nostrums dear to the Biden generation. Of course, if Biden can surprise us and beat Buttigieg to the punch, thereby disproving my current belief that he isn’t future-minded enough, that would be wonderful. But don’t count on it happening.

So go, Pete! Just please show us that you’ve learned your lessons from South Bend and can use policy papers, not just rhetoric and campaign gladhanding, to prove you’re sincere.

Image credit: Joe Biden in his vice presidential days, as officially photographed by David Lienemann. Public domain photo.

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David Rothman

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