Commentary: Biden, elder Bush share more than few parallels

Both men are moderates in a time of disruption. If he wins, can Biden equal some of Bush’s successes?

By Daniel W. Drezner / The Washington Post

Joe Biden has had a very good week, and it’s only Thursday.

[I think it’s Thursday. In the Age of Coronavirus, do days have any significance?]

On Monday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed Biden for president, a move that came much more quickly than the last time Sanders ran for president. He subsequently gave an interview with the Associated Press where he was pretty emphatic about his support.

That freed up former President Obama to endorse Biden on Tuesday. One would expect other Democratic Party heavy hitters like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren to quickly follow suit. Furthermore, the latest polling shows Biden putting a very powerful move on Trump, besting him nationally and in key swing states. It would appear for the moment that Democrats are in array.

All of this would normally be grounds for optimism for those Americans who think the current president acts more like the Toddler in Chief than the commander in chief, and yet Donald Trump continues to be the president and dominate the political stage. As Politico’s Blake Hounshell tweeted Tuesday: “Yesterday we had two real news stories: Bernie endorsing Biden, and the surprising results in Wisconsin. Both obliterated by a news conference where we learned nothing new about the virus or this president.”

To the extent that there is a strategy to Trump’s madness — and I think this is way more about Trump’s impulses than any strategy — it is that his antics, combined with the current unpleasantness, force Biden to fade into the media background.

For his critics on the right and the left, this fits into their preconceived notion of Joe Biden as a man destined to be a loser. After all, he ran for president twice before and did not distinguish himself during either run. Even with a paucity of data points in modern presidential politics, it is easy to lump Biden into the same category of seasoned politicians who earn their party’s nomination without much enthusiasm and then crash and burn during the general election against a sitting incumbent. Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, John Kerry, Mitt Romney; you know this list.

This is certainly a possibility, but perhaps it is worth considering an alternative: that Joe Biden might be more adept at both politics and policy than outside observers recognize. One of the reasons Sanders endorsed Biden relatively quickly was that he genuinely likes him.

Furthermore, Biden has acted pretty quickly to reach out to Sanders’ foreign policy team with his own. Which is good, because the Age of Coronavirus is likely going to be longer than any of us wants to acknowledge, with more significant consequences to our daily lives. Biden will need all the help he can get if he is the next president.

Maybe the best parallel to Biden isn’t Kerry or Romney, but George H.W. Bush. They share a fair number of qualities. Neither man is terribly eloquent; both have been prone to getting tongue-tied. Both had long careers in public service. Both men assiduously reached out to others and talked about working across the aisle. Both served as vice president. Indeed, if Biden wins, he would be the first vice president to win the presidency since Bush 41.

There are two other similarities that might come into play. Biden, like Bush, possesses a thorough understanding of the inner workings of government. Being a senator for decades and a vice president for eight years will do that. This matters, because the challenges confronting the next president are enormous. As Tom Wright and Kurt Campbell note in the Atlantic, “The country will probably be in the end stages of a brutal pandemic and faced with the worst economy since the Great Depression.” He will likely inherit a complete mess.

This leads into the other possible parallel. Both men are moderates in a time of disruption. Bush had to navigate the end of the Cold War; Biden will have to navigate the United States from a pandemic to a post-pandemic world.

Bush handled his challenges pretty well. One hopes that this analogy extends to Biden in January 2021.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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