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Daydream Believing

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Yglesias gets at a crucial paradox that explains Joe Biden’s highly regrettable frontrunner status:

This core sentiment that Trump is an unusual, and unusually bad, president has fueled everything from a primetime ratings boom for MSNBC to the unprecedented popular mobilization of the original Women’s March. Antipathy to Trump powered Democratic candidates to sweeping victories in the 2018 midterms and is very clearly one of the dominant political sentiments of our time. Yet Biden’s thesis statement about Trump-era politics drew surprisingly widespread criticism from left-of-center opinion leaders.

Mehdi Hasan at the Intercept wrote that “the No. 1 reason why Biden would be an utter disaster both as the Democratic nominee and as president is his belief that Donald Trump is the sole cause of the current political and constitutional crisis in the United States.” But the criticism came from circles broader than the hard left. Frances Wilkinson at Bloombergdeemed Biden to be “running against a myth about Trump,” while Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast urged Biden’s friends to “grab him by the lapels and inform him that it’s not 1973 anymore and his ‘friends’ in the Republican Party, nice fellas though they may be on a personal level, have changed.”

Peter Beinart at the Atlantic accused him of offering “a deeply unconvincing historical narrative in which Trump lands upon the American political scene from outer space.”

Perhaps most tellingly of all, even former Obama administration colleagues at Crooked Media looked seriously askance at this line.

Jon Favreau, speaking on behalf of himself and his co-hosts of Pod Save America, greeted Biden’s entry into the race with broad compliments and then a specific pointed critique of the aberration concept: “We don’t believe Trump is an aberration; we believe he is the symptom, not the cause, and the Republican Party has become rotten to its core.” His colleague Dan Pfeiffer chimed in to say “there is no question about the inaccuracy of that argument; Trump is not an aberration.”

Just about the nicest thing anyone in pundit-land had to say about the aberration thesis was ex-Republican Max Boot at the Washington Post, who wrote that the former VP is wrong but “Biden is smart to pretend otherwise” — arguing that pretending to see Trump as an aberration is a good way to court swing voters.

The split between Biden and essentially the entire progressive intelligentsia on this point is a sign of the extent to which he really is out of touch with the modern chattering class sensibility about politics. Nevertheless, Biden enjoying an extremely comfortable lead in the polls is a reminder that progressive political obsessives are in crucial ways unrepresentative of the Democratic Party’s voters. Indeed, on some level, the extent to which progressive commentators have gotten so invested in denying that Trump is an aberrant figure when he clearly is says a lot more about them than it does about Biden.

But these objections to Biden’s “aberration strategy” point towidespread doubts in the party about his abilities to govern effectively. Some of that is carping from the left, which simply sees him as too moderate. But a fair amount comes from steadfast members of the party establishment who know from all-too-bitter experience that the next Democratic president will face a wall of massive obstruction and want to hear that the party’s standard-bearer has a plan to deal with it.

There are multiple reasons why Biden has apparent appeal to a lot of ordinary Democratic primary voters even though ideological activists generally don’t want him and he also has very lukewarm institutional support for someone who would appear to be an ideal establishment choice on paper, and it obviously starts with Obama. But I do suspect that part of it is a desire to believe in the fiction that if Trump can be defeated things can go back to the time when the Republican Party wasn’t as bad as this.

But the last point is also important here — as he put it earlier on Twitter, as a governing strategy “cut some deals with our now-Trump-free Republican friends” is no more realistic than passing Warren or Sanders’s legislative agenda while also doing nothing to set future goals. Pragmatism with a wildly unrealistic and anachronistic view of politics doesn’t have much to be said on its behalf. I wish I still thought that meant it couldn’t win the nomination.

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