The first thing I saw the Joe Biden campaign do—after years and years of being maybe about to do something—was to get dunked on, and to deserve it. Heather Havrilesky, the Suck.com veteran and New York magazine life-advice columnist, tweeted a screenshot of the launch email she’d gotten. It began:
“America is an idea. Based on a founding principle that all men are created equal.”
“You lost me at hello,” Havrilesky wrote, accurately. It was headache-inducing. Biden couldn’t really have done that, right? Not “all men.” After everything that’s happened in the past three years? Really? Here was Joe Biden, stepping forward as a Mainstream Democrat, the electable one, the senior statesman ready to redeem the crushed hopes of the 65.8 million people who’d voted in 2016 for the first woman nominee.
What kind of jerk was Biden being? Was he being the kind of thoughtless bumbling jerk who wouldn’t consider (and who wouldn’t hire anyone who would consider) the implicit message of using “men” to mean “people” in 2019? Or was he being the kind of aggressive (but still, in a different register, bumbling) jerk who would have considered it and thought it was a good idea?
He is in the race as the representative of the belief that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton provided a one-two shock to the system of Regular America, which responded by electing Donald Trump.
The question was how atavistic the Biden project really aims to be. He is in the race as the representative of the belief that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton provided a one-two shock to the system of Regular America, which responded by electing Donald Trump, an ailment which can only be cured by a mollifying counter-dose of white male political success. The other identities have gone too far, and Joe Biden is here, with his own identity, to pull them back.
But was he trying to make that act of pulling back the main point of his campaign? The thing felt like a setup, a performance not even for any actual population of retrograde voters but for the part of the political and opinion press that’s been demanding a backlash on such voters’ imagined behalf, if they exist. All he was doing was quoting the Declaration of Independence, after all, right? Are women and identity-politics types and lefty purists really so caught up in their own narrow concerns that they object to the Declaration of Independence? Boy, that really shows you how this country needs someone like Joe Biden to bring it back together.
And but then he screwed up his Anita Hill apology—which he had only bothered to try to do right before launching his campaign, the most insincere possible time to have done it—and he got the Charlottesville people annoyed at him for how he used the murder in his launch advertisement, and that was just the first few hours on the first day, so it’s just as likely Joe Biden is merely carrying on his lifelong habit of being spectacularly oafish and tone-deaf on the campaign trail. Either way, he’d only started and he’d already made everything worse.