Biden, by contrast, has long battled from inside the crosshairs of the character crisis, as both administrator and subject. His record is mixed; the flaws that cost him the Democratic nomination in 1987 are still there. New issues like his handsiness have emerged. As for Reade: Much has been written about her credibility, but it’s worth reiterating that Biden’s credibility is in question too. The strange lies he repeatedly tells—about being arrested en route to visiting Nelson Mandela even though he wasn’t, about marching in the civil rights movement even though he did not—are as injurious as his reluctance to give them up is baffling. But on this front, as with so many, Trump has bottomed out the curve. Biden’s ethical infractions exist, but he still responds to at least a few external standards besides his naked self-interest. He wants to be considered a good and decent man by people of all political persuasions, Republicans included. This last is key. Whatever else one might say about him—and I’ve said plenty—he worked very hard during the Thomas hearings to be considered fair—by Republicans even more than by Democrats.
If character were still a top-tier issue for Americans, other candidates in the Democratic primary would have fared better than they have. Biden isn’t the character candidate. He might be the decency candidate (decency being a flattering category that forgives and overlooks much that character exacts and excludes). Given the current political terrain, many Americans seem to regard having ethical aspirations at all—even if you don’t live up to them, even if you fudge facts in your striving toward them, even if you have at times sacrificed righteousness for reputation—as enough.
There is an upside to this low bar. If Biden wins, his will not be a cultish victory, and some diminished passion toward the presidency might be a healthy corrective to a country whose character might be damaged beyond repair. No doubt a President Biden would see his character come under assault by the opposing party, but it’s not likely to be able to do much damage. Much of the public is exhausted, furious, and sickened by the yawning gap between American ideals and American realities. Standards have been shredded to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine a candidate dropping out over a character issue now. Maybe this is OK. The mythmaking urge to turn our leaders into idols of history—whether Clinton or Reagan or Kennedy—was always in tension with the ugly facts that kept emerging about them. Of course the cognitive dissonance was insupportable. Of course American idealism did not survive the ongoing public exposure of the political system that built it. But if we can start treating presidents as functionaries rather than celebrities—if the reality TV president ends the celebrity presidency—that will have been a good thing. And if Biden’s first presidential run was one of the first casualties of character politics, his late career ascent might mark its end.