The implicit promise of the 2020 campaign of Obama’s former vice president was a return to the happy before-time of the pre-Trump era. Vox compared Biden’s launch to Warren G. Harding’s “Return to Normalcy” campaign in 1920, which was essentially a referendum on Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations plan. Harding promised “not heroics, but healing . . . not surgery, but serenity,” and won the White House. Biden used similar language, preaching “unity” and chiding candidates who believed winning required being “angrier,” a seeming reference to both Trump and Sanders.
By voting in yet another ex-senator with a pro-Iraq, pro-NAFTA vote, the party is essentially turning the clock back not to 2012 or 2008, but more like 2004. Biden ran not so much on a return to normalcy but a return to pre-Obama norms and an end to fist-shaking rhetoric. But the party’s poor down-ballot performance in 2020 already has the Pelosi wing blaming progressives and tempering expectations.
A return to norms had tremendous appeal so long as Hurricane Trump was in office. But Biden inherits a country besotted with severe structural and economic problems, a country whose Democratic base overwhelmingly supports changes like debt forgiveness and Medicare for All, and whose rural and suburban population was angry enough to elect Donald Trump once, almost twice. If the Democrats don’t remember how much failing to deliver real change cost them before, if they don’t soon find an identity more ambitious than not being Trump, they will find themselves right back where they were four years ago — vulnerable to revolts on both sides.