The Audacity of Logic: Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday

The former vice president has experienced what may be the fastest morph from underdog to front-runner in history.


Lisa Van Dusen

March 4, 2020


When James Clyburn, the elder statesman of South Carolina Democratic politics and African-American political icon, took the stage Saturday night in Columbia to celebrate Joe Biden’s remarkable win in the state, he didn’t quote Yogi Berra. A student and teacher of history, Clyburn plucked from time the words of America’s most famous tourist. “If Americans ever cease to be good, America will cease to be great,” Clyburn said, quoting Alexis de Tocqueville. “We have as our candidate a real good man.”

Clyburn didn’t just deliver South Carolina for the former vice president. He acted as an authoritative messenger who cut through the fog of tactical malarkey, to coin a euphemism, that had gathered around Biden’s candidacy. Then, he started kicking ass in the campaign brain trust — publicly. The result was a 48-hour revival worthy of a Sunday morning A.M.E. church service.

Donald Trump has spent the past three years filling the public sphere with content that made America seem divided, cynical, corrupt and crazy, turning the office from a bully pulpit into a bullying bullhorn. What followed Biden’s South Carolina victory was a cascade of countervailing content that reminded Americans and the world of the real country beneath the performative chaos. On Saturday, the voters of the state, Clyburn and Biden reclaimed the moral high ground not from Trump, obviously, but from right where Barack Obama left it in 2017. In the two days that followed — from the Sunday shows to Monday’s endorsements by Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke onstage and Harry Reid and Susan Rice off — the Democrats’ exuberant coalescence around Biden felt like a Seal Team Six rescue of a national narrative hijacked by an unhinged villain. On Wednesday, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg added his own endorsement.

Biden’s message isn’t just experience and competence, it’s a restoration of sanity, calm and normalcy. His opponents have painted that restoration as nostalgia — the promise of a return to a pre-Trumpian Utopia that never existed. They cast his invocations of Obama as pitching the past, as though the values, worldview and tone of those eight years existed in a time capsule impossible to excavate. As though truth, competence, pluralism, multilateralism, compassion, empathy, civility, democratic norms and leadership have somehow seen their sell-by date and the world is now hopelessly relegated to the plotting of the reality-show masterminds behind Trump, Brexit and other democracy-discrediting extravaganzas.

On Tuesday, millions of voters begged to differ. It was as though while Biden was waiting for South Carolina, everyone else was, too, and the results, amplified by the momentum of endorsements, unleashed that suspense in the form of a comeback wave unprecedented in modern politics. The Black voters of South Carolina, whose primary discernment always combines instinct and pragmatism, handed Biden the electability certificate that the party, and its supporters, were waiting for.

Bernie Sanders has been presenting an alternative to Trump that hands voters the conundrum of being both socioeconomically compelling to people tired of having their futures tethered to intractability and un-implementable in the face of that intractability, even within the party he has adopted. At a time when the voices, rights and needs of human beings have been subjugated to technology, to profits, to corruption and to industrialized nonsense, this isn’t so much an argument between socialism and progressivism, or between one form of health care reform and another. In policy terms, it’s a choice between the lure of the impossible — especially given the looming context of a coronavirus recession — and the art of the possible.

On character, Biden’s best reference beyond his longstanding reputation as a fundamentally decent, authentic person is that he has been the Mobbish president’s most forensically targeted political nemesis, the object of an obsession sufficiently unshakable to have been worth getting impeached over. That fixation has had the unintended consequence of elevating Biden to the status of avatar for Americans — the walking receptacle of a personalized, concentrated, microtargeted cocktail of the same malevolence, vindictiveness and corruption that has bedeviled the entire country every day of the past three years. For a candidate whose core appeal has always been relatability, that status adds a whole new layer of it that speaks for itself.

This race, it turns out, isn’t about ideology, it’s about values. Brace yourselves for a parallel campaign to make it about anything but.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.