Democrats then and now

President Biden likes to tell us that he doesn’t recognize today’s Republican Party. But the larger question is this: Does he actually recognize his own party?

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on “Investing in America”, Monday, April 3, 2023, at the Cummins Power Generation facility in Fridley, Minnesota. (White House/Flickr)

President Biden likes to tell us that he doesn’t recognize today’s Republican Party. Apparently, he thinks that this non-recognition on his part is a commentary on the GOP rather than on the GOB (as in good old Biden). But the larger question is this: Does he actually recognize his own party? If so, he may or may not be more mentally competent than he otherwise appears.

That’s because an even larger question looms. Which Democratic Party elevated him in 2020? Was it the Democratic Party of his youth and his early political career? Or was it the Democratic Party of today?

OK, the answer is obvious. Wittingly or unwittingly, Joe Biden is a pawn … or a tool … or a re-tooled, perhaps even a willing, creature of today’s Democrats. In other words, he may or may not know just what he is.

But a case could be made that Joe Biden would have been the ideal candidate of the old Democratic Party, as it searched for just the right candidate for the post-Trump era. After four years of Trumpian chaos, an old Democrat would have concluded, a return to “normalcy,” if not exactly Warren Harding-like “normalcy,” was surely in order. Therefore, who better to follow a libertine, thrice-married, egomaniacal, big city, big bucks loudmouth than a good Catholic boy from Scranton, PA? Or so an old Democrat would think.

And they would have been proven right. Just like the last Democratic president, Joe Biden won in 2020 for one reason only. Of course, it wasn’t the same reason. Barack Obama was elected in 2008 because voters saw a real chance to put racial issues and any lingering sense of a racial divide behind us once and for all. And look how all of that has worked out. Hint: It hasn’t.

Joe Biden was elected in 2020 to put Donald Trump behind us. He might not do very much. Heck, he didn’t have to do much of anything, but at least he would calm the country down. And now look at how all of that is working out.

Hint number two: It isn’t, and it is largely because the Democratic Party isn’t what it used to be. The older established leaders of the oldest political party on the face of the earth surely would have been sobered by the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. There would have to have been a whole lot of head shaking and hand wringing going on among them. What are we doing wrong that we lost to that clown? That had to have been the question, maybe even the only question, they would have repeatedly asked themselves.

Things would have been even more sobering to veteran Democrats once they saw the clown in action, policy-wise, if not otherwise. OK, even old line Democrats might have tried a dirty trick or two. Politics never was “bean bag,” as Peter Finley Dunne’s Mr. Dooley once put it. But after trying and failing to dethrone Trump with the “Russia hoax,” real Democrats of Biden’s youth would have to have had at least a few scales fall from their eyes.

The clown’s policies were actually working. Deplorable as it might seem, workers’ wages were rising. That would be workers of all skin colors. Maybe that’s the best way to heal any racial divide.

Hmmm, maybe, just maybe, these old Democrats would have muttered to themselves, maybe the party that is supposed to be the party of the working class could actually learn a thing or two from The Donald. Maybe there is something to this energy independence thing. Maybe cheap energy makes good sense to American workers.

For that matter, maybe it was a mistake to export a whole lot of American manufacturing jobs to China. Maybe a great nation can’t survive as a great nation if it tries to turn itself into a nation of consumers and ceases to be primarily a nation of producers.

On a larger scale, these same old Democrats would surely have concluded that the party was in need of a serious course correction, internationally speaking. The party seemed to have abandoned even thinking in terms of what’s actually in the best interest of this country (as opposed to the international community, whatever that is).

Furthermore, is a country that can’t — or won’t — control its own borders really a country? And what do porous borders mean for American wage earners? Even younger old Democrats, like the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, worried about that.

Let’s see if we can figure a few things out, a few Democratic veterans would have said to one another. Who donated to the Trump campaign? It must have been well-heeled business types. Sure enough. But it was the little guy — and gal, too. In fact, something called “homemakers” topped the donor list when measured in terms of the percentage of donors within various demographics.

Such findings must have surprised enough veteran Democrats who then decided sometime in the late winter of 2020 that it was time to grease the primary skids for the kid from Scranton. OK, the kid’s no kid any more. But that’s all the more reason to back him.

Biden may not be the sharpest tool in the kit, they conceded. Heck, he was never all that sharp, but he at least knows the history of his party, if only because he’s actually lived the history of our party. More than that, he came of age, politically speaking, as an ambitious young member of the party of the working class.

To top it all off, the guy’s a Catholic. The Latin Mass may be gone, but the importance of the family, the parish, and community aren’t. The guy may not be a big reader, but the ancient Catholic principle of subsidiarity must still be lodged somewhere in his head. You know, the idea that issues best resolved at the local level should be resolved there.

For example, parents should have primary responsibility for raising their own children. That’s a bedrock principle, old Democrats would concur. Teachers are important, they would agree. But teachers should not control education.

What about unionization for teachers? Don’t get old Democrats started on that one.

OK, Joe’s well off the Catholic ranch on abortion, but this will be a campaign about bread and butter issues. Besides, he at least knows the difference between girls and boys.

Joe may not be a great speechmaker, but surely he can make a few solid points without resorting to stealing from the speeches of others. That was a lesson that he learned a good while ago now.

And Joe Biden will certainly learn from the mistakes that Hillary Clinton made. He’ll never call American workers “deplorables.” Better than that, he’d never so much as think about calling Trump supports “semi-fascists” or try to convince anyone that something called “white nationalism” is the greatest threat facing the country.

What about all the new, identity-minded Democrats? How would Uncle Joe handle them? He’d be the Democrat best positioned to tell them to back off, veteran Democrats would assume. After all, that’s the way real farmer laborite Democrats would prioritize things. And that’s not just in Minnesota, where the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) Party reigns supreme, but in every state of the union.

To be sure, real Democrats would know what would be coming out of Joe’s mouth after that standard “come on, man” opener.

How about this: “Come on, man, we’re the party of workers, and the working class is still the backbone of this country — or at least it had better be.”

Music to the ears of veteran Democrats. “Come on, man, let the Republicans go back to being the party of fat cats and country clubbers.” More music.

OK, it must be conceded that there certainly weren’t enough old Democrats still on hand in 2020 to make this case, let alone prevail by making it. And there surely weren’t any new Democrats around who think like old Democrats, then or now.

So maybe it was simply a matter of new Democrats thinking that they could put one over on the electorate by running Joe Biden in 2020. And maybe they felt that they were putting one over on Biden as well. Who knows for sure? Maybe not even Biden himself.

Or maybe Joe Biden has become a new Democrat. Who knows for sure? Maybe not even Biden himself.

In any case, one question remains. If Joe Biden can’t recognize today’s Republican Party and refuses to acknowledge any changes in his own party, does he have anyone other than himself to blame?


Chuck Chalberg

John C. "Chuck" Chalberg taught American history at Normandale Community College.