Joe Biden’s carefully stage-managed decision to pass the buck on whether to pack the court could be the plainest advance demonstration America will get of what a Biden presidency might be like.
It isn’t that the court is the most critical controversy a new administration would face. But the untimely death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and the resulting brawl over her replacement with a third nominee from President Donald Trump — inflamed the question whether Democrats, if they gain control of the whole elective federal government come next year, should seize control of the Supreme Court, too, by adding enough seats to neutralize the reinforced conservative majority there.
And that, in turn, caused Biden to reveal something about what sort of president he would be.
“Campaigns matter” is a kind of dogma here at Star Tribune Opinion — a doctrine long preached by our retired colleague Lori Sturdevant. It holds that as much as we may lament the shallowness of modern political competitions, important truths are often exposed by the stresses and strains of electoral friction.
Biden’s court cogitation unearths such a truth because in general it is so hard to say what exactly Joe Biden stands for.
It’s not that Biden is a complicated mystery. It’s that he is a waffler and a bore, and always has been. The most interesting things about the man are his gaffes; they’re what he’s famous for.
The one policy landmark on which Biden’s fingerprints are unquestionably found, the tough 1994 federal crime bill, is now almost universally declared to be a mistake, even by Biden himself. (For what it’s worth, I defended him on this count awhile back.)
But don’t misunderstand. Politically, being boring is not a weakness for candidate Biden but his principle strength. It is the main quality — described, to be sure, with more courteous words — that made Biden the consensus choice among purveyors of conventional wisdom as the Democrats’ best bet to defeat President Donald Trump.
And with Election Day nearly at hand, the polls suggest it’s working.
The incumbent’s problem in this election (well, one of his plentiful problems) is that when he’s mixing it up against Biden, Trump’s caustic personality and controversial record are the only active ingredients in the campaign concoction. This wasn’t the case four years ago.
Candidate Hillary Clinton was not boring (sore loser Hillary Clinton is a separate story). Clinton excited many voters and maddened many others. Indifference was as rare a reaction to Clinton as it is a reliable reaction to Biden.
And that indifference, you might say, makes all the difference. It renders Biden much harder for Trump to beat. This year’s contest is all about Trump, which is unfortunate for Trump. His hopes, as in 2016, depend on finding a large bloc of voters who, while considering the president a clown and a barbarian, still barely prefer him to the alternative.
Had the Democrats nominated one of their less boring and more proudly radical 2020 hopefuls — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren — voters would more often be distracted from Trump’s monumental flaws by fears of far-left policies and distaste for self-righteous scolds.
Biden’s moral vanity is subtler than Warren’s or Sanders’, and can’t begin to compete with Trump’s demented boasting. And until the final debate, Trump didn’t recognize the need to turn down his own volume long enough to give Biden a chance to annoy people. His less scene stealing performance, such as it was, may have come too late.
So the chance for — or risk of — a long-shot Trump win comes down to the possibility that just enough more-or-less moderate voters will fear that Biden might be pushed into a radical “woke” agenda by the many not-at-all-boring figures to his left in today’s Democratic Party — while fully woke voters will not be sufficiently inspired about Biden’s leadership to get out and vote for him in sufficient numbers.
And that brings us back to court packing. Setting aside for later a discussion of its merits, here arose a proposal with a long history and a reputation as running the risk of disfiguring America’s constitutional order. Franklin Roosevelt, at the peak of his political power, couldn’t get anywhere with such a scheme.
Insistent media questions about court packing gave Biden a center-stage opportunity to define himself. Having opposed the idea in the past, he could have boldly stated that he wouldn’t be pressured into rash steps by zealots. Or, he could have boldly said developments had changed his mind and he was ready to reconstruct the court.
Instead, displaying the backbone of a buttered noodle, Biden declared he would … appoint a task force — er, a commission — to study the matter.
Detractors mostly see this as an evasion by a candidate protecting his lead by concealing radical intentions. But frankly, a deeper concern for both progressives and moderates, might be that for Joe Biden this is an entirely honest, sincere and characteristic attack of indecision.
Biden may not know whether he will support court packing — because he doesn’t know from what direction and at what velocity the political winds will be blowing next year.
It’s fairly astonishing to be told that a man who has been in national politics longer than most Americans have been alive — who served on the Senate Judiciary Committee for decades and as ranking member or chair for nearly 20 years — doesn’t know where he stands on an idea for transforming the Supreme Court that has been debated at least since the 1930s.
But then, it’s equally remarkable to be lectured about America’s failure to banish “systemic racism” from its criminal justice system by one of the leading architects of national policy in that arena for nearly half a century. Whoever should we hold accountable?
Anyway, campaigns matter, and what’s been revealed here is that going where the wind blows is how Joe Biden has always made decisions. That explains his leadership on hardheaded crime legislation in the early 1990s. Crime was rampant back then and cracking down was popular. And it explains Biden’s resistance to busing for school desegregation in the 1970s, a politically safe position at the time but one for which Kamala Harris, now Biden’s running mate, skewered him in a noted debate moment last year.
Trump’s presidency, all can agree, is not a normal one and many sensible Americans of goodwill are homesick for normal. But Biden — an impeccably “normal” political careerist, with his thirst for approval and rubbery convictions — may not be the leader to steer us back to that promised land given today’s treacherous political conditions.
The winds that will set Biden’s future course and speed are blowing hard from a far-left province whose loudest voices don’t even claim to have much respect for America’s history and institutions, or for the average “privileged” American who thinks it’s enough to be law-abiding, self-supporting and taxpaying.
Packing the court may not even be a warm-up.
D.J. Tice is commentary editor and a columnist for Star Tribune Opinion. He can be reached at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.