On Settling

Something I tweeted recently has stuck in my mind, and it relates directly to the choice we face in the presidential election.

I’ve been following politics since 1968, when I was 14 years old and already worried about the prospect of being drafted to serve in Vietnam, and it remains the worst political year of my life. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Democratic nomination falling to Vice President Hubert Humphrey*, the uncontrolled police brutality outside the DNC, the reanimation of Richard Nixon’s corpse and his ultimate election to the presidency — the moment when”The Sixties” ended as a touchstone for social progress and became a lifestyle brand.

*Humphrey was a great liberal politician, but he tied himself firmly to LBJ’s Vietnam policy out of a sense of duty to the administration he served. His legacy was forever tainted by the association.

That was bad enough. But since then, almost every presidential election has been a choice between bad and not-quite-so-bad. There have been only three candidates I felt good about, and two of them had no chance whatsoever of winning. The three: George McGovern in 1972, Fritz Mondale in 1984, and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Otherwise, it’s been a matter of settling for something less than I wanted. Jimmy Carter, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry. I voted for all those guys, but didn’t feel great about doing so.

But here’s the thing. Is there any doubt at all that we’d be in a better place if we’d elected Carter instead of Reagan? Dukakis instead of Bush I? Gore or Kerry instead of Bush?

No doubt. Absolutely none.

Carter was ahead of his time on climate change. His re-election would have put us on a much healthier trajectory on that issue alone. Reagan’s legacy is toxic on a number of levels, but I’ll leave it at the myth of supply-side economics, the idea that taxation and government are inherently evil and that racist dog-whistling is the ticket to Republican success.

Bush I, an anemic leader even if you liked his policies. Dukakis would at least have tried to push the country in a mostly positive direction. Bush II left us enmeshed in two unwinnable wars, made the rich richer, established torture as government policy and cratered the economy. Gore or Kerry, no matter how centrist or corporatist they were, would have been much less destructive. (Gore’s Humphrey-like loyalty to Clinton’s center-right agenda made him unpalatable, but if nothing else he would have fought the good fight on climate change.)

And now Trump, uncaring in the face of pandemic and trying to subvert democracy. Among many other things.

My preferred candidate in the Democratic primary was Elizabeth Warren. Progressive policies I could appreciate, a second chance to elect a woman president, and my dream debate opponent for the fascist wannabe.

But I will vote gladly for Joe Biden. He is so clearly better than Trump that I could not possibly bring myself to vote for a third party or write in Bernie or whatever else disaffected progressives might do out of spite.

I’ve made my peace with settling, having seen over and over again what happens when the other guys win. But also, I’ve come to believe that Biden is the best Democratic candidate for the moment. He is such a fundamentally decent person that Trump’s boorishness just rolls off. A hearty “C’mon, man” is all it takes to disarm the lies and wild attacks. His inoffensiveness is a tonic for our times. He may be as exciting as a bowl of oatmeal, but I could go for a bowl of oatmeal right about now.

And like Obama, Biden’s biggest task will be cleaning out the Augean stables of his Republican predecessor. He’ll have to actually address the pandemic and rebuild the economy. He’ll have to restore every agency in government that’s been hollowed-out or packed with ideological loyalists like Vermont’s own Darcie Johnston and Brady Toensing. He’ll have to repair broken relationships around the world.

With all this mess to clean up, it may not be the moment for large-scale new programs like Medicare for all. That tempers my disappointment at not having a more progressive nominee.

But besides that, it’s not like the election is the end of everything and we have to wait four more years to try again. Bernie preaches this over and over again: It’s not just about winning an election, it’s building a movement. Every day of a Biden Administration is a chance to influence policy in a way that would be impossible in a second Trump term. That’s what Bernie would do, and that’s a lesson for all of us.


1 thought on “On Settling

  1. Walter Carpenter

    I’ve been voting since Nixon’s second campaign, where I went for his opponent. In only one campaign out of all of them since then was I even halfway enthusiastic about the candidate who emerged out of the torturous primaries: Barack Obama. Our political process is so idiotic that it seems all that we ever get out of it is someone already bought and paid for by Wall Street and that’s the only candidates the two-party system dares to put forth.


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