Bret Stephens: On being a Biden conservative

(Erin Schaff | New York Times file photo) Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, before joining Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), his running mate, in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 12, 2020. To be a Biden conservative is about curbing your enthusiasm, but if that isn’t conservative, what is? asks New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

The other day I spotted a sticker that read, “Settle for Biden, 2020.” It spoke for me.

To be a Biden conservative is to feel about as much enthusiasm for the presumptive Democratic nominee as a Sanders socialist might, albeit from the opposite direction. Everyone is aware of the former vice president’s foibles. Every conservative can point to his policy blunders and offenses.

The most obvious recommendations for Joe Biden are a succession of “isn’ts.” He isn’t Donald Trump. He isn’t Bernie Sanders. He isn’t angry, bigoted, cruel, demagogic, erratic, frightening or gross. He isn’t going to drive Americans to distraction or the country into a ditch.

Does anyone seriously doubt that, on the day President Biden enters office, the country would revert to a more normal version of itself — more so, at any rate, than it has been in the Bizarro World of the Trump years?

But there are stronger arguments for being a Biden conservative. The first has to do with the ideological state of our political parties.

I’ve argued before that the only way the Republican Party can again become a vehicle for conservative ideas is if Trump is trounced. Populists and philosophical conservatives may sometimes travel a common road, but they are heading now in different directions.

Morally, the central conservative idea is the restraint of personal and public gratification for the sake of virtue. The populist idea is disdain for restraint, even at the expense of virtue. Politically, the conservative idea is about the preservation of a constitutional order that is itself liberal. The populist idea opposes liberalism in the name of majoritarianism (even when it doesn’t command a majority). Economically, the conservative idea is that free markets foster personal enterprise, frugality, creativity, industry and other components of moral character. The populist idea is that free markets make you filthy rich.

And so on. To be a Biden conservative means wanting to Make Republicans Conservative Again — at least by something other than today’s degraded standards.

Being a Biden conservative also means wanting to keep Democrats liberal.

If nothing else, conservatives should feel grateful to Biden for thrashing Sanders in the primary — a reminder that, even if the most vocal and visible sides of the Democratic Party have become more progressive, a majority of its voters haven’t.

The success of liberal centrism now rests on the success of Biden’s candidacy; if Trump defeats him in November, the party could lurch far to the left, just as Republicans lurched far to the right after the successive losses by the McCain and Romney campaigns. Conservatives who worry that a Biden win will empower progressive Wokesters should fear how much more empowered they’ll be should he lose.

Beyond the state of the political parties is the state of the country. I came of age as a conservative when the great domestic issue of our time was the size and reach of the federal government. Under Trump, Republicans are hardly better than Democrats on that issue, and in many respects worse. Federal debt as a percentage of gross domestic product has never been higher since World War II. The gap between government spending and federal revenue has rarely been wider. “What, Me Worry?” says Alfred E. Trump.

But the domestic issue of our time is not the size of government. It’s the unity of the country. We are living through the most serious social unrest in 50 years. We have a president who sparks division by nature and stokes it by design.

Part of the country believes the government conspires against them. Another part believes history has conspired against them. The idea that these beliefs won’t get further radicalized in a second Trump administration is fantasy.

Whatever else he does, Biden won’t expend his political capital belittling, demeaning and humiliating other Americans. He won’t treat opponents as enemies, or subordinates as toadies, or take supporters for fools. Joe Biden is the Democratic equivalent of George H.W. Bush — another ambitious vice president who believed in loyalty and decency more than in any particular set of ideas. History remembers the senior Bush’s presidency well.

I also came of age as a conservative when the great foreign policy issue of the time was the survival and unity of what used to be called “the free world.” That was a world that believed in more-open borders, more free trade, greater unity among the democratic powers, greater resolve against the totalitarian powers of the day.

Whether it’s in his love letters with Kim Jong Un, his scorn for NATO, his asperity toward Angela Merkel, his credulity with Vladimir Putin, his undermining of the alliance with South Korea or his fire and flattery with Beijing, Trump is wrecking the idea of a free world, and of the possibility of America’s leadership of it. Conservatives used to care about this. They still should.

To be a Biden conservative isn’t easy. It’s about upholding your principles at the expense of your politics, and embracing mediocrity to ward off malevolence. Above all, it’s about curbing your enthusiasm. If that isn’t conservative, what is?

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.