Events of recent days have reminded us that tragedy or disaster can completely upend the national and even global conversation at any time. As the 2020 campaign for president unfolds, there are going to be moments, quite a few I suspect, when unexpected heartbreaks supplant the petty political squabbles of the moment.
This, more than anything, is why I hope Joe Biden runs for president.
Maybe it will be a flight full of 157 passengers that inexplicably falls out of the sky. Maybe it will be yet another mass shooting at a place of worship. Or it could be a natural disaster destroying dozens of homes and small businesses. During these painful times, we often look to our political leaders to help us make sense of the senseless. It is in these moments that the true power of words, to help us grieve, heal and move forward, can be felt. No one is more equipped to rise to these moments than Biden. And nowhere is the contrast between Biden and the current occupant of the Oval Office more evident.
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I found myself this week thinking about something President Donald Trump tweeted a year ago: “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically. … He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.”
Trump’s use of the words “weak” and “crying” reveal why, time and again, he has failed so spectacularly at playing the role of “consoler in chief.” After the extremist confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, it was the now infamous “both sides” remark. In Puerto Rico, it was literally throwing paper towels at the victims of hurricanes. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, it was the speech note card with the visible prompt “I hear you.” Just the other day, Trump refused to acknowledge the growing threat of white nationalists, despite a manifesto written by the New Zealand shooter hailing Trump as a symbol of “renewed white identity and common purpose.”
Biden doesn’t have to fake it
Contrast that to what we’ve seen from Biden over the years. He doesn’t have to act presidential. He doesn’t have to pretend to show empathy. He doesn’t need a note card prompting him to care.
This, of course, presents the greatest threat and contrast to Trump. In Biden, he sees someone who has something that he fundamentally lacks, character. Trump sees this deficiency in himself, and his default instincts instruct him to mock it. The result is a president who repeatedly fails to live up to the moment when an unexpected crisis occurs. Certainly, no one can question how Joe Biden would react to moments of crisis and grief as president.
Delivering a beautiful eulogy of his friend Sen. John McCain, Biden was moved to tears as he reflected on the extraordinary life of his “brother.” Trump on the other hand, has spent the past few days attacking the late Vietnam War veteran, seven months after he died. Who could forget President Barack Obama awarding his vice president with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and how Biden was overcome by emotions of gratitude and humility?
Perhaps more than any figure in recent political history, Biden’s life in public service has been book-ended by unthinkable tragedies. Weeks after he first won his Senate seat in 1972, Biden’s wife, Neilia, and 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. His two sons, Hunter and Beau, were badly injured. Biden was sworn in to the Senate not on the Senate floor with his other colleagues, but next to his sons’ hospital beds in Wilmington, Delaware. Four decades later, Biden’s resolve and faith would once again be tested as Beau lost his battle with brain cancer and died at 46.
This is the person the president of the United States likes to mock on Twitter. Is it any wonder why Trump routinely fails the empathy test during moments of crisis? At a time when Trump continues to go lower and lower, Biden brings to the national stage the strength, decency and sense of duty that are sorely needed in our political discourse.
Kurt Bardella, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, left the Republican Party in 2017 and became a Democrat. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella