Who is to blame for an electorate that values youth over experience, that has elevated Pete Buttigieg and Barack Obama over Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton?
The culprit is, in a significant way, Biden himself.
I realized this during the New Hampshire Democratic primary debate hosted Friday by ABC News. Asked about possible Supreme Court choices, Biden bragged, "I almost single-handedly made sure that Robert Bork did not get on the Court."
When President Reagan nominated Bork in 1987, Bork was 60 years old. Bork had been a professor at Yale Law School and had served as solicitor general of the United States and as acting attorney general. Bork had served for five years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Bork's defeat in the Senate at the hands of Biden and his colleagues was a turning point in many ways. One of the most significant ways was that it upended the standards for desirability in a judicial nominee. Pre-Bork, the most desirable thing was to have lots of experience so that senators would be convinced that the nominee was qualified for the job. Post-Bork, the most desirable thing became to have as short a paper trail as possible, so as to minimize the chances that a nominee's writing could be distorted or seized upon in a way that could ultimately derail the nomination.
People haven't focused on it quite yet, but what we are and have been witnessing is a similar transformation in presidential politics. In presidential candidates, as with post-Bork judicial nominees, lengthy government experience has become a liability rather than a strength.
Look at how Biden's long track record has hurt Biden's candidacy. He's been attacked for his vote to authorize the Iraq War and for his opposition to federally mandated busing to combat school segregation in Wilmington, Delaware. Merely entering into a discussion of these matters, regardless of the merits of the underlying issues, has the effect of underscoring Biden's age, in a non-flattering way. Call it irony, or call it poetic justice, or call it, even, the Borking of Biden, even though the attacks on Biden, at least so far, probably have not been quite so distorted as to merit the term fully.
The triumph of youth, or of a blank slate, over extensive government experience isn't limited to the Democrats, either. Donald Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, had no Senate vote record to defend, no Benghazi. Mitt Romney's record turned into a negative when Republican opinionmakers faulted his Massachusetts health reform and his evolving public statements on abortion. The internet has made this all worse. In the old days trashing a rival's record required hiring opposition researchers to go comb through libraries of microfilm or video archives. Nowadays it's all on Google.
There is something, though, about the Democratic swoon for Obama and Buttigieg that is particularly emblematic. It goes beyond the mere mechanics of campaigning or of opposition research. The short-on-experience candidates are the personification of judging on intentions rather than on results. They are the perfect representations—Bernie Sanders, in a way, too—of a party that prioritizes virtue-signaling over actually getting things done.
In April of 2019, after seeing Buttigieg in Boston, I described him as "downright impressive" and "the most interesting Democrat running for president." That was before Michael Bloomberg got into the race, but the "impressive" part still applies. When Biden attacks Buttigieg as unaccomplished, as he did in a campaign commercial over the weekend, it seems condescending. To say that Buttigieg is ill-prepared for the presidency isn't dismissive. It's a kind of praise. Paradoxically, in the current moment—a moment Biden helped to create by blocking Bork—being unqualified for the presidency is the best qualification a candidate can have.