OPINION | Speak up, Mr. Biden

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HOW America’s political class must pine for the halcyon days of just a few weeks ago, when only statues of Confederate generals (and the occasional Christopher Columbus) had to fear being pulled down or defaced.

Save for scattered notes of disapproval from historians, life largely went on.

No longer. The ire of the mob has now shifted from Robert E. Lee and his comrades in gray to include such disparate figures as Washington, Lincoln, Francis Scott Key, Miguel de Cervantes, Ulysses S. Grant, Father Junípero Serra and, if Real Justice PAC founder Shaun King is to be believed, “white Jesus.” As a result, it’s emerging as an issue in the presidential race.

Which puts Joe Biden in a pickle: Will he condemn those who indulge their rage by hijacking peaceful protests and directing criminal acts at America’s public memorials?

Initially Mr. Biden appeared to see the new iconoclasm as an opportunity to tar Donald Trump with the Confederacy (and implicitly white supremacy). When Mr. Biden defined his position in a statement to Politico earlier this month, he did so solely in terms of Confederate figures: “The names affixed to our military installations must honor the diverse heritage of leadership and sacrifice in our country’s history,” he said. “I fully support Senator [Elizabeth] Warren’s bipartisan effort to form a commission to rename Defense Department facilities named after Confederate leaders in the next three years, and look forward to implementing the commission’s work as president.”

Alas for Mr. Biden, pulling down a Confederate is so yesterday. As vandals expand their targets to include, say, the Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial — honoring the African-American volunteers who fought for the Union in the Civil War — their acts become a political liability.

At the mildest, surely it would be informative to learn if the former senator from Delaware agrees with Wilmington’s recent decision to remove a statue of the state’s most famous son, Caesar Rodney, from downtown. Rodney is known in American history for riding 80 miles through a storm to get to Philadelphia in time to cast Delaware’s deciding vote for independence. His statue was removed because, like several other Founding Fathers, he owned slaves.

Notwithstanding calls for Mr. Biden to declare himself on the issue, he’s clearly betting that a press corps that managed to ignore a former Senate staffer’s charge of sexual assault for weeks won’t press him on the statues and the mayhem. No doubt he is betting correctly.

On paper, this should be an easy call. The Democratic voters, especially African-American voters, who made Mr. Biden their nominee did so on the belief they were going with the moderate. But Mr. Biden has been under relentless pressure

As mobs tear down statues of Lincoln and Grant, where does the Democrat stand?

to move left, and he’s obliged by flip-flopping on many positions that made him a moderate—from his support of the 1994 crime bill to his initial rejection of the Green New Deal.

Many observers have noted that in 1968 Richard Nixon successfully campaigned on restoring law and order. But Mr. Biden knows that what made Hubert Humphrey look weak wasn’t just Nixon. It was also the antiwar protesters causing the chaos in the streets, who didn’t trust him and didn’t mind making him look bad. Mr. Biden is all too aware that a progressive mob that doesn’t bother to distinguish between Gens. Grant and Lee might just as easily turn on him.

Which brings us back to the race for president. Each evening on the news, the American people watch the their cities being looted, set on fire, shot up or occupied. More shocking is the cravenness of public officials reluctant to condemn the open criminality they are seeing, much less quell it. The press corps dismisses Mr. Trump as a liar, but he’s telling the truth when he notes that this is almost all happening in cities long run by Democrats — and the longer the unrest continues, the harder that fact will be to ignore.

It’s not just the violence, either. The protests are also exposing a fundamental divide in the way people view America. The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” an initiative designed to define America by the arrival of slavery, didn’t cause the riots and looting. But it certainly captures the rioters’ animating spirit, rooted in the idea that the entire American system is racist to the core and has been from birth.

Start from this assumption and the targeting of statues of Grant or Wisconsin abolitionist Hans Christian Heg has a certain logic, crazy as it must sound to most Americans. In much the same way, what started with murder charges for the Minneapolis police involved in the death of George Floyd has now become an indictment of America itself.

Which leaves us in the curious position we find ourselves today, when a former U.S. senator and vice president can’t bring himself to defend Abraham Lincoln.


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