Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016.
Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

The heart of the Dems’ debate: is Trump ‘an aberrant moment in time’?

In his presidential campaign kickoff video, former Vice President Joe Biden made no effort to shy away from criticizing Donald Trump. On the contrary, the Delaware Democrat effectively said he’s running because he “cannot stand by and watch” the current president continue to damage the country.

But as part of his pitch, Biden added, “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.”

I can’t say with confidence whether the former vice president intended to weigh in on a major debate in Democratic circles, but he did. The New York Times’ Astead Herndon summarized the issue succinctly:

“There are so many ways to divide this Democratic field based on ideology and identity but Biden presents another one: Do you think Trump is an outgrowth of systemic American problems or an outlier presidency in need of a course correction?”

For Biden, Trump’s presidency is effectively a fluke. A historical accident. An “aberrant moment in time” that can be corrected with the election of a Democratic president who won’t necessarily turn back the clock to 2016, but who can at least restore a sense of normalcy and maturity to the White House, bringing an abrupt end to a four-year period of madness.

But for many Democrats, each of whom would welcome Trump’s departure, Biden’s assessment is a misdiagnosis.

For them, Trump isn’t the disease, he’s a symptom of a larger sickness. In this model, there’s a systemic rot in our political system, eating away at Republican politics, which made it possible for a racist television personality to rise to power in the first place.

Replacing Trump is an obvious prerequisite to better political health, the argument goes, but it wouldn’t remove the deterioration of our political foundation, without which Trump’s madness would have been impossible.

Biden seems to believe the pillars of that foundation are healthy and strong; it’s just hard to see this through Trump’s fog. Many in Biden’s party disagree – and are probably going to let him know in the coming months.

In Biden’s model, there’s an emergency. Trump started a fire, which the former vice president is eager to put out before it does any lasting damage. But to those who believe Trump is worse than just “an aberrant moment in time,” there are larger concerns about who handed the Republican president the torch he used to light that fire, and how we’ll rebuild once he’s gone.

I don’t know how much thought Biden has given this, but if his candidacy is going to succeed – indeed, if his prospective presidency is going to succeed – he’s going to need to address this well.