The Challenges and Opportunities Facing Joe Biden
Inside the political world, there is a common presumption that entering an elongated Democratic-primary contest will prove damaging to the former Vice-President Joe Biden, who is riding high in early opinion polls, and that, as the saying goes, the first day of his campaign may well be the best. Only time will tell if this prediction is right. But the events of this week have demonstrated that Biden is also exposing himself to hazards by standing on the edge and hesitating.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Biden “has expressed concern” to associates “that he wouldn’t be able to raise millions of dollars in online donations immediately” as some of the other Democratic candidates, including the former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and Senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, have. On Thursday, the Times reported that Biden and his advisers are thinking about announcing that Biden would only serve one term, an effort to frame his bid “as a one-time rescue mission for a beleaguered country.” The Times and Axios also reported that Team Biden is considering naming a Vice-Presidential candidate straight away, and that one of the people under consideration is Stacey Abrams, the Georgia politician who delivered the Democratic reply to January’s State of the Union address and was widely agreed to have aced it.
The message these stories send is that Biden is worried about various things: money, his age (he will turn seventy-seven later this year), and his ability to reach younger and more progressive voters. At least some of these worries may well be justified, but they aren’t the sort of thing that any Presidential contender wants amplified on the home pages of national newspapers, particularly a contender whose biggest assets are supposedly his likeability and electability. Assuming that Biden does intend to run, he needs to jump in and start making the case for himself, as other candidates have done. In an environment of heightened political activism, blanket media coverage, and ubiquitous social media, history doesn’t favor those who wait. And it certainly doesn’t favor he whose proto-campaign is already generating damaging stories.
If Biden does take the plunge, he will start out with at least two substantial advantages. Having faithfully served as Barack Obama’s wingman for eight years, he is widely liked among Democratic voters; his popularity extends across regions and racial groups. Moreover, Democrats desperately want to nominate someone who can beat Donald Trump, and Biden currently polls better than the other Democratic candidates in head-to-head matchups. An Emerson College survey that came out on Wednesday showed him defeating Trump by ten percentage points, fifty-five to forty-five. The matchups involving other Democrats, such as Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, were a lot closer.
Of course, the fact that Biden is polling well in March, 2019, doesn’t mean that he’s the best candidate to take on Trump in November, 2020. To win the nomination, he’ll need to prove his mettle on a daily basis, avoid the mistakes that plagued his two previous Presidential bids, and cast off some of the baggage he has acquired during his nearly fifty years in politics. (He entered his first electoral race, for New Castle County Council, in 1970.)
He could begin by saying sorry to Anita Hill for his role in the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings (he has said that he wished he could have done more to prevent other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee from hounding Hill but stopped short of issuing an apology); reiterating his contrition about the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which led to mass incarceration of minorities; and apologizing for some of the statements he made in the mid-seventies, when, as a freshman U.S. senator, he vigorously opposed school-busing. (A recent Washington Post article dug up a number of Biden quotes, including this one, from 1975: “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and . . . to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race.’ ”)
Judging by some comments he made last weekend, Biden’s first instinct will be to defend his record and point to progressive positions he has adopted over the years, such as his support for public housing, labor unions, and expanding voting rights. He needs to go further. Democratic-primary voters know that Biden started out in a different era, but many of them will also want him to demonstrate that he embraces an environment in which there is zero tolerance for anything that smacks of sexism or racism.
Making such a gesture is the right thing to do, and it could help defuse some of the attacks that are sure to come. It’s a smarter play than immediately floating the idea of selecting Abrams as his running mate, talented though she is. As the Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty pointed out, the Abrams story smacked of gimmickry, and it was also “presumptuous” of Biden’s advisers to assume that Abrams would accept the role of “acting as Biden’s human shield, constantly called upon to answer for his past positions on issues that put him at odds with African American and female voters.” (On Thursday, a spokesperson for Abrams issued a statement saying that she has met with more than a half-dozen Presidential contenders, and she “continues to keep all options on the table for 2020 and beyond.”)
To be sure, if Abrams doesn’t decide to enter the Presidential race on her own account, she could eventually be a potential running mate for a number of the other candidates, Biden included. Right now, though, the former Vice-President needs to stand on his own feet. He would do well to take the advice of his Delaware friend and colleague, Senator Chris Coons, who has called on him to make clear that he has the energy and determination to serve for two terms.
Whatever he does, Biden will be attacked from the left for being too centrist, too friendly with Republicans, and too in hock to financial interests headquartered in Delaware. These are substantive criticisms. Still, if he combines his defense of the Obama legacy with a populist economic agenda focussed on advancing the middle class—one that he has already embraced—he could be a formidable candidate. And despite being the front-runner in the polls, he could also benefit from being underestimated by pundits, many of whom expect him to falter. In any case, though, he needs to get in there. Enough of the “Hamlet” act.