It’s been just over a week and a half since Joe Biden announced he was running for president and already the pundits are tossing around terms like electability. Some are comparing his campaign to another highly electable candidate, Hillary Clinton. Biden, they say, suffers from the same set of problems that doomed her candidacy. Both have been around forever; both are establishment Democrats at a time when the party is not only drifting to the left but looking for new blood; and both have checkered pasts that are problematic in a general election.
There’s no doubt that there’s some truth to these concerns, especially the “been around forever” part. Biden’s first term in the Senate began before Bill Clinton’s first term as Arkansas governor and before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. That’s about as forever as you can get in today’s political world. Biden is also the embodiment of establishment, even more so than Clinton. And, yes, Biden has more than his fair share of skeletons in the closet, all of which will come tumbling out should he win the nomination.
But here’s the thing. Biden’s main competition – Bernie Sanders – has been in Washington for almost thirty years himself, and while his positions are considerably to the left of Biden’s, it’s not like he doesn’t have some skeletons of his own to deal with. That trip he took to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon is an attack ad just waiting to happen. And, trust me, if Sanders wins the nomination, it will run almost non-stop in every swing state right up until election day.
But that’s where the similarities between Clinton and Biden end, for both are radically different types of politicians. Clinton, for all her accomplishments, was about as programmed as a computer. I wrote at great length throughout the 2016 campaign about Hillary’s lack authenticity and how it made her look smug and condescending. All the poll-tested positions and the carefully worded answers she gave that never seemed to answer the actual question she was asked, only served to make her even less likable than she already was.
Biden is the polar opposite of Clinton both in temperament and in style. He’s about as programmed as an exploding star. Of all the 2020 candidates in the field, Biden is by far the most authentic. He almost reminds you of Jim Carey in Liar, Liar. The man literally falls into the truth, sometimes to a fault. And those legendary gaffs that always seemed to disqualify him in past elections, might well benefit him in the age of Trump.
In a piece he wrote for New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan makes the argument – and a good one, I think – that Biden, despite all his quirks, “might be the best bet to beat Trump.” To sum up, his ties to white, working-class voters are genuine. Yes, policy wise, he and Clinton are virtually indistinguishable, but unlike Clinton, his appeal crosses many demographics. One of those demographics concerns itself with political correctness. In a word, Biden has none, or at least none that anyone has yet discerned. Sullivan writes,
In what was a brilliant ad-lib, Biden began a speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers by making a joke about the excesses of #MeToo — “I had permission to hug Lonnie,” the union leader, he quipped. Later, as he brought some kids onstage, he joked again, as he put his hands on the shoulders of a boy: “He gave me permission to touch him.” The crowd’s reaction both times was bellows of laughter.
Sullivan adds that while Biden’s joke was “insensitive” and”tone-deaf,” it let those in attendance, and those who read about it later, know that he isn’t one of those “white urban elites” as Sullivan refers to them. In short, Biden knows who he is and where he comes from. He hasn’t forgotten his roots, unlike the Clintons. For people who see politicians the way most people see used-car salesmen, he is a breath of fresh air.Of course, there’s always the possibility that Biden’s appeal to white, working-class voters could come at a cost. Sullivan cites a piece written by Charles Blow who points out that these voters are “fickle, getting smaller and smaller as a segment of the electorate, and are hostile to the interests of women and minorities.” Assuming that’s true – and I’m not prepared to say it is – that means that Biden will have to straddle a precariously line between an older, white electorate and a more diverse, younger one. Not an easy task, to be sure. But Biden has one thing going for him: he was Barack Obama’s vice president, and Obama didn’t just straddle that line, he owned it.
The Obama campaign of 2008 was one of the truly great success stories in American politics. As a candidate, Obama managed to reassure nervous white voters that he could be trusted to represent their interests while at the same time not losing the support of his base. In a country as polarized as this, that was no easy task. Clinton tried to replicate Obama’s strategy, but as Sullivan points out, she failed “because of her thinly veiled contempt for the white working classes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio.” And while Democrats focus on the combined eighty thousand votes they lost to Trump by in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the real nightmare was Ohio, where Clinton lost by almost half a million votes, four years after Obama won the state by a hundred thousand. That isn’t a close shave, it’s a beheading, and it reveals an enormous divide between the party and white working-class voters. Trump didn’t just fill that vacuum, he booked the whole damn banquet hall.
Whatever else you may say about him, Joe Biden is no fool. He can read the tea leaves, even if many in his party can’t or won’t. My gut tells me that he knows full well what he’s doing. Far from a gaff machine, Biden’s remarks seem intended for a specific audience; one that Democrats had taken for granted for years and now is in Trump’s column. The good news is that this audience is up for grabs. Biden may not get it all back, but he’ll get a good chunk of it.And Trump knows this. That’s why he’s going ape shit the last few days. It isn’t just that Biden’s leading him by six points in a recent CNN poll, it’s that Biden’s strength just happens to be in the same region of the country where he beat out Clinton in 2016, and where he’ll have to prevail again in 2020 if he wants another four years in the White House. Trump and his people also know that Biden is no AOC / Bernie liberal, so the plan to paint him as some socialist bent on destroying the country is dead on arrival.
My only concern about Biden is this insistence by him that somehow everything was hunky dory in America before Trump came along. Biden refers to his presidency as an “aberrant moment in time,” as though it were some blip on the radar screen. This differs with many of his fellow Democrats and virtually every pundit worth a damn who see him as more of a symptom of a broken political system rather than the cause of it. And, as Michael Tomasky writesin The Daily Beast, Biden also appears to be wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to the Republican Party. The fact is the GOP that Biden envisions waiting for him should he win the presidency hasn’t existed since the days when Jacob Javits was an actual senator and not just a convention center on the west side of Manhattan. For his sake – and ours – I hope he is just being overly kind and not overly naive.
Look, as I said earlier, it’s still early. Anything can happen. Biden could flare out and maybe someone like Pete Buttigieg could rise to the top of the polls. With over twenty candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, it would be foolish for anyone to predict who will emerge from this field victorious. But if terms like electability have any meaning at all, it’s worth noting that not all apples are created equal. The fact that Hillary Clinton’s “electability” was suspect from the beginning, doesn’t mean that Joe Biden will suffer the same fate as her.He has his flaws, this much is certain, but one of them isn’t arrogance.