After passing on the opportunity to run against Hillary Clinton in 2016, former Vice President Biden seems poised to mount a comeback in 2020. Will his decades-long branding as a scrappy fighter for the middle class resonate in a field crowded with candidates who embrace more progressive policy positions? Is this the moment Joe Biden has been waiting his entire life for, or has his moment in the spotlight already come and gone?
Update: I have written a companion article discussing the recent news that Joe Biden is considering naming Stacey Abrams as his Vice President.
Has His Moment Already Passed?
After the Democratic Party took the House of Representatives in 2018, a fight over Nancy Pelosi’s speakership exposed a growing rift between the “old guard” and the “new wave.” With three members of the House leadership team seemingly entrenched in their positions, preventing up and coming talents from ascending the party’s ranks, frustrations reached a point where Pelosi endorsed putting term limits on leadership positions and committee chairmanships. This fault line will also play a role in the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary election, specifically regarding the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Joe Biden increasingly looks like an all-but-surefire candidate for the 2020 nomination, he has accidentally referred to himself as a candidate twice in speeches over the past month. If elected, Joe Biden would be 78 years old at the time of his inauguration. Bernie Sanders, who has already declared his candidacy, would be 79 years old during his first year as President. As the Democratic Party’s energy shifts towards women, young voters, and minority voters, there is a growing sentiment that the “old white male candidate” is incapable of adequately representing an increasingly diverse coalition of supporters. The difference between Biden and Sanders is in the appeal of their individual policy platforms; Sanders made waves in 2016 by appealing to millennial voters with bold, sweeping proposals. Although millennials grew up with Vice President Joe Biden, he will have a more difficult time selling himself as a champion of change. This is in part due to his age, in part due to his policy positions, and also in part due to the fact that Biden has spent four decades in the upper-echelons of power, while Bernie Sanders languished for years as a perennial gadfly.
Joe Biden has said that he is the “most qualified candidate” to run for President in 2020. To his credit, he isn’t necessarily wrong about that. He spent 44 years in national politics, after winning a United States Senate seat in 1973. If you consider qualifications purely in terms of years of experience, he dwarfs the rest of the field. However, in the age of Donald Trump, the American electorate has already once thrown the traditional notion of qualifications out the window, electing a President with no prior public service experience. Barack Obama also famously did not complete a full term in the United States Senate before being elected President. Perhaps the American electorate will find comfort in the idea of electing an “elder statesman.” Biden’s campaign will seek to use his decades of experience to portray him as a “steady hand” after four years of chaos an upheaval.
This narrative, however, will run into a major obstacle early on: Joe Biden, the politician, versus Joe Biden, the person. For those who have followed Biden’s career, his “loose lips” regarding the start of his campaign are nothing new. Biden has always had a bad case of “foot-in-mouth syndrome.” The fact that Biden has already had a number of high-profile gaffes, before his campaign has even begun, is an ominous sign. Now certainly, Biden’s transgressions seem relatively quaint when compared to Donald Trump’s daily Twitter outbursts. Biden’s 1988 Presidential campaign was derailed by claims that he plagiarized a line in a speech from a British Labour Party leader. The things that used to pass for “disqualifying” make us yearn for simpler times, surely.
Let’s quickly go over some of Joe Biden’s more recent greatest hits. “You cannot go to a 7/11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent, I’m not joking.” Yes, he actually said this. When discussing the candidacy of Barack Obama, prior to being chosen as Vice President: “[He is] the first sorta mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice lookin’ guy, I mean that’s a storybook.” There was the time that he asked a wheelchair-bound state representative to “stand up and let everybody see ya.” While the country was in the midst of a national freak-out over the swine flu outbreak, Biden cautioned the public to stay off of airplanes because one sneeze could infect everybody on board. Get ready for some new gaffes to add to your “Joe Biden sound bites” collection.
However, Joe Biden also has a strong persona that Americans are very familiar with. Despite his frequent verbal miscues, Biden maintains an ability to connect empathetically with voters. Despite four decades in politics, Biden was frequently listed as one of the “poorest members of congress” and never sought to use his position for personal profit. As someone who spent the vast majority of his adult life on the national stage, the tragedies of Joe Biden’s past are as much a part of his character as his goofy sound bites. A few weeks after winning election to the United States Senate, Joe Biden’s first wife and one-year old daughter were killed in a car accident. His sons Beau and Hunter survived the accident, but were hospitalized. In 2015, Beau Biden died at the age of 46 after being diagnosed with brain cancer. When discussing his decision not to run for President in 2016, Joe Biden cited the recent death of his son as a reason that he declined the opportunity: “nobody has a right to seek that office unless they’re willing to give it 110% of who they are.”
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was frequently criticized for being the “next in line” candidate. She came in second place in 2008, her political allies did everything possible to freeze other candidates out of the field, and Barack Obama stood behind efforts to solidify her standing as the front-runner. Even moreso than the Clinton 2016 campaign, Biden’s public remarks give off the vibe of someone shouting “we got next” trying to secure a spot in a pick-up basketball game at the local rec center. As other candidates gain their footing and build their own bases of support, old Uncle Joe wants us to make sure that we haven’t forgotten about him.
The allegations of sexual assault that rocked Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearings drew frequent comparisons to the treatment of Anita Hill in the 1990’s. Who served as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Clarence Thomas was nominated? None other than Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. (yes, that is his middle name — and here we had to listen to conservatives go ballistic over Barack HUSSEIN Obama for eight years).
Biden rejected requests to let three other women testify against Clarence Thomas while allowing his colleagues to savagely rip Anita Hill to shreds in front of a national audience virtually unchallenged. Expect the female candidates running for President to confront him about this issue directly. It’s not clear whether a full-throated public apology would be enough; and surely, Biden would be accused of making a political spectacle out of his efforts to make amends with Anita Hill. Biden may try to hide behind the fact that he voted against Clarence Thomas in the end, but it does not excuse his gross mishandling of the allegations against him.
There has also been a concerted effort among the Breitbart-wing of the Republican Party to characterize Joe Biden as, frankly, a creep. This is not without merit; he is “old fashioned” in terms of behavior towards women that he feels is acceptable in public. Reportedly, Biden would frequently swim nude in the Vice Presidential pool while female secret service agents were present. But don’t expect stalwart opponents to stay within the bounds of normalcy, of course. Just look up “Joe Biden creep” on YouTube, the first video portrays his behavior as “groping Senators’ children.” Conservatives will use examples of Biden’s public behavior to blunt criticisms of Donald Trump’s treatment of women, which have been a potent motivating force thus far.
Certainly, Biden’s work in drafting the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was highly commendable. That landmark piece of legislation funds programs across the United States to help female survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. He has referred to it as his “greatest accomplishment.” But his “old school,” chauvinistic attitudes may become a liability for his campaign.
Notable Policy Positions
Joe Biden recently delivered a policy speech to the Brookings Institute discussing “five ideas for the future of the middle class.”
- To address the issue of income inequality, Biden proposes a relatively standard view of progressive tax reform. Closing corporate loopholes, speaking out against tax breaks for the wealthy.
- Biden supports tuition-free community college and four-year public colleges, and voiced his support for this during the 2015 Presidential campaign as Bernie Sanders turned this issue into a national rallying cry for young voters.
- A long-time supporter of unionization rights, Biden proposes banning non-compete clauses, banning terms of employment that prevent employees from discussing compensation with other workers, and reforming overtime rules to avoid abusive practices by employers.
- Biden is also calling for a massive investment in the national infrastructure: “ roads, bridges, airports, broadband.” This has long been a part of his policy platform, going back to the 1988 campaign.
- The fifth and final plank of Biden’s economic platform is what he calls a “race to the top” to give federal dollars to states that make their economies friendlier to investors. This is where “Joe Biden, advocate for the working class” meets “Joe Biden, neoliberal politician.”
- On the issue of climate change, Biden has spoken out against the United States withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Biden introduced the first climate legislation in 1986, but has been light on specifics in terms of what he thinks that we should do domestically. It will be interesting to see if he ties his agenda on climate change in with his infrastructure investment plan, a sort of “Green New Deal-lite.”
- Joe Biden has described the passage of the Affordable Care Act the moment where America decided “that health care is a right and not a privilege for the few.” However, Biden has refrained from proposing ideas about how he would build upon the ACA.
- On the issue of criminal justice reform, Biden has historically supported “tough-on-crime” approaches. When people talk about sentencing disparities for controlled substances that are more frequently used by non-white offenders, those inequalities were originally sponsored by Joe Biden. He was a willing and eager participant in the creation of America’s mass incarceration state.
- With several candidates openly discussing reparations for descendants of former slaves, Biden’s comments on racial segregation in the 70’s are sure to become a flashpoint in the campaign. He stated that desegregation was “a rejection of the entire black awareness concept, where black is beautiful, black culture should be studied; and the cultural awareness of the importance of their own identity, their own individuality.” Rather than admitting his error, Biden got defensive when he was recently asked about these comments.
Path to Victory
Biden starts the 2020 campaign with one distinct advantage: voters are already intimately familiar with who he is. This name recognition advantage has made him a leading candidate in nearly every poll of voters. He also gets the benefit of being associated with Barack Obama, who remains an immensely popular figure in the Democratic Party and throughout the country at-large. Gallup polling found that Barack Obama retains his status as the “most admired man in America” for the 11th year in a row. Typically, the incumbent President wins this poll — however, Donald Trump has been unable to seize the title from former President Obama. A February 2018 poll by Gallup found that 63% of Americans approve of Barack Obama’s presidency in retrospect. However, Barack Obama’s calls for “new blood” in politics characterize what may be a tepid embrace of his former Vice President. Biden’s candidacy makes things a tad awkward for Obama, his former supporters and campaign staff have begun flocking to new up-and-comers like Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris.
Biden’s “front-runner” status will likely amount to little more than a mirage. As soon as he declares his candidacy, Biden will be besieged by rivals on all sides. He will be intensely questioned on his commitment to the working poor; since leaving the White House, Biden’s net worth has increased exponentially. Biden’s past transgressions regarding the treatment of Anita Hill, his past statements on racial segregation and criminal justice, and other off-the-cuff insensitive remarks will provide plenty of fodder to his rivals. While the Clinton 2016 campaign sought to turn her lifetime of public service into an advantage, it ultimately proved to be a liability as her history of past remarks and policy positions created and endless stream of headaches.
The path to victory is one of “resilience,” weathering the storm of attacks while opponents rise and fall around him. Think of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. Romney didn’t win because people were most enthusiastic about his candidacy, he won because he had a built-in base of supporters and everyone else took turns challenging him. Those rivals were bombarded with counter-attacks one-by-one, until Romney was left as the last man standing. As Biden withstands the barrage of friendly fire, it will undercut the one argument central to his candidacy: that he is the best candidate to confront Trump in a general election. It’s going to be a brutal spectacle, and it will leave Biden severely weakened heading into a general election match-up with Donald Trump.
If Biden survives the primary campaign (and that’s a big “if”), he will then focus his efforts on winning back the Obama-Trump states that Clinton lost. Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. These “rust belt” states have trended towards Republicans in recent years. It remains doubtful whether Biden’s appeal to centrism will be enough to reverse these trends; party activists will be clamoring to test the hypothesis that a Sanders-style candidacy would offer a better chance of winning back the industrial heart of America, and may become disillusioned with Biden’s candidacy in the same way that they were with Hillary Clinton’s. However, if Biden at least makes the effort to hold campaign rallies in these states, it will already be an improvement over the Democratic Party’s performance in 2016.