The waiting game is over. Former Vice President Joe Biden is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, betting that a third time’s a charm.
It worked out that way for Ronald Reagan, but not Bob Dole. How will Biden fare? He imploded in spectacular fashion during his strongest bid for the Democratic nod in 1988, amid a plagiarism scandal and a series of embarrassing false boasts about his resume. Twenty years later, Biden was an afterthought in a clash of the titans between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Now Biden is at the very least a co-frontrunner with Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders and perhaps better positioned than that. Eight years as Obama’s vice president enhanced his reputation with Democrats nationally—that’s why President Donald Trump says his predecessor rescued Biden from the trash heap—but a repeat of past disasters could erode his standing.
Biden is still very much the same man Democrats rejected in 1988 and 2008, except older and more of a relic of a bygone political era. Even Bill Clinton’s retail politics skills deteriorated with age. With 20 major candidates, he, like Jeb Bush on the Republican side in 2016, has failed to clear the field. There are other precedents for how this could go badly. Rudy Giuliani spent most of 2007 leading national polls of Republican voters but then didn’t come close to winning a single primary.
Yet if Roger Mudd repeated his 1980 question to Ted Kennedy—“Why do you want to be president?”—Biden could muster an answer. Politics doesn’t have to be as nasty or as ugly as it has gotten in the Trump era. We can go back to the fabled time when Democrats and Republicans dined together. Biden can explicitly promise to bring back a bipartisan spirit while implicitly offering to slow down the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch.
That could be a compelling message for a country weary of Trump’s Twitter outbursts, even if Biden has not always been Mr. Civility himself. What’s less certain is whether it is what Democrats will want in 2020. The appeal of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg suggests that at least some of them do. Are there enough such voters to win the nomination?
The Biden dilemma is that the rationale for his candidacy, a return to pre-Trump normalcy, reinforces his biggest liabilities. His back-slapping, which with women often degenerates into caressing and hair-sniffing, is suspect in the MeToo era. His respectful attitude toward the cultural conservatism of blue-collar voters—a major reason he has a good chance to win back the industrial states Trump turned red in 2016—is out of vogue. His career dates back to when liberals had to do business with segregationists inside the Democratic Party.
Biden has already come under fire for his opposition to forced busing to achieve racial balance in de facto segregated public schools. There are perfectly legitimate reasons to object to busing, which objectively failed most places it was tried. But contemporary liberal discourse does not include the nuances necessary for such a discussion and it is unmistakably the case that genuine racists played a role in the 1970s anti-busing movement. Those are dangerous associations for a Democrat who eulogized Strom Thurmond to have.
If Biden makes it to the general election, he is vulnerable on all the same issues that Trump used against Hillary Clinton: his vote for the Iraq war, support for various free trade agreements, his playing a far greater role in the 1994 crime bill than Hillary, closeness to special interests. Trump will certainly try to use Biden’s handsiness to negate his own problems with women.
Sanders offers Democrats an appeal to working-class Pennsylvania voters without any of this baggage and a more thoroughgoing progressivism. Buttigieg adds diversity points to his pitch for civility. There are plenty of women in the field who do not have to explain their touching of women or treatment of Anita Hill during the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
Biden has to bet that there are enough older and more moderate Democrats to get him through the primaries. Then he must hope Trump’s failure to deliver on his more populist campaign promises will make some of the lines of criticism that derailed Hillary implausible. All while staying a step ahead of the cultural revolution—remember the erstwhile Defense of Marriage Act supporter actually preempted Obama by coming out in favor of gay marriage first—without joining it.
Doable, certainly, but a tall order for an aging and undisciplined candidate. Biden accumulated political capital as Obama’s vice president. He is betting he has enough to spend to become president.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.