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Will Joe Biden's Long Career Help or Hurt?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Joe Biden has been around a long time. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, at age 29 (he reached the Constitution's required age of 30 before taking office in January 1973). No one in the current Senate was there then; the current senior-most House member only arrived there after a special election two months later. Few other Americans have had such long-lasting prominent political careers: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay in the 19th century, arguably; Claude Pepper and Strom Thurmond in the 20th.

Biden's poll numbers shot up after his announcement, by video and in person in Pittsburgh. The three most recent polls show him averaging 33 percent, way ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (16 percent), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (10 percent), Mayor Pete Buttigieg (8 percent) and Sen. Kamala Harris (7 percent). Biden seems to run strongest among those over 45 (who turn out more regularly than those younger) and in the Midwest (where Hillary Clinton lost 50 critical electoral votes, which the Obama-Biden ticket won twice).

Is Biden's long career a help or hindrance? His 36 years in the Senate gave him experience dealing with multiple issues and seeing how positions he's taken have fared over the years. His eight years as vice president gave him the personal exposure to the White House and executive branch that few candidates, in our often dysfunctional presidential nominating system, possess.

His earlier presidential runs, in 1988 and 2008, went nowhere. But he's much better known now, more than any other Democrat. On the other hand, his past stands and votes could be politically hazardous in a Democratic Party whose tweeters demand absolute political correctness according to standards that can change by the hour.

I first interviewed Biden, by phone, in May 1972, when he was a long-shot Democratic nominee against a Republican senator who had held statewide office for 26 years, in the year when George McGovern ended up losing to Richard Nixon by a 61-to-38 percent margin. Biden was a long-shot candidate who got some favorable press after hiring the late Pat Caddell, McGovern's pollster, some weeks later.

But it was clear to me that Biden, then a New Castle County Council member, had perfect political pitch. He argued that the 63-year-old incumbent, who was reluctant to run, should be given an honorable retirement, while he was young and eager to do the job.

Delaware is a small state geographically, with only 550,000 people then and 960,000 now, where citizens expect to meet their officeholders, not just at rallies but at the supermarket and the mall, in local restaurants and movie theaters. It's a state where campaign winners and losers together appear at a small town Return Day parade two days after the election. Biden's touchy-feely campaigning, his obviously genuine friendliness, worked for him in 1972 -- when he won by 3,162 votes -- and in multiple elections afterward.

Delaware was then a political bellwether, resembling the nation as a whole, up through the year 2000. Its Democratic percentage for president was within 4 points of the national average from 1968 to 1996, and its percentage for third-party candidates even closer. It voted 13 percent for George Wallace in 1968, within a point of his national average, with the two downstate counties giving him 18 percent.

So Biden, who regularly rode the Amtrak to Wilmington, got constant in-person tutoring in national politics from his constituents in Delaware. That accounts for some stands Democrats are attacking him for now but that were popular nationally then -- opposition to school busing in the 1970s, tough anti-crime laws in the 1980s and 1990s, his vote for the Iraq war in 2002.

Delaware is no longer a national bellwether. Affluent suburbanites across the country started trending Democratic in the late 1990s, and with most Delaware votes cast in affluent New Castle County suburbs, the state has been safely Democratic since 2000. This may help account for Biden's announcement video that features the 2017 violence in Charlottesville and (a distorted version of) President Donald Trump's comments on it.

That leaves conspicuously open the questions of how Biden will try to clinch the Democratic nomination and how he would govern as president; whether his long history will prove an asset or a liability; and whether he will cruise to nomination and election or stumble from a not-uncharacteristic gaffe. Will he end up like Andrew Jackson, who ran three times and won twice, or like Henry Clay, who ran three times and lost all three?

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