Analysis: How Formidable is Joe Biden?

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Posted: Apr 25, 2019 2:01 PM
Analysis: How Formidable is Joe Biden?

Former Vice President Joe Biden finally took the 2020 plunge this morning, announcing in an online video that he's seeking the White House for a third time.  His opening salvo was a "return to normalcy" appeal, albeit a darker one than I'd expected.  It's smart for Biden to make the case that the nation is badly divided, that the incumbent is a leading factor in that division, and that he's uniquely positioned to help put the pieces back together.  But I'm not sure leaning so heavily into the dystopian visuals and memories of Charlottesville was the right opening note:


The president's initial response to Charlottesville was a clear low point of his tenure in office.  The charitable reading of Trump's "many fine people" remark was that he was speaking about "both sides" of the confederate monuments debate, as opposed to referring to any white nationalists or neo-Nazis -- but that he was not nearly careful or precise enough with his rhetoric in the midst of a disturbing and explosive cultural moment.  In such moments, words matter, especially presidential words.  Trump failed that test.  The uncharitable reading is that the president deliberately soft-pedaled his criticism of the extremist fringe, descending into both-sidesism (I addressed that issue at the time), due to his pathological inability to harshly rebuke people or groups he perceives as friendly to him, no matter how vile they may be.  

Regardless, by launching his campaign with repeated invocations of this painful episode, Biden is choosing to showcase an ugly, extreme, and (thankfully) vanishingly small, element of American society.  The bigots of Charlottesville do not represent who we are as a country, or what we're becoming.  They don't represent the president or his supporters either.  If Biden plans to borrow from President Obama's "healer" playbook (setting aside his own anti-healing moments), this isn't an uplifting start.  And I suspect many Americans will question or reject Biden's premise that a second term of any particular president could "forever and fundamentally alter" the character of the nation writ large.

Also, does anybody believe that the revolting Charlottesville melee was truly the impetus for Biden deciding to run for president?  This explanation might feel more plausible if Biden hadn't already campaigned for the White House on two other occasions, having reportedly seriously weighed another bid just a few years ago.  Biden has wanted to be president for nearly all of his adult life.  His actions demonstrate that fact.  He may have been understandably aggrieved and troubled by the nasty scene in Virginia nearly two years ago, but it strains credulity that it took that event to trigger his decision to once again pursue a long-held ambition.  As for the clip above, the New York Times reported this week that Biden's team was locked in a dispute over which potential launch video they should release for the official rollout: 


One wonders what the tone of the runner-up or alternative option might have been.  Regardless, Biden will grant his first interview as a candidate to the ladies at The View, where I hope he'll be asked about his policy positioning in this contest.  Will he unapologetically embrace the role of being the older-school center-left Democrat, or will he join the collective drift to the new, harder Left?  Where is he on single-payer healthcare?  Where is he on late-term abortion (or even infanticide)?  What's his stance on the Green New Deal, "free" college, and the rest of the fantastical progressive wish list?  We'll know soon enough.  If he embraces the relative centrist lane, he knows what's coming:


Will he be savvy, agile and likable enough to parry and withstand the coming barbs, with an eye toward attracting an electorate that isn't nearly as left-wing as his party's primary has already become?  And will he be able to overcome the widely-held knock that Joe Biden on paper is a vastly superior electoral proposition than Joe Biden in real life?  The former is highly viable in a general, based on polling.  The latter?  Who knows.  This quote seems...awfully Bidenesque:


Save the world?  Stop it.  Will Joe arrive at his first rally wearing a cape?  The messiah thing isn't a credible fit; the case for Biden should be fairly straightforward and somewhat utilitarian: He's a known commodity and a non-scary figure who's well-positioned to keep virtually every single Hillary voter in the fold, while peeling off some of the blue collar workers who were key to Trump's 2016 victory in "blue wall" midwestern states.  Whether that's enough to convince the Left that he's their best bet to win a general election remains a very open question, of course.  A full-throated endorsement from Barack Obama would be highly valuable on that front, but Biden's two-time running mate says he's staying out of the primary.  Biden claims that he asked the 44th president not to endorse him, but c'mon.  If he thought he could get that early blessing, he'd jump all over it.  Endorsements will be a big part of Biden's early show of force, with a number already rolling in; the notion that he doesn't covet Obama's is patently ridiculous.  

We'll have a much better sense of whether Biden is an 800-pound gorilla or a paper tiger by the end of June, after he's been tested on the stump and in debates.  Here's President Trump "welcoming" Biden into the race by taking a dig at Biden's intelligence (Trump has a knack for finding sore spots) and wondering whether the progressive base will eat him alive:

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I'll leave you with a telling statistic that helps underscore why Democrats did so well in the midterms, and why a strong turnout operation from Team Trump could go a long way to helping him win a second term:


UPDATE - Check out this flashback from the archive of Biden elections past: