The former vice president may be beloved, but he is also out of step with the post-Trump Democratic Party.
Joe Biden, who leads the Democratic 2020 presidential field in early polls, has all the markings of a front-runner. He possesses a sterling résumé, access to a donor base, name recognition and eight years of loyal service to a president who’s loved by the party base. There’s just one problem: He’s also a deeply flawed candidate who’s out of step with the mood of his party.
Biden hasn’t announced he’s running for president, of course, but he’s made clear he’s seriously thinking about it. On Sunday, he confirmed it again on MSNBC’s PoliticsNation. The decision, he said back in February, will be based on whether it’s “right for me to do.”
But that’s the wrong question. What Biden should be asking is whether the party wants him, and not just whether he should seize his last chance.
His advanced age—Biden would be 78 years old at the time of his swearing-in—isn’t the main obstacle. While Biden’s age would be a nonstarter in most presidential elections, if he continues to appear hale and hearty it would not be an insurmountable problem against Donald Trump, who would be 74 himself in 2020.
Trump would also provide cover for another often-discussed Biden drawback: the overly familiar mannerisms that seem terribly out of place in the #MeToo era. Next to Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tapes and the litany of sexual misconduct charges levied against the president, Biden’s hands-iness barely registers.
The bigger issue is whether there’s a place for him atop the Democratic Party that’s taking shape after the ruinous 2016 election cycle. This new iteration is unsentimental and unforgiving, and Biden has more than a few conspicuous Senate votes that demand a reckoning in the Trump-era Democratic Party.
One of them is the bankruptcy reform bill that he championed for years, until it finally passed in 2005. The political taint from that law—favored by credit card companies because it made it harder for consumers to get debt relief through bankruptcy—shows no sign of subsiding on the left. It surfaced as a thorny issue during Biden’s vetting as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, and reappeared nearly a decade later to haunt Hillary Clinton during her 2016 Democratic primary.
One of the law’s leading critics, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has emerged as a top Democratic presidential contender herself. So has Sen. Bernie Sanders, who likewise taps into the populist, anti-Wall Street energy in the party’s grass roots.
Biden could argue that his views evolved over time—that as a senator, his legislative record reflected the need to represent the financial services companies that provide so many jobs in his home state of Delaware. But that isn’t likely to be convincing to progressives. Clinton tried a variant of that when she was accused of being too cozy with Wall Street—“I represented Wall Street as a senator from New York,” she said in one Democratic debate—but it did little to insulate her from Sanders’ persistent criticism.
And Biden’s competition wouldn’t be a lone independent socialist. The Democratic field is expected to be historically large and is likely to feature more than a few candidates with nearly pristine records on the issues that animate the party’s foot soldiers.
The 1994 crime bill is another ticking time bomb from Biden’s past. As Obama’s vice president and a key member of an administration that sought to reorient criminal justice policy, Biden was never truly called to account for his leading role in passing a Clinton administration measure that many in the party believe exacerbated an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately affects racial minorities.
But there’s no dodging it in the next Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton was confronted on the 2016 campaign trail by Black Lives Matter activists merely for advocating the crime bill’s passage as first lady. Biden, meanwhile, has proudly referred to it as “the 1994 Biden crime bill.”
He still doesn’t fully comprehend its radioactivity. While Biden has pointed to provisions of the bill that have troubled him, as late as 2016 he was still defending it and insisting that he was “not at all” ashamed of the legislation.
There are other issues in Biden’s portfolio that would prove problematic with influential factions within the current Democratic Party—among them his vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq and his history on abortion rights.
By the end of his Senate career, Biden was a staunch defender of reproductive rights, but there’s still a collection of votes and quotes over the years that will raise questions about his reliability. Consider the discomfort surrounding Tim Kaine in the run-up to his selection as Clinton’s running mate in 2016. Despite a perfect record on abortion rights while in the Senate, Kaine’s personal opposition to abortion and a checkered record on the issue as Virginia governor left many liberals uneasy with the prospect of him on the ticket. It’s not clear that he could have made the cut were the presidential nominee someone other than Clinton, whose commitment to reproductive freedom was never in doubt.
None of this is to deny there is a solid case to be made for a Biden candidacy. He begins with a deep reservoir of goodwill. His retail politicking skills are undeniable, and his qualifications for the White House are unrivaled—during a moment when preparation for the job is no small matter. He is, for the most part, a mainstream liberal who even publicly supported gay marriage before Obama did.
No one doubts Biden could take the fight to Trump. In fact, he’s already begun, calling the president “a joke,” telling him to “grow up” and, most recently, musing that he would “beat the hell out of” Trump if they were in high school.
Biden revels in his role as the party’s special emissary to the middle class, and he remains the rare national Democrat who can connect with blue-collar constituencies that have long since left the fold. When the party needs to speak to Green Bay or Youngstown or western Pennsylvania, Uncle Joe is the guy who gets the call.
Yet it’s a sign of the times that the familiar, out-of-power Democratic hand-wringing about how to win back the white working class has quieted. It’s no longer a universally held opinion that it’s necessary or even prudent for the party to chase voters who cast a ballot for Trump. Within some party circles, working-class whites are not viewed as essential to the racially diverse coalition that they believe represents the party’s future.
As a septuagenarian white male, Biden is a highly unlikely prospect to lead that new coalition. It’s a testament to his talents that it’s even subject to debate.
Politico · by Charlie Mahtesian · April 16, 2018