While reading a Politico piece on Joe Biden’s plans for entry into the 2020 presidential contest I felt a strong sense of déjà vu. Passages like this felt familiar:
[T]he former vice president’s team is planning to solidify his front-runner status with a wave of high-profile organizing, fundraising and endorsement news when he enters the race …
Biden’s team sees an opportunity to generate something he hasn’t yet had this year with a strong entrance: forward momentum, created by showing Biden has what it takes to compete in a historically large primary field before going toe-to-toe with President Donald Trump …
“They’re going to launch strategically all over the country,” an operative with knowledge of Biden’s strategy said. “They’ll have people in place in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and roll out endorsements from elected officials all over the country, so when they come out they can have this show of force.”
Then it all came back to me: A “show of force” launch was the beginning of a long trail down to oblivion for another early front-runner facing a large field of rivals: 2016 Republican candidate Jeb Bush, whose initial strategy was described by the selfsame Politico as “shock and awe”:
Their strategy was to publicly downplay his interest in the race and avoid media attention, while quietly laying the groundwork for a launch that would catch much of Washington — and many of his potential rivals — flat-footed. While the much of the political world focused on Chris Christie, Rand Paul and even Bush’s fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, Bush was quietly collecting political chits, developing a cohesive platform, and preparing for a fundraising blitz intended to grab the front-runner’s chair, scare potential competitors like Mitt Romney and Christie, and put Bush on such a firm financial footing that he could devote more time to retail politics when it really counted.
Political pros were wowed by Jeb’s combination of money, endorsements, and staff. He seemed to embody the party Establishment that we had been reliably told actually controlled nominations, regardless of the noisy pretensions of ideologues, demagogues, and activists. It made sense, but it failed spectacularly, as Bush’s supposed strategic genius Mike Murphy later admitted:
“Our theory was to dominate the establishment lane into the actual voting primaries,” Mike Murphy, a veteran G.O.P. operative who ran Bush’s Super PAC, Right to Rise, told the Washington Post. “That was the strategy, and it did not work. I think it was the right strategy for Jeb. The problem was, there was a huge anti-establishment wave. The establishment lane was smaller than we thought it would be. The marketplace was looking for something different.”
Could Biden be making the same mistake in trying to consolidate his position as the best-known, “safest” candidate in a field full of brighter and shinier objects?
It’s certainly a risk the former veep and his people should weigh and then minimize. Like Jeb Bush, Biden has a record of identification with past party Establishment orthodoxies that have come into considerable disrepute with his own party’s base. For Bush it was comprehensive immigration reform, NAFTA, and the Iraq War; for Biden it’s triangulating opposition to “busing,” harsh mandatory-minimum legislation, coziness with the financial sector — and yes, the Iraq War too. The Democrat may not be “low energy” like Bush, but he’s got his own character-based Achilles’ heel in his “handsiness,” and a potential age problem as well.
The Bush–Biden comparisons don’t always match up. Jeb was never very popular among the Republican rank and file. According to Gallup his favorability ratio with Republican voters was a decent but not dazzling 54/27 in July of 2015. Today, Morning Consult shows Biden with a much stronger 75/14. Bush also wasn’t as strong in horse-race polls as early on as Biden is today, though a March 2015 ABC/WaPo poll did show him with a solid lead over the rest of the huge field with 21 percent.
It’s also unclear if anyone in the 2020 Democratic field can serve as a Biden nemesis as effectively as Trump did in exposing every Bush vulnerability in 2016.
But if progressive media and Biden’s rivals do steadily work at increasing “base” voter awareness of Uncle Joe’s personal and ideological weaknesses, he, too, could lost altitude. By the time voters started voting in 2016, Bush’s favorability ration among Republicans was actually underwater, and suddenly all of his money and endorsements became all but worthless.
One asset Biden does have that Bush lacked is a partywide obsession with candidate “electability” that could make him acceptable to voters and activists who might normally turn elsewhere.
But the meta-problem for Biden that the Bush precedent raises is that as time goes on he will simply look like a has-been from an increasingly irrelevant past era of American politics — one that has been revolutionized by Jeb’s vanquisher, Donald Trump. If that happens to Biden, his presumed “electability” advantage could fly out the window quickly.
He might be smart to place less emphasis on wowing Beltway observers with his money and endorsements, and more on mixing things up with unexpected and interesting policy proposals and campaign rhetoric that makes him part of the Democratic Party’s future rather than its past. Jeb Bush should offer Biden a constant cautionary tale.