vision 2020

Has Joe Biden Lost His Ability to Unite Democrats?

Biden’s definitely running, but not as some sort of consensus favorite. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

By this time next week this will be official: Joe Biden is making his third race for the presidency (earlier runs were in 1988 and 2008). In conventional terms, he begins his campaign as the front-runner, or at worst the co-front-runner with fellow mid-septuagenarian Bernie Sanders. He has led in 36 of the 37 polls included in RealClearPolitics’ compilation of 2020 Democratic-nomination-contest surveys. He also leads in all the publicly available polls of Iowa, and even leads in Kamala Harris’s California.

But the big question haunting his candidacy now is whether he’s lost a precious political resource he had not so very long ago: the ability to unite his party across ideological and demographic lines. Precisely because of his age and long party service, concluding with his two terms as vice-president under the very popular (among Democratic voters, anyway) Barack Obama, Biden went into the cycle as a sort of intraparty Coalition of National Salvation option who could serve as a bridge between the Clinton-Obama era of Democratic politics and the presumably more progressive future. Indeed, talk in Biden’s camp about a possible one-term presidency seemed to promote this sense that Uncle Joe wouldn’t undermine the winds of change in the party but was instead an emergency candidate for the emergency conditions of the Trump era.

After months of constant reminders, however, of Biden’s long history of association with some of the less defensible political and policy trends of the Democratic Party of the past — particularly those in poor repute among those representing the minority and feminist constituencies that are now central to the party’s activist and rank-and-file base alike — he’s looking less like a revered senior figure and more like the north end of a southbound dinosaur. The fact that his reputation for insensitivity has been reinforced by allegations of much more recent inappropriate behavior toward women has given doubts about Biden a more urgent currency.

But at this stage, that’s mostly from the perception of progressive elites, not the people who will vote in next year’s caucuses and primaries. Biden’s standing in the horse-race polls has remained steady during the winter and spring of activist/media discontent with the former veep. Morning Consult’s tracking poll of Democrats currently gives him a sparkling approval ratio of 75/15. Perhaps even more significantly, the same poll shows him as the top second-place choice of those whose favorite is Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, or Bernie Sanders. Based on that data, he looks like a fine potential unity candidate.

But it’s hard to know if that will last, particularly if and when his rivals start throwing some of the punches at him that have largely been confined to media elites and political Twitter so far. Imagine a sound-bite version of this argument from my colleague Rebecca Traister in the voice of a candidate during a debate or in a TV ad:

[S]o much of what is terrifying and dangerous about this time — the Trump administration, the ever more aggressive erosion of voting and reproductive rights, the crisis in criminal justice and yawning economic chasm between the rich and everyone else — are in fact problems that can in part be laid at the feet of Joe Biden himself, and the guys we’ve regularly been assured are Democrats’ only answer.

Biden’s standing as a unity candidate could also be undermined by his own efforts if he finds it necessary down the road to distinguish himself from more progressive candidates as representing a moderate tradition. And even if chooses instead to accommodate himself to a more self-consciously progressive electorate than the one that found him lacking in 1988 and 2008, he could be in danger of falling between stools, as Ross Douthat recently observed:

[It is] easy to imagine Biden running a campaign that ends up feeling like an apology tour, in which he talks endlessly about how much he has learned and grown since the days when he was a tough-on-crime Democrat who opposed school busing and sometimes voted for late-term abortion limits. Some of the ideas apparently bandied about by his aides — a one-term pledge! Stacey Abrams as a running mate! — fit with this strategy, in which the goal would be to establish Biden as a temporary bridge to a woker future, a candidate ready to put his moderate past behind him and serve the new liberal consensus.

Douthat concludes that this “kind of Biden campaign would probably lose …I know this is harsh — as badly as Jeb Bush did.” You don’t have to share that opinion to wonder if Biden can pull off the requisite balancing act as his past record becomes a big deal to actual voters.

It’s also possible that Biden could restore his “unity candidate” persona not via any particular accommodation with his past or his party’s future, but by clearly establishing himself as the most — better yet, the only — electable opponent for Donald Trump.

The feasibility of an all-electability rationale for Biden may depend on your assessment of the much-discussed hypothesis that this native of Scranton has a unique ability to appeal to white working-class swing voters in the very Rust Belt states that Barack Obama won and Hillary Clinton lost. It’s very early for general-election trial heats to have any significance, and partisan polarization may eventually erase any differences among Democrats, but at present, Biden is doing better than any other Democrat when matched against the incumbent. If, as I’ve argued may well happen, Trump’s looking strong enough to produce a full-scale electability panic among Democrats next year, this is an advantage, if it holds, that would cover a lot of Biden’s perceived sins. He may well need it.

Has Joe Biden Lost His Ability to Unite Democrats?