During and after his first candidate debate in Miami on June 27, Joe Biden looked like the classic front-runner losing altitude. He was on the receiving end of the event’s big moment, Kamala Harris’s direct challenge to his dubious record on school desegregation back in the day (when she was a schoolgirl and he was an anti-busing crusader). And as I noted at the time, his performance exposed multiple vulnerabilities:
[I]t’s not so much how poorly he did in the first round of debates as how he did poorly that should alarm his camp. He brought three basic vulnerabilities into this phase of the 2020 campaign: (1) his age (which most of his supporters may not really comprehend) and the associated impression that he’s not up to the job and perhaps is just living in the past; (2) his possible complacency as the early front-runner; and (3) his heavy dependence on African-American voters for his current lead, and his clear vulnerability on his record on racially sensitive issues. All of these vulnerabilities were exposed in the Miami debate, and his rivals along with Biden critics in the activist community and the news media may now smell blood in the water in ways that could compound the damage.
In the past week, however, Biden began to address two of these vulnerabilities (there’s not much he can do about his age). He unveiled a comprehensive criminal-justice-reform proposal clearly aimed at reversing the substantive and political legacy of the 1994 crime bill for which Biden (as chief sponsor) has been regularly criticized for by foes of mass incarceration (and, cynically and opportunistically, by President Trump). He was able to tout this new position in an appearance at an NAACP convention in Detroit on Wednesday where African-American rival Cory Booker was clearly prepared to hammer him over the ’94 legislation. Booker still complained that Biden’s shift was too little and too late. But the former vice-president took some of the sting out of this issue by addressing it in a highly visible way.
Biden has also begun to look a lot less complacent, too, as reflected in his response to Booker’s criticism, which showed a new willingness to fight back and even to pick fights. Chelsea Janes and Dave Weigel noted this as a new departure:
After Biden left the stage [at the NAACP event], he responded emphatically to Booker’s second day of criticism by trying to turn attention to his tenure as mayor of the troubled city of Newark, before he became a senator …
“His police department was stopping and frisking people, mostly African American men,” he said, leading the Obama administration to intercede. “We took action against them; the Justice Department took action against them, held the police department accountable.”
The no-longer-so-sleepy Joe Biden also launched a sly little twofer of an attack on Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders concerning their varied presentations of Medicare for All:
Without using her name, Biden also snuck in a dig at Harris’s support of Medicare for All, which she says would eliminate the need for private insurance beyond supplemental coverage. Asked about his approach to the next debate, Biden brought up health care as a subject on which he will be ready to spar.
“I have some people saying, ‘No, I’m not going to do away with Obamacare. We can still have supplemental insurance,’” Biden said. He contrasted Harris’s insistence that she would pay for the enormously expensive program with a tax hike on the wealthy and Wall Street, whereas the measure’s author, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said he will raise taxes on the middle class.
“Bernie’s been honest; he’s going to raise taxes on middle class,” said Biden, whose health-care plan would expand Obamacare and create a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers.
You get the sense this more combative Joe Biden will be on display in the July 31 second-round candidate debate (also in Detroit), in which he will share the stage with Harris and Booker (plus several desperate low-polling and left-leaning candidates who could try to go after him to gain visibility). And indeed, he could even address his age problem by looking less tentative and avoiding those lapses in speech and timing that in the first debate gave the impression he had lost a step or two.
A good performance in Detroit would help Biden regain his mojo as a justifiable front-runner, not just a familiar face riding high on name ID and his association with Barack Obama until things get tough and the balloon deflates. Although he is no longer positioned to serve as a sort of non-ideological unity candidate his party might turn to as an alternative to brawling factional options, he still has formidable assets. As Nate Silver points out, Biden has regained some of the ground in polling of Democratic candidates that he lost in the wake of the Miami debate (even as Kamala Harris has lost some of her debate “bounce”). While post-Miami polling showed Biden losing some of his African-American support to Harris and others, he’s still running better among black than white voters, and well ahead of all his rivals. He’s still in the lead (according to RealClearPolitics averages) in all the early caucus/primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina), and also in California and Texas, the big states that vote just after South Carolina. His favorability ratings among Democrats (73-19 in the latest Morning Consult tracking poll) are still tops in the field.
And while no one should place too much stock in general-election head-to-head polls, electability-obsessed Democrats probably will anyway. Even as he hit a rough patch in his nomination campaign, Biden continues to perform significantly better against Trump in trial heats than his rivals. Again using RealClearPolitics averages, Biden is running 8.5 percent ahead of Trump in national surveys, while Sanders leads the incumbent by an average of 4.8 percent; Warren by 2.5 percent; and Harris by 2.0 percent. The perception that Biden is a particularly strong candidate for the Rust Belt states where Trump did so well in 2016 is certainly strengthened by polls like the new Quinnipiac findings from Ohio showing Trump leading or tied with all the Democratic candidates — except for Biden, who leads Trump by eight points.
So if Joe is less sloppy in the next debate and can continue to maintain his strength among the African-American voters who are so crucial to Harris and Booker, while burnishing his electability credentials, he could go into the voting phase of this contest in pretty good shape. There are obviously dynamics he cannot control, such as the relative strength of candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are drawing from a different segment of the Democratic electorate. And the “baggage” he carries from his Senate record extends well beyond the 1994 crime bill. A really bad Rick Perry–style gaffe in an upcoming debate, moreover, could be disastrous, reminding voters of his age while fanning fears he might bomb against Trump.
Biden’s candidacy, then, is not as formidable as it looked when he announced but not as shaky as it looked just weeks ago. It looks like any sense of complacency he may have once had is gone. And if nothing else, that should revive the fighting instincts he developed over all those decades in politics.