Ben: Your cover story on Joe Biden’s odd campaign details many of his shortcomings — his unsteady debates, his serious fundraising struggles, his lack of unifying policy vision. But it also makes clear how personal and deep a connection his fans feel to him, especially those who have experienced personal tragedy, which the former vice-president is, sadly, well versed in. For months, pundits have speculated Biden was on the brink of collapsing in the polls, and this has continued not to happen. His connection to President Obama is often cited as a reason for his staying power. Does that underrate his actual skills as a retail politician?
Olivia: Well, his own polling numbers have remained rather consistent throughout the year, but his margin over Elizabeth Warren has gotten smaller and smaller as she has seen her own numbers rise.
Ben: Right. And he’s not doing as well as he was in Iowa or New Hampshire. But he’s still at or near the top of many polls when a lot of people thought he’d have faded by now.
Olivia: So we saw this month for the first time Warren eclipse Biden in the RCP average — albeit only for one day and only by 0.2 percent. But yeah, I think there’s a lot of denial about the reality of the Democratic electorate, which is more moderate and older than the loudest voices on Twitter. And those loud voices have extraordinary influence over our thinking in the media and over the tone of the coverage. And some of those voices are members of the media themselves. And what you don’t really have is much patience for or room for voices from people who look and sound like Biden’s voters in this space. So I think maybe it’s hard to keep things in perspective.
Ben: But do you think there’s more to the connection between Biden and his voters than “he’s moderate” and “he was Obama’s vice-president”? There’s a notion that the people who like him just do so out of a kind of default setting, not because they actually feel that fondly toward him.
Olivia: It’s hard to say. When you see people share emotional stories with him or hug him or stare into his eyes — that doesn’t seem like they’re doing it because they’re so jazzed to be in the presence of someone they think is “electable.” At the same time, I think people get excited to meet a celebrity. They also get excited to meet somebody close to Barack Obama.
Ben: There’s also a fairly widespread notion that if Biden had run four years ago, he would have had a good chance to win the primary and then would have wiped the floor with Trump. He is certainly showing his age more in several ways now, but, as you write, it’s not as if his previous presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2004 were great successes. There was a reason Obama preferred him not to run in 2016, after all. Do you think his decline has been that precipitous, or is it just slightly exacerbating stuff that was already there?
Olivia: The latter, I think. I’d also note that his stated public reason for not pursuing the nomination last time around was because he had just lost his son Beau to brain cancer.
Ben: You write of Biden’s team: “For many of these staffers, the campaign feels like it should be a coronation. Joe Biden 2020 isn’t a labor of love or ideology. It’s about the proper order of things. It’s about who’s entitled to what.” I saw at least one Biden ally pushing back on this idea. Are there no senior advisers who genuinely think Biden’s policy vision would be the best for the country moving forward? Or is that just a kind of afterthought?
Olivia: I wouldn’t say there are none. It’s not as though every single senior member of the Biden campaign anonymously spilled their guts to me (though I would love that. Call me!) But certainly, my reporting suggests that the prevailing attitude is what I wrote in the story. And of course, I don’t expect any Biden allies will be publicly confirming the negative aspects of my reporting.
Biden’s initial response to the Ukraine scandal involving his son was a bit halting, not least because he really likes to keep his family separate from politics. But if he wins the nomination, he’ll have to deal with the full fury of Trump and his allies every day. Did you get the sense from your glimpse at the campaign that it’s equipped and ready to handle that kind of thing?
Olivia: So there’s this scene in the story where we’re in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Biden is giving a speech about climate change (under the beating sun in the middle of an 85 degree day. I’m still mad about it). And that was the day after the news of the whistle-blower leaked. So after the event ends, all the press assembles by the door to the building Biden had retreated into, as we normally do, to wait for him to come out so we can ask him questions. And we waited for, I think, an hour and a half, so long that a campaign aide brought out a tray of little cups filled with water so we wouldn’t die. And I’m standing there thinking, Surely, he’s looking forward to stepping out here and going off on Trump. I mean, why wouldn’t he?!
But then he comes out, barges past the press, and steps into his waiting car. That’s not in itself an uncommon occurrence, for Biden or any other candidate to ignore the press, of course. But at that moment, I couldn’t understand the delay in reacting to what seemed like a story that ultimately broke in his favor. What I’ve learned is that Biden is terribly cautious — as funny as that may seem given his reckless speaking style and debate style. And he waits a long time to make any decision. And he is not a very sure person; not these days, anyway, with so much hanging on by a thread. So that’s why you don’t get him calling for impeachment until like three weeks later in New Hampshire at the last second, because he’s never sure quite what to do.
Ben: Sometimes, that really comes off as a strength, as when other candidates immediately line up to take a position that may not be so well-thought-out, and he doesn’t jump into the fray.
Olivia: Totally. But I think it also contributes to the feeling that he’s a little out of it — not quite sharp, not agile.