Did Trump Make Biden a Plausible 2020 Candidate?

Former vice president Joe Biden campaigns with Democratic congressional candidate Mikie Sherrill at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., September 5, 2018. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters )
The president has normalized the same weaknesses that always thwarted Delaware Joe’s White House ambitions in the past.

Speaking this week in Montana, former vice president Joe Biden pronounced himself the “most qualified person in the country to be president.” Lest anyone doubt that he is planning on running, he said he is consulting with his family and will make a final decision within the next six to eight weeks.

Thanks to his long résumé, Biden will start the marathon to win the Democratic presidential nomination at the head of a pack of as many as 20 candidates. In the first two post-midterm polls of Democrats —a Reuters/Ipsos poll in which he received 29 percent support and a Harvard CAPS-Harris poll in which he received 27 percent support — Biden was way ahead of his possible rivals. The runner up in both surveys was Senator Bernie Sanders, who received 22 percent in the former poll and 16 percent in the latter. The rest of the pack was far behind in both.

The conceit of Biden’s candidacy is not so much experience — 36 years in the Senate, eight more as vice president — as an ability to appeal to parts of Trump’s base. Biden is one of the few Democrats with credibility among the white working-class voters who abandoned the Democrats to elect Trump in 2016. Like Trump’s, his predilection for bluster endears him to these voters, even as it horrifies high-minded coastal elites.

Also like Trump, Biden has a famously loose relationship with the truth. When asked in Montana about the accusations of law-school plagiarism that helped derail his 1988 bid for the presidency, he said, “It all came out in the wash — I never did plagiarize, I never did — and it all was proven that that never happened.”

That, of course, was a brazen lie. Biden even admitted to his guilt at the time. And even setting aside that particular incidence of plagiarism, the sum of his conduct in 1988 speaks for itself. He embarrassed himself over and over again during that campaign. He was found to have blatantly stolen the stump speech of another politician, British Labour-party leader Neil Kinnock, and to have lifted passages from speeches by JFK, RFK, and Hubert Humphrey. He was also found to have lied about his college grades and the degrees he had earned while campaigning.

The accumulation of exaggerations, fibs, and outright lies was too much to sustain his candidacy back then. But 31 years later, two years into the Trump presidency, the political landscape looks much different. Americans — or at least the rock solid 35–45 percent of the electorate that supports President Trump — don’t seem to care that their standard-bearer isn’t always faithful to the truth so long as he is skewering the people that they despise. While Democrats claim to abhor Trump for his willingness to play fast and loose with the truth, Biden has been using the same sort of tactics for decades — who could forget the August 2012 speech to an African-American audience in which he claimed that then-presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would “put you all back in chains”? — and he is currently their 2020 front-runner.

Indeed, as much as Biden might argue that his candidacy is predicated on an ability to speak to Trump-friendly constituencies that left-wing candidates such as Sanders, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and others can’t, it’s his Trumpian bluster that makes him plausible. Although he doesn’t use Twitter as effectively as the president, he is the only likely Democratic contender who is capable of competing with the president when it comes to wild, exaggerated accusations and rhetorical excess.

Prior to Trump’s entry into politics, even many Democrats dismissed Biden as too big a gasbag to take seriously as a presidential contender. But Trump has made being a barroom blowhard a viable political identity, and it is Biden who is most poised to benefit. If, two years from now, he is finally able to capture the prize he’s been seeking most of his adult life, he’ll owe the man he defeats in the process a huge debt of gratitude.

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