The wait may soon be over. This week, former vice president Joe Biden told a cheering crowd of unionized firefighters that he may soon put their enthusiasm for him to use. It’s as close as Biden has come to a definite hint that he has decided to run for president, and the prospect has centrist Democrats salivating.
Biden leads in all the early polls of declared and potential Democratic presidential candidates. Though that may be primarily a function of name recognition, it’s also a reflection of the fact that he is one of the few who can be considered a moderate in a field of contenders that tilts heavily to the left. With so many Democratic candidates competing for the affection of left-wing voters, running more or less alone in the middle lane ought to give him a reasonable chance of victory. But recent events have helped illustrate just how much the party has shifted away from the middle in the last four years.
The basic argument for Biden’s candidacy is that he, alone among the Democratic contenders, can win back the white working-class voters who abandoned Clinton in 2016, and in so doing defeat Trump. That may very well be true, but he has to secure the party’s nomination first. And as the growing attacks on him from liberals indicate, the same centrist bona fides that make him an attractive general-election candidate will hurt him in the primaries.
As House speaker Nancy Pelosi has learned in recent weeks, Democratic officeholders have started to reflect the mindset of the party’s left-wing base rather than that of the establishment that handed the nomination to Clinton in 2016. Biden’s problem is that anger at Trump has seemingly discredited the entire idea of moderation among the progressive grassroots. And after 47 years in politics, the self-admitted “gaffe machine” has given his Democratic critics plenty of ammunition.
During last fall’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Biden was reminded that the Left hadn’t forgiven him for his role as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the battle over Clarence Thomas’s confirmation in 1991. Thomas was taking aim at Biden, then a Delaware senator, when he famously denounced the proceedings as a “high-tech lynching,” and Biden did vote against him. But many on the left still blame Biden for the rough questioning of Thomas’s accuser, Anita Hill, during the hearings, and have come to see him as a kind of #MeToo villain.
It’s not just the specter of Anita Hill haunting Biden, either. He’s also blamed as one of the people most responsible for the 1994 crime bill. At the time, the legislation had bipartisan support and reflected the priorities of President Bill Clinton in addressing the crack epidemic and a surge in violent crime. But today it’s blamed for an era of racially unequal mass incarceration. In the same vein, Biden’s left-wing critics, including New York Times op-ed columnist Jamelle Bouie, have begun to zero in on his opposition to the court-ordered busing of public-school students in the 1970s, a flashpoint in the racial politics of the time.
Calling any politician to account for what he said 45 years ago may seem a little unfair. No one — not even the most strident ideologue — lasts long in politics without changing his mind and public stances on issues over time. But Biden’s opposition to busing matters to the hard left, because it exploited the same resentment of elites that fueled Trump’s election. Though his condemnation of Biden as yet another advocate of “Trumpism” seems hyperbolic, Bouie is right when he says that the former vice president’s ability to tap into voters’ anger about busing was in a very real sense “Trumpist.”
It is true that white working-class voters were a key engine of Democratic success for much of the 20th century, from Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy to Bill Clinton. Biden’s career is in many ways a monument to that symbiotic relationship, but many of the Democrats enthralled by firebrands like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez will see it as a handicap, one the many candidates to his left will no doubt eagerly exploit. Though Biden may yet win the nomination even so, he’s unlikely to emerge from the primaries unscathed.