One of the bits of conventional wisdom being circulated about Joe Biden’s entry into the 20-candidate Democratic presidential field is that Biden is the 2020 equivalent of Jeb Bush. The implication is that Biden will follow the same trajectory as Bush, who started with the most money, endorsements, and name recognition in the 2016 Republican field, collapsed in the polls by the end of the summer of 2015, and dropped out of the race after getting 3 percent of the vote in Iowa, 11 percent in New Hampshire, and 8 percent in South Carolina.
Except Joe Biden is not Jeb Bush.
True, Biden’s campaign has some important parallels to Jeb’s. Like Jeb, Biden enters the race as the presumptive front-runner, a favorite of the party establishment and the wealthy donor class. Like Jeb, he seems like the answer to a question nobody among the party’s opinion leaders and activists is asking. Like Jeb, he may be rusty after years off the campaign trail. Like Jeb, he is a creature of his party’s past in ways that put him badly out of step with the energy of its activist grassroots. These factors may well hobble Biden as a candidate. But there are five important ways in which Biden 2020 is different from Jeb 2016.
First, Biden is not from a political dynasty. Americans have elected a great many members of political dynasties to high office, but there remains a lingering skepticism about such “legacy” candidates. Dynastic concerns were a drag on Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016 and weighed heavily on Jeb Bush, who bore the accumulated burden of critics of his father and older brother along with a general sense of Bush fatigue. By contrast, even when he’s telling his own life story rather than Neil Kinnock’s, Biden is a real, live up-from-the-bootstraps guy; he may be running on Barack Obama’s record, but he got where he is without the aid of family name or connections.
Second, speaking of Obama, a major reason why Jeb was unsuccessful in 2016 was that George W. Bush’s presidency remained unpopular with a lot of Republican voters unhappy over Iraq, Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis, immigration policy, and the overall decline of Republican fortunes. Obama, by contrast, remains overwhelmingly popular with Democratic primary voters, including those Bernie Sanders supporters who want the party to take a significantly different direction going forward. Biden may not be able to restore the Obama political coalition, but his connection to Obama remains an asset upon which he will lean heavily.
Third, Jeb Bush was very much a creature of the Republican donor class who had to reach outside that world to try to appeal to blue-collar voters. He was wonkish, low-key, and born to wealth. He worked at Lehman Brothers in the run-up to 2008, and built much of his platform around the kinds of policies that appeal to business owners and investors. All of that conspired to make him easy pickings for Donald Trump’s blustery populism. In fact, his campaign went so poorly that it is hard to imagine he’d have won the nomination even without Trump’s presence in the field. Joe Biden has his own ties to industries long disliked by Democratic populists (Delaware-based banks and credit-card companies, big oil companies), but his political identity for decades has been that of an old-style union-hall Democrat. His backslapping, glad-handing, emotional-Irishman persona and his Trumpian propensity for gaffes makes him a natural populist. In style if not in substance, he is as much at home with working-class voters as anyone in the Democratic field, an old-school, mom-and-apple-pie, law-and-order patriarch. However much it may turn off progressive pundits and activists, this ethos still maintains political potency, as Trump himself showed in 2016.
Fourth, Jeb was an easy target on the debate stage, and Biden is not. Jeb came off as overly earnest, plodding, and easily bullied, with his self-deprecating humor, slouching, and sitcom-dad shrugs. Biden, as we have seen in his past debates and Senate hearings, is utterly shameless, willing to shout over his opponents and if anything too prone to double down when cornered. He may have difficulty navigating today’s “woke” landscape, as his recent ham-handed apologies for a number of his past stances attest. He may end up alienating women if he’s as rude to one of the many female candidates onstage as he was to Paul Ryan in their 2012 vice presidential debates (though his comparatively toned-down demeanor against Sarah Palin suggests he’s capable of threading that needle). But he won’t be a doormat.
Fifth, unlike Jeb, who was weakened by the presence of his one-time protege Marco Rubio in the field, Biden has no immediate competitor in his primary “lane.” One of the major dynamics of the 2016 Republican primary was the fact that Jeb and Rubio had served together as close allies in the same state, where they shared many supporters and donors. As a result, each recognized that the other was a mortal threat. Jeb’s campaign and his outside backers spent tens of millions of dollars attacking Rubio that could have been spent attacking Trump, and some of Jeb’s debate-stage tussles with the younger, nimbler Rubio further hurt his chances. While there may be other Democrats trying to edge their way into Biden’s lane, nobody else starts out there, which will help him.
I’m still inclined to regard other candidates, like Kamala Harris and possibly Pete Buttigieg, as having better odds to win the nomination than Biden. And Biden has distinct baggage (including his advanced age) that could bring him down as hard and as early as Jeb fell. But expecting him to fail as spectacularly as Jeb ignores the important ways in which he is a different animal.
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