When Joe Biden announced last month, he became the instant Democratic front-runner, based on his stature and huge name ID. But is he a front-runner like Walter Mondale, another former vice president, who overcame skepticism and won the Democratic nomination in 1984? Or is he an Edmund Muskie, who was the clear Democratic front-runner in 1972 but then was crushed by outsider George McGovern?
We’re more than six months away from the Iowa caucuses, and anything can happen. But there are already signs that Biden’s previous shortcomings as a candidate are returning. And the public is noticing.
Last December, almost a third of likely Iowa caucus voters wanted Biden to be the 2020 nominee. Now, a new Des Moines Register poll has him leading Vermont senator Bernie Sanders by only 24 percent to 16 percent. Less than three in ten of Biden’s supporters say they’re extremely enthusiastic about his candidacy, a significantly lower enthusiasm level than that expressed by supporters of Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg — his main rivals in Iowa.
And the Register poll was taken before Biden’s chaotic shift in position last week on the Hyde amendment, which bans the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Biden, a staunch Catholic, had supported the Hyde amendment for more than three decades, but within 48 hours of being attacked for his stance by his opponents, he flip-flopped on the issue.
In December, 82 percent of Iowa Democratic voters said they saw Biden favorably; this month, that number is down to 72 percent of Democratic voters, a ten-point drop. His unfavorable ratings are up nine points.
Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, says that Biden will be faced with the need to evolve on other issues as he navigates a Democratic-party activist base that is far more progressive than when Biden served as Barack Obama’s vice president. “Things are changing, and things have changed, and he’s going to be hit with that reality in a new way now that he’s a candidate again,” she told The Atlantic.
Now that Biden has caved to the left of his party on such a clear principle as federal funding of abortion, the pressure on him to keep going will ratchet up. David Axelrod, the chief strategist behind Obama’s 2008 victory, told CNN that the furor over Biden’s flip-flop on the Hyde amendment “raises questions about his own performance and his own steadiness and his campaign’s performance.”
Then Axelrod articulated publicly what many Democrats are worrying about privately: that Biden may not be a candidate who can be counted on to avoid acting impulsively, to avoid gaffes such as excessive touching or blurting out distracting comments. As Axelrod puts it:
He would be 78 when he became president and that would be eight years older than the oldest president who has ever taken office, which is Donald Trump. . . .This is one reason I think they’ve kept a relatively leisurely pace on the campaign trail and away from some of the major events and away from reporters, frankly, because they are worried about things just such as the one we have just seen.
Other consultants worry that Biden’s staff is taking credit for steering their candidate in one direction or another. Mike Murphy, the campaign strategist for John McCain in 2008 and Jeb Bush in 2016, says it’s troublesome that Biden’s campaign apparently has “a culture where the staff are the heroes and have no qualms about boasting about it to media.”
Biden’s staff was also at the heart of an unforced error in his climate-change policy. Last month, an “informal adviser” to Biden’s campaign leaked to reporters that Biden would be taking a “middle ground” position on climate-change regulation. Environmentalists quickly uncovered that the leaker was Heather Zichal, a former board member of a Texas-based liquified-natural-gas company. She joined the company’s board in 2014 after leaving the Obama White House and earned nearly $1.1 million in compensation and stock before she left the board four years later.
This embarrassment panicked Biden staffers into reversing gears, and last week they embraced a much more liberal climate policy than they’d been contemplating. In a Washington Post column, Henry Olsen called it “the best campaign gift President Trump could have hoped for.” The plan “promises to make the United States a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050,” Olsen wrote. “I’m sure Republican analysts are already calculating how many jobs will be lost in key industries under Biden’s plan.”
And that wasn’t the only problem with the rollout of the Biden climate policy. John King of CNN reported that the Biden campaign’s plan “copied language directly from multiple liberal activist groups and a news site” without any citation. King called the lapse “lazy” and “arrogant,” while noting that it was allegations of plagiarism that derailed Biden’s 1988 presidential bid and forced him to withdraw from that race. “This is a leadership and competence issue,” King told viewers.
Democratic strategists also know that Biden has other vulnerabilities that, while they may not be brought up by his party rivals, will certainly be used by Republicans should he be the Democratic nominee.
Peter Schweizer, president of the Government Accountability Institute, has published extensive documentation that Biden’s son, Hunter, forged lucrative financial relationships with the state-owned Bank of China and Ukrainian energy firm Burisma Holdings after his father visited both countries as vice president.
“Why were these foreign governments and these foreign corrupt oligarchs stuffing money into Hunter Biden’s pocket?” Schweizer asked in a recent Sirius radio interview. “That’s why I have called for Hunter Biden to testify before a Senate committee.” A leading Democrat I spoke with is convinced that Biden’s ability to confront Trump over his alleged ties to Russia would be blunted by attacks on Biden’s “friends and family” foreign policy.
Despite all of the internal Democratic misgivings about Biden, he can still barrel through to the nomination in a highly divided field. He has many party strategists convinced that he’s the only Democrat who can win back blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Trump’s ability to win those states was the key to his winning the White House in 2016.
But Biden’s strength with blue-collar voters isn’t preordained if he runs an erratic campaign full of flip-flops, lapses, and odd behavior. “Voters have come to expect Trump breaks the norms of politics and they have baked that into their assumptions about him,” a former Democratic senator who served with Biden told me. “But Biden’s pitch is he’s more stable and dependable than Trump. But what if the contrast in the end just isn’t that dramatic?”