Are Biden’s Apologies Killing His Electability Argument?

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks with supporters in Marshalltown, Iowa, July 4, 2019. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
The former vice president is very sorry about segregationists, the crime bill, Anita Hill, and getting beaten up by his rivals.

Once again, former vice president Joe Biden is very, very sorry.

Biden seems to have spent much of the time since he declared his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination apologizing. He has tried to make amends for his habit of touching women in ways that made many of them uncomfortable. He’s done countless mea culpas for his role in questioning Anita Hill. He’s apologized for his role in shepherding the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act to passage. And lately he’s been making the rounds among African-American leaders, accounting for his comments that some Senate segregationists were not only civil but people with whom more-enlightened people like himself could do business.

That last apology is perhaps the most significant. Biden’s initial reaction to being beaten up by Cory Booker over his cordial relations with such senators was to point out indignantly that that is how democracy works. But after being ambushed by Kamala Harris during the first round of Democratic presidential debates over his opposition to forced busing in the 1970s, Biden folded. Rather than defend what were, by any reasonable standard, unexceptionable remarks, the Democratic front-runner said that he was “wrong” to say it, expressed “regret,” and said he was sorry for the “pain” he had caused to those who think being cordial to political opponents nearly a half-century ago is an intolerable offense.

Many moderate and establishment Democrats are holding onto the belief that Biden’s electability — not only does he remain ahead in all of the polls of Democratic presidential candidates, but he is also the only one who has a statistically significant lead over Donald Trump — is the only thing that matters about his candidacy.

But Biden’s recent slippage in both the polls and public perception has undermined the idea that he is the inevitable nominee, and his unwillingness to ignore or refute criticisms from the left may also damage his electability. If Biden can’t stand up to attacks from the left from Democratic rivals, how will he possibly withstand the inevitable avalanche of abuse he’s likely to receive from Trump in a general-election campaign? Just as important, if he eventually feels obliged to kowtow to the retrospective leftist critique of his long political career, in what sense can he still be said to represent the views of the working-class Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016?

Biden and his team now realize that what some were calling a “Rose Garden” strategy, according to which he sought to transcend intraparty rivalries, isn’t working and that he needs to be more aggressive. But they also still seem to think that apologizing for whatever it is the Left is needling him about is the only way to survive primaries in which the party’s liberal-activist base will be decisive.

The good news for Biden is that he seems to be maintaining strong support among African-American voters. That’s particularly true in South Carolina, an early-primary state where the black community will largely decide victory.

Biden is benefitting from the abiding affection African Americans have for his former boss, President Barack Obama. That’s important for a Biden campaign that is rolling in money, 100 percent name recognition, and a sense of inevitability.

But there are two problems facing Biden that cast a shadow on the optimism felt by his supporters.

The first is that although he emerged from his awful performance in the first debates holding a lead in all the polls, Biden has yet to go more than a week or two without some negative story or gaffe putting him on his heels. Biden’s history as a national candidate in the past was one largely characterized by mistakes, and the pattern has repeated itself in his latest try for the presidency. Another bad debate or forced apology could for the first time cause him to fall behind a major rival or two in the polls.

The other problem facing Biden: the rules the Democrats have set for the primaries.

The huge field of contenders — most of whom have no real chance of winning the nomination — would seem to give the front-runner an advantage. But the new rules that apportion delegates proportionately will preclude Biden from rolling up delegate totals that could end the contest before it really begins, as Donald Trump did among Republicans in 2016 without winning a majority in any of the early states.

Biden needs to wrap up the nomination early. Though he may be the choice of the same establishment that imposed Hillary Clinton on the Democrats in 2016, their ability to pull off the same kind of trick in a party that leans more to the left than before is questionable. The resentment of the activist wing of the party that looks to figures such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for inspiration against Biden should not be underestimated. That will make it harder for him to sweep aside the remaining left-wing competitors even after the field is winnowed down.

For now, Biden’s apologies and the memory of his loyalty to Obama have allowed him to stay atop the polls. But as the mistakes and the apologies add up, the easy path to the nomination he envisioned when he declared his candidacy might be vanishing.