Magazine February 24, 2020, Issue

Joe Biden’s Last Campaign

(Roman Genn)
As his party races left, the former veep struggles to catch up

Waterloo, Iowa

After trying twice before to win the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, Joe Biden has spent the 2020 primary acting like a man scrambling to catch up with his moment, afraid it may have passed him by. And with good reason.

At campaign events in eastern Iowa the week before the caucuses, Biden focused most of his meandering rhetoric on President Trump and didn’t do anything to rebut — implicitly or explicitly — claims from his Democratic opponents that his candidacy is too backward-looking, too moderate for 2020.

It turns out that Iowa caucus-goers were inclined to agree with the former vice president’s critics. The results from Iowa were incomplete at the time this issue went to press — thanks to the malfunctioning of a new app the Democratic party was relying on to report totals in each precinct — but it was clear that Biden’s campaign had flopped. In one precinct, Iowa’s attorney general was forced to switch his support from Biden to former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg after Biden was disqualified for lack of support.

This outcome isn’t surprising to anyone who witnessed Biden’s efforts to connect with voters in the final days of the campaign in Iowa. On the weekend before Monday’s caucuses, I watched the former vice president give his closing pitch in eastern Iowa, which contains the state’s second-biggest city, Cedar Rapids. In the bustling, mid-sized city — with a pretty riverfront spanned by a handful of old bridges and topped by an old sign for a still-operational Quaker Oats cereal mill — breweries seem to appear around every corner. One I visited was packed with customers at 11:30 a.m., there to taste the latest offerings just half an hour after the doors had opened for the day.

Biden’s events over the course of the week continually drew tiny crowds, and his speeches were increasingly rote, unfocused, and lackluster. On the stump, he sounds depleted of energy, substituting occasional bursts of anger for the enthusiasm his voice lacks. The Saturday before the caucuses, his campaign stops in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo attracted just a few hundred people each, compared with thousands not just for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders but even for his surrogates.

In Cedar Rapids, Biden spoke to a crowd of about 500 supporters in a gymnasium at a local middle school. Up the highway about 60 miles, another couple hundred people gathered around Biden inside the dim, beige pavilion of the National Cattle Congress, with hand-drawn posters plastered on the walls and a marching band of young African-American children cheering for him before he spoke. Next door stood the Hippodrome, a large concert-style venue the vice president couldn’t hope to fill.

In his appeals to voters, Biden has stuck to the “middle lane,” attempting to come across as a trustworthy, experienced moderate even as he looks for areas where he can endorse the progressive policy agenda and win the support of far-left voters. Addressing criticism that he hasn’t moved as far left as many of his competitors, Biden continually reiterates that his approach is the best way to defeat the president.

Despite pressure from other candidates, Biden has avoided endorsing the costly Medicare for All scheme, saying instead that his administration would push for a public option to be added to the Affordable Care Act. “Everyone in this race talks about health care, but I’m the only one who actually led into law a health-care reform called Obamacare,” he said at one event, to delayed and muted applause.

“If you want impressive change on health care, I’ll say it to you plainly: I’m the only one with more than a plan,” Biden continued. “I have a record of having gotten it done.” This is his best defense against progressives who believe he isn’t radical enough for the moment: Biden claims that any politician who promises more than he does simply hasn’t had enough experience to know what is realistic.

At his event in Waterloo, Biden referred to other Democratic proposals as “incredibly good ideas” but insisted that it was wrong not to explain how they’d be financed, a swing at opponents such as Sanders and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have been opaque about the bottom line on their expensive proposals: “The old saying is that talk is cheap. In politics, talk is sometimes very expensive, especially when you don’t tell people how you’re going to pay for what you tell them you’re going to do.”

In keeping with that theme, and although he insists that climate change is “the greatest threat facing our country,” Biden has also refused to sign on to the Green New Deal, which estimates suggest would cost anywhere from $52 trillion to $93 trillion over the next ten years. 

“The one thing we can’t do is end up not being straight with the American people,” he said, in another swipe at others in the Democratic field.“They’ll eat us alive. Tell it straight. Tell the people what it’s going to cost and why it’s important.”

Telling people how much things will cost has never been the most natural way to appeal to voters in presidential politics, and, one assumes, it is even less so in a party where even the notionally moderate candidates are proposing fiscal plans vastly more profligate than those Hillary Clinton offered in 2016.

Despite his defeat in Iowa — which could herald a rapidly deflating campaign, depending on subsequent contests — Biden’s current run has been his most successful yet. This has been the only time that he entered the presidential field and became the immediate front-runner, leading in almost all the national polls until voting began.

Things looked better for Biden in late April of last year when he announced his presidential campaign, well after most major Democratic candidates had already entered the race. Biden’s announcement followed months of speculation about his plans, punctuated by occasional leaks from people close to him who insisted that he had decided to take the leap or settled on staying out. When he finally launched his campaign, it was with a three-minute video that had an obvious subtext: Vote for me, and it’ll be as if Donald Trump had never happened.

“Charlottesville, Va., is home to the author of one of the great documents in human history,” Biden began. “We know it by heart: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.’”

Biden went on to recall, in vivid detail, the white-supremacist march in Charlottesville in August 2017 and the attendant violence, and he hit Trump for the way he responded: Trump “said there were ‘some very fine people on both sides.’ Very fine people on both sides? With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”

“Notably absent here: policy, biography, ideology,” wrote Alexander Burns, national political correspondent for the New York Times, in his analysis of the video. “This is among the broadest and most oratorical announcement videos we’ve seen so far, totally bereft of the line graphs we saw in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s kickoff or the vivid personal biography in Senator Cory Booker’s.”

With this launch, Biden pitched himself as a return to normalcy. Having been Barack Obama’s vice president, he could, unlike any other politician, fashion himself as a nostalgia candidate, a hard reset, an “undo” button for anyone displeased with the current administration. A vote for Biden would be a vote for American values, a rebuke of white supremacy in the streets, a vote in favor of an anodyne Democrat and against anything Americans might not like about Trump.

Biden has been trying to become president since before some of his campaign staff were born — and he’s been dreaming about it far longer. His first bid was in 1987, after he had spent more than a decade as a U.S. senator from Delaware, to which his family had moved from eastern Pennsylvania when he was a child.

As a friend of Neilia Hunter, Biden’s first wife, recalls, Biden told Neilia when the two first met that he was “going to be a senator by the time he’s 30” and was “going to be president of the United States.” Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 29 and sworn in just two months after his 30th birthday, the sixth-youngest senator in American history.

But he had little time to revel in his upset victory; just a few weeks after the election, his wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car crash. Though he often speaks movingly of this tragic episode, Biden has faced criticism for asserting on several occasions that the other driver was under the influence of alcohol. This allegation was never substantiated by law enforcement, and the driver’s family has strongly denied it.

His 1987 campaign for the Democratic nomination collapsed just a few short months after it began, following reports that he had plagiarized parts of a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock in his closing remarks at a debate in Iowa. The flame-out didn’t prevent him from consolidating his influence and becoming a leading figure in his party and in the Senate.

Most notably, Biden was a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and served for a time as its chairman, a position from which he helped to ensure that President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork wouldn’t be confirmed. Despite having said initially that he would support the judge’s confirmation, Biden joined Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy in misrepresenting Bork’s character and record. Among Kennedy’s unsubstantiated assertions was that “Bork’s America” would be “a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions.”

The following decade, Biden was similarly unfair to one of President George H. W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, Clarence Thomas, who wrote in his memoir that Biden had assured him in a meeting prior to the confirmation hearings that “he had no tricks up his sleeve.” As it turns out, he did.

“Senator Biden was the first questioner,” Thomas writes of the hearing. “Instead of the softball questions he’d promised to ask, he threw a beanball straight at my head.” Biden asked Thomas about a speech in which he had allegedly expressed support for the arguments of scholar Stephen Macedo, who had defended the notion of an activist Supreme Court willing to strike down laws restricting property rights. Thomas recounts how lawyers on his team discovered that Biden had taken Thomas’s writings out of context to make it appear as if he had been arguing the exact opposite of what he actually had said — the passage in question had been followed by sentences noting that Macedo’s argument overlooked the proper role of the Court. The episode offers a perfect encapsulation of Biden’s political style: willing to make a great show of cheerful camaraderie and bipartisanship until it is more advantageous to do otherwise.

When Biden made a second run for the presidency, he found himself far outshone by others in the 2008 field, including the up-and-coming Barack Obama, who represented the future and the so-called coalition of the ascendant within the party. Biden made news when he referred to Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

Biden ended his 2008 campaign after a dismal fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. But he went on to accept an invitation to become his Senate colleague’s running mate — as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was thought to contribute foreign-policy expertise that Obama lacked, and his many years in politics helped compensate for Obama’s few.

In late 2015, as Obama’s second term approached its end, the speculation machine whirred to life again, powered by the certainty that now, finally, it would be Biden’s turn. But even though Biden had served as Obama’s right-hand man, not everyone viewed him as the heir apparent. Instead of facing off against Hillary Clinton — a fixture of establishment Democrats, Obama’s first-term secretary of state, and a former first lady with her own longtime presidential ambitions — the vice president bowed out before the race even began, saying in a speech from the Rose Garden that his family’s grief over the recent death of his son Beau had “close[d] the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president.”

Clinton’s stunning loss to Trump in November 2016 has led many to speculate that, had Biden not refused to run, he might be president today. But for Biden, there’s no use looking back. He’s just hoping he’s not too late.

Biden spends most of his campaign events talking about the sitting president. “We have to beat Donald Trump,” he says again and again on the trail. In Waukee, Biden emphasized the theme with which he kicked off his campaign, saying that another term for Trump would “fundamentally change the nature” of the U.S., while his own presidency would “restore the character of the nation.”

“I really do believe this year that the character of the nation is on the ballot” — that’s how he put it in Waterloo, before repeating his campaign-video description of the Charlottesville violence. “To state the obvious, the next president is going to inherit a country divided and a world in disarray, and there is no time for on-the-job training,” he added.

But Iowa’s voters appear not to have agreed with Biden’s assessment that he is the candidate best equipped to be that president. He’s been banking on appealing to Democratic voters who can’t stand Trump and are wary of the progressive direction in which other politicians want to take their party. In a state such as Iowa, those types of voters likely exist in droves, but Biden’s efforts to win them over fell flat.

“Everything I say, I’ve done, and everything I talk about is authentic,” Biden told an undecided voter in Cedar Rapids on the Saturday before the caucuses. “Now, if you don’t like what I’m talking about, I understand. You can be for somebody else. But ask yourself, who is going to be able to unite the country? How can Pete do that? How can Bernie do that?”

That undecided voter later told the New York Times, “He 100 percent could have swayed me, and I was hoping that he would, and he did not.”

Biden has a couple of weeks to find a way to convince voters like that, or the moment will indeed have left him behind — and not for the first time.

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