April 26, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Biden’s Asset? He’s Tolerable

More importantly, is he up to the challenge?

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Do I still think Joe Biden is a zombie candidate now that he’s made it official?

Yes, I do.

Electability” is a weak argument. Appeals to bipartisanship mean more to the press than voters. He’s got baggage. He’s prone to mistakes. I agree with Bloomberg’s Karl Smith, who said: “The Democrats should pick an unabashedly partisan candidate.”

That said, Biden is running a clever campaign already. He made smart hiring decisions. He’ll have access to a ton of money. Most important, Biden is doing something his rivals aren’t: putting the president front and center, and blasting him.

“We are in the battle for the soul of this nation,” Mr. Biden said, warning that if Mr. Trump is re-elected, “He will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

And Donald Trump fell for it.

History is working for and against Biden.

Again him: He’s already run for the nomination twice and he’s been rejected as many times. Most Americans know him as Barack Obama’s vice president, but Biden spent decades in the US Senate during a period in history in which “Democrat” was far from synonymous with “liberal.” The party has been moving leftward since at least 2004, and these days the levers of power are held by women of color in early primary states like Nevada and South Carolina. It’s still hard to imagine the most diverse party of my lifetime—in terms of race, sex and ideology—giving the nod to Uncle Joe.

For him: Voters of color are unsentimental and pragmatic. More generally, the prevailing feeling among activists is that the most important thing is defeating Trump. Yes, there are fierce arguments underway—about policy, identity, and the grave evils we face—but it’s safe to say that nothing is more important to most Democratic Party voters than unseating the incumbent. That might be enough for all intra-party competitors to reconcile themselves to a candidate who is tolerable to a majority.

Beating Trump might be enough for all intra-party competitors to reconcile themselves to a candidate who is tolerable to a majority.

(By the way, I don’t think Biden’s antipode is Bernie Sanders, as some are saying. Sanders is an outsider trying to win over insiders. He can’t hold a candle to Biden. Don’t believe me? Believe Sanders’ 2016 spokesperson, Symone Sanders [no relation]. She could have stayed with her old boss. Instead, she chose to work with Biden.)

It sounds strange to suggest that “tolerable” is Biden’s greatest asset. What’s “tolerable” compared to a vibrant field of candidates that includes Kamala Harris (biracial former prosecutor), Elizabeth Warren (populist Harvard wonk) and Pete Buttigieg (gay religious veteran). Well, it doesn’t compare. But that may not matter to partisans burning with an overwhelming desire. Every challenger casts the incumbent as a threat to democracy. The difference is, of course, that Donald Trump really is.

Biden has work ahead of him. He may be “tolerable” to a broad cross-section of Democrats, but he’s got to get by activist groups first. Seth Masket defines these as “the most engaged members.” I’d call them elites, because politics is what they do (you know, instead of having normal jobs). Because these activist groups are the most engaged party members, their opinions are probably going to be widely shared. Therefore, what they think about Joe Biden is going to matter greatly to Joe Biden.

Masket did some polling of activists. He asked who they like and don’t. Among candidates they like, Biden ranks eighth. Among candidates they don’t like, Biden ranks third. This is important. These activist groups are essentially presidential vetting committees. They are going to look at Biden’s long record. They are going to determine for themselves, and therefore for others, whether his long record is enough to sink his chances or if the desire to defeat the president is enough to tolerate him.

I have doubts. I will say, however, that Biden’s opening shot alters my thinking a bit. I wasn’t expecting him to put Trump front and center, and blast him for the danger he poses to freedom, democracy, and America’s place in the world. I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps I expected more of the same that we saw during the midterms in which Democrats tried hard to avoid talking about Trump. Biden, however, came out swinging, and I liked it. I expect other Democrats will end up following suit.

That’s good, because Old Joe is old. (He’s 76.) Even if he can convince activists that defeating Trump is a goal overriding all intra-party considerations, he must convince everyone he’s up to the task. He might be just saying that bipartisanship can save us from Trump’s tyranny in order to appeal to party regulars, but come on. We know Joe.

He probably believes it.

Thing is, it won’t.

—John Stoehr


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