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Can Joe Biden Stay in His Sweet Spot?

On matters of style and substance, Biden is balancing keeping his base with bringing in independents and Republicans repelled by Trump.
August 4, 2020
Can Joe Biden Stay in His Sweet Spot?
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at an an event about affordable healthcare at the Lancaster Recreation Center on June 25, 2020 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Biden met with families who have benefited from the Affordable Care Act and made remarks on his plan for affordable healthcare. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

There is no more glaring contrast between Donald Trump and Joe Biden than that presented by the defining issue of 2020—the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats know that very well. Said pollster Geoff Garin to the Washington Post:

Trump is increasingly defined in voters’ minds by his failing response to the coronavirus crisis, and virtually every action and position he’s taken have been wildly out of sync with where the public is at on what should be done. . . . Biden now has a remarkable opportunity to contrast himself with this failure of leadership that a large majority of voters see so clearly.

Biden knows it too. “Make no mistake,” he said in early July. “We’re still in a deep, deep job hole because Donald Trump has so badly bungled the response to coronavirus, and now has basically given up on responding at all. . . . Millions of [Americans] would still have their jobs today if Donald Trump had done his job. And many of the jobs that have now come back should never have been lost in the first place.”

Back in April, Biden proposed deploying the powers of the federal government to provide testing on a massive scale. Trump never did. Now, months later, America is paying the price: a worsening pandemic exacerbated by testing results often so delayed as to become meaningless in controlling the virus.

Little wonder that our pathologically narcissistic president sees himself as the ultimate victim of COVID-19: It’s killing his campaign.

A recent national Fox News poll shows that registered voters prefer Biden over Trump in handling the pandemic by 51 to 34 percent. An earlier Fox poll, from mid-May, found that 63 percent of registered voters viewed the “lack of available testing” as a “major problem.” Meanwhile, 62 percent of the respondents to a mid-July Quinnipiac poll of registered voters said they believed it would be unsafe to reopen K-12 classrooms in the fall, compared to 31 percent who said they thought it would be safe.

Moreover, polls give Biden an edge over Trump on managing the economy, a reversal that reflects the seismic effects of COVID-19 on employment and the GDP. And on another pressing national issue, handling race relations, the new Fox poll shows Biden with a 52 to 31 percent advantage.

These discontents pervade the electorate’s assessment of the candidates’ personal qualities. Fox’s findings are lethal for Trump:

  • 51 percent think Biden has the intelligence to be an effective president; 52 percent believe that Trump does not;
  • 56 percent credit Biden with the requisite compassion for the job of president; 57 percent believe that Trump lacks it; and
  • 47 to 39 percent invest Biden with the “mental soundness” required for the presidency; 51 to 43 percent find Trump deficient.

This comprehensive disaffection drives the presidential contest. Biden continues to lead national polls by a significant margin. Taking the currently available state polling, which shows Biden leading in the six universally acknowledged battleground states, political analyst Ron Faucheux gives Biden an Electoral College margin of 319 to 219.

In turn, this pandemic-driven surge in support for Biden enabled him to outraise Trump in both May and June, diminishing the substantial financial advantage Trump has heretofore enjoyed. Moreover, the Trump campaign, the Republican party, and affiliated political committees have spent a staggering $983 million—only to fall further behind.

Politically, the pandemic has remade Biden into a harbinger of hope—a potentially transformative rather than transitional leader. That he now invokes FDR, who helped deliver America from a vertiginous national crisis, marks a striking change of tone and ambition.

From the outset of the pandemic, Biden has called for a concerted federal response which includes spearheading a comprehensive, rigorous and prompt testing regime. Equally fundamental, Biden appreciates that the virus has aggravated pre-existing social and economic pathologies we can no longer ignore. This reflects an underrated virtue: As a practical politician rather than an ideologue, Biden can respond to changing national imperatives by moving with the temper of the times.

He is doing so with considerable skill. Wisely Biden has committed to a careful balancing act: keeping the oft-fractious components of his party together; attracting swing voters while addressing the urgent concerns of minorities; confronting the consequences of COVID-19; and offering meaningful proposals which, as president, he might actually pass.

To this end, he has forged a shared agenda with Democratic progressives which, without embracing their most tendentious economic litmus tests, addresses needs underscored by the pandemic: expanding low-income housing; improving childcare; funding universal pre-K education; offering free community college; establishing a comprehensive infrastructure program; advancing a robust climate-change agenda that creates well-paying new jobs; and providing universal healthcare grounded in a public option.

He’s no Bernie Sanders, nor should he be—after all, Sanders lost. But Biden promises to be the most progressive Democratic nominee in recent years, at a moment which calls for vigorous new initiatives to retrieve us from our national slough of despond.

Concurrently, Biden has rejected the brain-dead catchphrases that repel most Americans and fuel Trump’s race-based culture war: “abolish ICE” and, more recently, “defund the police.” Instead, he proposes broad immigration reform and embraces practical measures to sustain the racial awakening stemming from George Floyd’s murder: banning chokeholds; reforming qualified immunity for police officers; barring the overuse of military equipment by local police; and passing more funding for community policing.

With similar equipoise, Biden supports decriminalizing marijuana use but opposes legalization. He favors removing monuments to Confederate generals but draws the line at Washington and Jefferson. He advocates a ban on public leases for natural gas fracking, but eschews a fracking ban which could cost him Pennsylvania.

This is more than canny calculation—it’s politically farsighted. To win and then govern, Biden must appeal to some of the disaffected voters Clinton lost in 2016 and rally the suburbanites who helped Democrats win back the House in 2018. He is not running to enthrall the febrile progressives who populate Twitter, but as a steady, seasoned leader who can help heal the wounds Trump is determined to deepen at any cost.

So far, so smart. Most voters place Biden closer to the middle than Trump is—which, in swing states, is where he needs to be.

Accordingly, he is reaching out to anti-Trump Republicans like John Kasich, who is speaking at the Democrats’ virtual convention. By making a place for Republicans and independents wary of Democrats but repelled by Trump, Biden is making their long-term conversion more likely.

And why not? Ardent Democratic leftists may view this with suspicion, but how has our toxic polarization worked out for them—or, really, for anyone? Writes E.J. Dionne:

The easy answer to this apprehension is to say that if you believe (as I certainly do) that defeating President Trump is the prerequisite for anything good happening again in American politics, you should welcome everyone willing to help get the job done. And in light of Trump’s threats to challenge the results if he loses, the health of our democracy may depend on Biden’s winning by a landslide that would leave not a smidgen of doubt about what the voters were saying. This is an all-hands-on-deck proposition.

To succeed as president, Charles Sykes argues, Biden must rout a party that “once imagined itself to be about ideas [but] became a cult of personality for one of the most deplorable personalities in political history.” That’s the party, Dionne notes, which is now “unable to produce a coherent relief bill to keep the economy from spiraling further downward.”

It is not that Trump changed the Republican party; it is that the party created the conditions for Trump to rise. Here, Dionne quotes the damning assessment rendered in 2012—a seeming political lifetime ago—by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. The GOP, they concluded, had become “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Add further the GOP’s narrowing demographic base; its dependence on relentlessly mendacious right-wing media and a wealthy donor class concerned only with self-enrichment; and its burgeoning contempt for the rule of law and constitutional democracy itself. The Republican party has long since become Dr. Frankenstein, and Trump is its monster.

In style and substance, Biden is the antidote. He may not exude charisma, but he has a persona that counters Trump’s narcissistic faux-populism: Middle-Class Joe, an empathetic guy bereft of braggadocio or condescension, the political embodiment of that reliable neighbor who gets things done.

The president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Harold Schaitberger, described Biden’s qualities to Thomas Frank: “He is who he is. He’s real. He’s genuine. He’s a respectful person, and he’s a decent person, and he has great empathy and concern. Particularly for those who have experienced heartache or difficulties or tragedies.”

Meeting with the New York Times editorial board last December, Biden showed an acute awareness of his party’s problems with elitism. Democrats, he said, had started to “give up on white working-class folks.” Then he added:

Look what started to seep in . . . even with candidates during our administration. We stopped showing up at the Polish American club. We stopped showing up, and we all went to you, the really smart people. We had a new kind of coalition we were putting together. College-educated women and college men . . . and so on.

But there’s a false dichotomy, he argued, between progressive and working-class values. Democrats, he concluded, must quit condescending to working-class whites: “We treat them like they’re stupid. They know they’re in trouble, and nobody’s talking to them. Nobody’s talking to them. That’s what we used to do. That was our base.”

This spirit makes Biden a hard man to hate—or for Trump to demonize. Given Trump’s own noxious persona and lethal failures of leadership, demonization is about all he’s got left. Too bad for him. According to the latest Economist/YouGov poll, conducted in late July, only 19 percent of Americans say they dislike Biden “a lot”—as opposed to the 41 percent who feel that way about Trump.

That makes sense. Instead of fear and division, Biden is offering hope and reassurance. Further, the more limited campaign imposed by the coronavirus has made Biden a more disciplined campaigner—far from the virtual gaffe machine who would help Trump argue that Biden is past it.

In this favorable political landscape, one looming question for Biden is “how big to go.” He is leading in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—and needs at most three of those states to win. But Ohio may also be within reach and, with money and effort, even Georgia and Texas.

Biden’s qualities of inclusion make going big thinkable. At the same time, he must worry about doing all he can to turn out his base in must-win states—in part by bolstering his tepid support among Hispanics and the young. And the electoral history of these polarized times suggests that the swing states will tighten.

That’s Biden’s dilemma. He can’t squander the resources he needs to carry Wisconsin by spending too lavishly in, say, Texas—with its 20 media markets and recent history of rousing and then deflating Democratic hopes through relentless voter suppression.

So far the Biden campaign is proceeding with caution, at least at this distance from November—a temperance justified by comprehensive Republican efforts to depress Democratic turnout by any means at hand. Still, a state like Ohio potentially beckons—as Senator Sherrod Brown pointed out to the New York Times, “Ohio was a bellwether until 2016.”

Further, Brown notes, an overwhelming Electoral College victory “gives Biden the ability to move on major issues.” Finally, there is the desirability—perhaps, the need—to win Senate races in places like Georgia, Iowa, and Maine in order to advance Biden’s prospective agenda. These are good problems to have—unless candidate Biden takes on more than he should.

Two other challenges lie ahead: picking a running mate who first does no harm; and turning in debate performances which solidify Biden’s standing with the voters he needs to win. And there is one more problem over which Biden has little control—the unslakable death wish among some elements of the left.

The least of these stupidities is that a subset of Sanders supporters are circulating a petition to force a platform fight over Medicare-for-all. This is a conflict which, short of surrender, Biden has done his damnedest to avoid—and which the party can ill afford. But given the perpetual adolescence of those progressives who sparked defections from Clinton in 2016, the best Biden can hope for is to mute the discord.

A greater difficulty is the “Portland problem.” Trump’s dispatching of federal forces to Portland opened a disturbing new chapter in his aspiring authoritarianism—and his resolve to turn the campaign into a drama of law and order.

Trump not only revels in disorder but means to provoke it. Still, that’s the problem when protests spawn violence and disorder—even at the margins. As Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told the New York Times about her city’s unrest: “I’m furious that Oakland may have played right into Donald Trump’s twisted campaign strategy. . . . Images of a vandalized downtown is exactly what he wants to whip up his base and to potentially justify sending in federal troops that will only incite more unrest.”

Biden must navigate this minefield with discernment—distinguishing genuine protests over racial injustice from mindless disturbances that achieve nothing. What is truly plaguing America, after all, is not the dystopian lawlessness Trump conjures out of little, but the needless death and economic ruin he unleashed through his inexcusable neglect of COVID-19.

Joe Biden, and America, have three months to go.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.