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Democrats Need the Best of Biden

"Good enough" isn't good enough.
March 13, 2020
Democrats Need the Best of Biden
MUSCATINE, IOWA - JANUARY 28: Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign town hall meeting at the Riverview Center January 28, 2020 in Muscatine, Iowa. The Iowa caucuses are February 3. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democrats have bet the future on a figure who evokes their past: Joe Biden. Realistically, this was the only sensible choice. The question now is what version of Biden they will get—and, therefore, whether their leap of faith justifies the risks.

In Richard Ben Cramer’s unsparing and classic account of the 1988 presidential race, What It Takes, the much-younger Biden comes across as preternaturally ambitious, intellectually insecure, obsessed with how others saw him, unmoored to deep principle, financially and politically impulsive, lacking in self-awareness, and over-concerned with rhetoric at the expense of substance—a man who finds himself not by learning from others, but from the sound of his own voice in front of a rapturous audience. Yet, for all that, he also comes across as likable.

From the start, Biden had a deep, almost tribal, sense of family to tether him. For all his ambition, his kids were important—never more than when his first wife and infant daughter died in a car wreck just before he entered the Senate in 1972. That began his daily routine of commuting back and forth between Washington and Delaware to be with his surviving boys. His second marriage, to Jill Biden (née Stevenson), affirmed his belief that a good life is grounded in a good family.

Thirty-two years after that first run for president, Biden seems like a far more settled human being. Though this is what one hopes to see in a man, it is nonetheless reassuring – such progress is hardly universal. For Biden, character and experience, distilled by the wisdom that time brings, are now his chief qualifications for the presidency. And while his age will give some voters pause, the passage of years may have tempered him enough to make him a better potential chief executive.

There is no doubt that Biden has long since become a good and compassionate man, a guy who sees others. His eulogy for Ted Kennedy was a wonder of empathy: alone among the speakers, he spoke directly to Kennedy’s family about “your dad,” “your brother,” “your uncle,” “your husband.” In fact, Biden’s empathy has become his defining character trait, oft noted by people from the parents of dead children to Lindsey Graham. Thus Politico’s Michael Kruse posits that, in a strange way, grief has become Biden’s superpower.

He still rambles. He’s a shaky debater. Biden will sometimes comment on his own loquacity, interrupting himself with a compulsive self-consciousness that makes him more loquacious. Thoughts meander; words collide like bumper cars. His stock phrases and cultural references often stem from the Eisenhower years, bewildering anyone younger than, say, 60. Sometimes, inexplicably, he ascribes to himself experiences he never had. All too often, he still seems like a man who just can’t help himself from doing… whatever. But more often than not, his sheer likability overcomes all of this.

That’s the essence of what he is offering to America: not original policy visions, but himself – a transactional politician who deploys personality to engage his peers and the public.

In itself, that’s not so bad. After Trump, an adequately socialized horse trader who can pass a Rorschach test feels like a relief. But one still wonders whether Biden has the depth and originality to cope with problems as dire as our maldistribution of economic and political power—or even to see them as the problems they are. We need to be rid of Trump but, in his wake, we need more from our leader than a psychic Band-Aid.

One still puzzles over what traits within Joe Biden would animate his presidency. He knows a lot— by now more than enough, one suspects, to avoid catastrophic geopolitical misjudgments. But his mishandling of Hunter Biden’s tawdry efforts to peddle the appearance of influence raises questions about the balance between judgement and emotion—and whether he listens to advice when he most needs it.

That matters: Biden seems to lack the centered dispassion that distinguished his much younger benefactor, the cool and cerebral Obama.

In important ways, Biden is a more complex and unpredictable figure than was Obama. The next weeks and months as the Democrats’ frontrunner will tell us a great deal about whether Biden has the consistent savvy and discipline needed to win in November—including the ability to avoid gaffes, misstatements, and flashes of temper; popularize his agenda among disparate voting blocs; assemble a sophisticated team of advisors to whom he actually listens; construct an effective campaign apparatus which functions well on the ground, airwaves, and internet; and summon the inner reserves required to surmount his frailties and summon that best self who can defeat Donald Trump.

Absent some terrible mischance, that he will become the Democratic nominee seems all but certain.

Tuesday’s primaries accelerated his stunning ten-day rise from the dead. His margins in Mississippi and Missouri were no surprise. But he routed Sanders in Michigan—where Sanders had staked his hopes of a turnaround—and, most surprising, is now ahead in Washington despite its predominately white and progressive electorate. But Michigan was particularly telling: Biden carried white working-class voters while dominating among suburbanites and African-Americans—a formula for success in key primaries to come, and, critically, a predicate for winning the Midwestern battleground states which will likely decide the Electoral College.

This month’s remaining primaries will increase his now-insurmountable lead among pledged delegates. On March 17, the contests in Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona all look good for Biden; on the following Tuesday Georgia looks even better. The larger issue is whether he can broaden his successful primary coalition in a way that maximizes his chances of winning the general  election.

He’s on his way. In addition to turning out African-Americans and the white suburban voters—particularly women—he’s positioned to attract erstwhile Republicans and independents who can’t abide Trump but found Sanders too extreme.

But other important demographics remain unconvinced.

As Biden so often stresses, Democrats must win back a share of blue-collar whites who need economic relief but, in many cases, felt that Trump spoke to their cultural anxieties. Here, the detailed Michigan results suggest that he is making inroads. But in two other respects, Biden has yet to reconstitute the Obama coalition.

To date Sanders has dominated among Hispanic voters, particularly the young – owing to superior grassroots outreach and, perhaps, to lingering resentment over the significant numbers of deportations during the Obama administration. Exit polling on Super Tuesday further revealed an enormous margin for Sanders among younger voters—even African-Americans—which casts doubt on Biden’s ability to rally them in the fall.

So how does Biden attract those drawn to Sanders’s call for tectonic change, yet retain his broader amalgam of more moderate supporters?

The puzzle Biden must solve is complex: How to turn out his emerging base, retain the swing voters who may be decisive, and appeal to persuadable Sanders loyalists. As Ezra Klein points out, that diverse cross-section of the populace includes urbanites, suburbanites, the college-educated, working people, minorities, the secular, and the religious—all of whom have many different sources of information—not to mention both seniors and young people, who often have opposing concerns.

That means artfully running to the center-left, not the hard-left. As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report puts it, Democrats cannot fall prey to “the appetite among progressives and the left for an agenda that remains unpalatable to swing voters in the states that determine the Electoral College.” A fair example is Sanders’s call for an immediate fracking ban: pleasing to progressives, and politically toxic in crucial Pennsylvania.

By comparison, Trump’s task is simple: winning the handful of battleground states that matter by turning out his base of white voters, reachable through a small number of information channels dominated by Fox News. Here Klein quotes a recent study which should sober Biden and his advisors: “Republicans should be expected to win 65 percent of presidential contests in which they narrowly lose the popular vote.”

What must Biden do? In terms of substance, not too much—instead, he needs to do a much better job of spelling out what he already stands for. In truth, based on what he has already said, Biden would be the most progressive Democratic presidential nominee in recent history.

Take healthcare. Trump has labored to abolish Obamacare, including its protection for those with pre-existing conditions. By comparison, Biden offers a huge step forward, preserving private health insurance while offering public access to Medicare for all who want it. In the real world, such progress was unthinkable until today.

As a corollary, Biden offers what Vox calls the most detailed proposal to combat the opioid crisis: $125 billion over 10 years to scale up treatment and recovery programs—with the pharmaceutical industry to cover the costs through higher taxes. This plan has the benefit of being both fair and appealing to both Democrats and populist Trump voters.

When it comes to the environment, even the progressive Sunrise Movement (which supports Sanders) calls Biden’s plan to combat climate change “comprehensive.” Focused on achieving clean energy and eliminating harmful emissions, it would cost $1.7 trillion over a decade—which, while far less the cost of the Green New Deal, represents a giant leap forward.

He proposes to assist low-income schools by tripling the amount of federal assistance to fund universal pre-K and raise teachers’ salaries. A frequent critic, German Lopez of Vox, describes his proposal for criminal justice reform as “one of the most comprehensive among presidential campaigns, taking on various parts of the criminal justice system at once.” And he is committed to fighting voter suppression and expanding the right to vote.

Biden calls for a $15 minimum wage, increased Social Security benefits for the poorest Americans, and strengthening the power of unions to organize and bargain. He advocates a substantial program to tackle infrastructure, and a sweeping gun control plan. His immigration plan is smart and balanced. While avoiding the extremes of decriminalizing the border or abolishing ICE, it protects Dreamers, provides a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, welcomes increased immigration, and reverses our shameful and sadistic maltreatment of asylum seekers and their children.

How does Biden propose to raise revenue? By tax increases of $3.4 trillion over a decade, virtually all derived from raising rates for corporations and wealthy—including treating capital gains as ordinary income.

The relevant question is not how all this compares to Sanders’s unachievable wish list, but to the reality of America under Donald Trump. Anyone who dismisses the difference is not a progressive, but a myopic and politically-infantile purist.

So is there anything else Biden can do to sensibly address the concerns of ardent Sanders supporters? Two areas deserve further thought: alleviating the high cost of college for those truly in need, and addressing the spiraling expense of childcare which burdens working families and the overall economy.

One last thing matters: Biden’s choice of a running mate who can help unify the party and, because of his age, double as a plausible president. His judicious selection of a qualified woman of color might say much about Biden’s boldness and vision—not to mention political adroitness.

Still, at its heart this election is about one man: Trump. That’s why it’s imperative that Biden daily remind voters, in style and substance, that he is Trump’s antithesis: decent, dignified, compassionate, and competent; a man they can trust.

No doubt that Trump, taken alone, is a turnout machine for Democrats. The pro-Biden surge on Super Tuesday was, above all, about the electorate’s widespread cravings to see Trump gone. To a great extent, Biden is less a leader than a vehicle. Which means that his campaign will need to present Biden at his best—the warm and engaging guy who looks like a “can-do” president.

To a remarkable degree, Biden has never been polarizing. That makes him a beacon for the moderate Democrats who recaptured the House and hope to flip the Senate. His proposals seem practical enough to happen; one can imagine this likeable guy achieving the possible. And his long experience looks less like a liability and more like a virtue with every passing day as Trump demonstrates anew how much seasoning and sanity matter.

The coronavirus is a perfect example. Trump is persistently reminding voters that he is an ignorant, unstable and self-obsessed fabulist whose malignant narcissism endangers the country. The prospect of Biden as president offers a bracing contrast—so long as Biden continues to evoke a president who knows, in substance and manner, how to be one.

So while likability matters, it is also not enough. Fortunately, Biden’s attributes go deeper – underscoring their absence in Trump.

Trump lacks the qualities of heart and mind which make human beings truly human. Consider this for a moment: Do you know anyone really like him? Anyone who lies as reflexively, exaggerates as obsessively—anyone who bullies and preens and brags as relentlessly? Do you actually encounter people so indifferent to others in your everyday life? If so, would you want them as friends? Let alone entrust them with the care of those you most cherish ?

Biden’s instinct for the personal connection bespeaks a deeper humanity. Where Trump is forever angry and aggrieved—whining, lashing out, punching down—Biden forswears grudges, “You know that old saying,” he says. “’Seek revenge, you’ve got two victims.’ You’re one of them. I’ve never done that because it’s just not worth the effort.”

Where Trump feels empathy only for himself, Samantha Power describes Biden giving out his private cell phone number to strangers who had suffered some grievous loss, saying: “If you feel low and have no place to turn, call me.” Perhaps you know people with such a capacious generosity of spirit. If so, Joe Biden appears to be one of them.

As a child, Biden struggled to conquer a congenital stutter he fights against still, which may explain some of his verbal tics in debate. To control stuttering requires immense concentration and willpower: that Biden became a politician is a triumph—and something of a wonder. Should Trump mock him—and one cannot doubt that he will—Biden must react with a grace which shames him among those Americans who Trump has not leeched of their own decency.

And that’s the Biden his campaign needs voters to internalize: a leader with the resilience to conquer adversity and come out stronger and more compassionate than before. Which is a pretty fair metaphor for the America which, millions hope, will follow Donald Trump.

But to mention debate goes to the essence of what makes Democrats nervous about Biden—and why he must fend off Sanders in Sunday evening’s confrontation. This reflects a more pervasive concern: that under stress Biden will look too past it to be president.

Should missteps happen—and they will—Trump and his campaign will exploit them to brutal effect. Biden must muster more discipline than he has ever shown—staying on message and practicing brevity while avoiding verbal miscues, meanderings, mistakes of fact, and statements which are just flat untrue.

Ronald Reagan suffered from these maladies and prevailed. But Biden will be older on his first day in office than was Reagan on his last. To override latent voter anxiety, Biden must find within himself the stamina to demonstrate that, despite the passage of time, he is indeed presidential.

All of which brings us to perhaps Biden’s biggest, and certainly most melancholy, challenge: his surviving son.

Hunter Biden became a centerpiece of House and Senate impeachment proceedings. No doubt Trump’s efforts to tar Hunter and his father with criminal conduct are odious and scurrilous. But Hunter’s blatant peddling of putative influence in Ukraine, and lack of any legitimate qualifications for outsized payments from a shady Ukrainian company, splashed both father and son with the same swamp water in which Trump and his family wallow. What’s fair—or true, even—doesn’t matter: the issue weakens Democrats where they should be strong, reminding voters of all they loathe about Washington’s culture of corruption.

Too often, Biden has handled this dilemma poorly—and emotionally. He bristles at questions, snaps at hecklers and reporters. Worse, he said that he would not honor a GOP subpoena to testify in the Senate impeachment trial—even though Trump’s refusals to allow testimony by key subordinates was the basis for an article of impeachment. Though he eventually reversed course, this lapse raises serious questions about his judgement – at least when it comes to Hunter.

This is of real moment. A Morning Consult poll in February showed that 30 percent of independent voters were less likely to support Biden because of controversy regarding his son. Republican senators are primed to use their subpoena power to “investigate” Hunter and thereby deep-dye the damage to his father, undercutting his appeal as an ordinary guy who exemplifies middle-class values.

Aside from the imperatives of keeping his cool and heeding advice, Biden has two passable options. First, he should insist that Trump is weaponizing Russian disinformation regarding Ukraine, driving home that Trump is Vladimir Putin’s president of choice. Second, he can push a stringent ethics agenda like that favored by Elizabeth Warren and thus challenge Trump to oppose it.

The essence is to address the ethical quagmire in which corporations spend billions on lobbyists and campaign contributions to influence officeholders. Biden might find this challenging. Like virtually all his peers, he has spent his career among lobbyists and big donors. Still, embracing ethics reform could put him back on the offensive against Trump.

But will enough voters hear him? Biden’s campaign has a grave structural weakness: the absence of a robust infrastructure, including a far-reaching digital operation.

In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins recently detailed the billion-dollar disinformation campaign that has been engineered to reelect Trump—aided by a “vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives.”

From now until November, Trump’s multimedia leviathan will bathe Americans in lies designed to touch every weak spot in the human psyche.Many will involve Hunter Biden.

But others will tarnish every aspect of Biden’s character and candidacy. The goal will be to relocate the campaign to a dystopian netherworld which transforms voters into lab rats in a hall of mirrors, insulated from truth or reality.

As of now,Biden has no answer in cyberspace . His campaign must invent one.

More broadly, Biden must use the renewed flow of campaign contributions to build out his operation online, on the ground, and over the airwaves. It’s pointless to decry our wretched system of campaign finance; to fight back Biden will need every dollar he can get his hands on – supplemented by Michael Bloomberg’s parallel investment in an organization which may, over time, equal Trump’s.

Biden’s campaign infrastructure has been skeletal, his staffing suspect; now he can hire the talented aides who worked for his former rivals. Only then can he get out the vote and compete on the airwaves—where Bloomberg’s ads were three cuts above anyone else’s. Voters can’t see the best Biden unless they actually see him, and most voters see future presidents only on their screens.

It all matters: the coalition; the outreach; the issues, the money; the media; the ground game; the strategy. But above everything else is the candidate.

What Joe Biden needs most of all is his very best self.

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.