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Why Joe Biden Is Rolling the Dice

August 1, 2019
Why Joe Biden Is Rolling the Dice
(Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

1. Rolling the Dice

I wrote a long piece last night about the second Detroit debate. If you want to read it, it’s here.

If you don’t want to read all of it, the short version is:

  • Biden did well.
  • Harris did poorly.
  • Tulsi was an assassin.
  • Gillibrand was Gillibrand.
  • Everyone hates Bill de Blasio.

But I want to expand a bit on the bet Biden has made.

Joe Biden has decided to run as the presumptive nominee and as such is already executing a general election campaign. He’s going directly at Trump. On the Democratic party’s two most important progressive litmus tests—the eradication of private health insurance and the decriminalization of illegal immigration—he has refused to take the progressive line.

He has done this because he knows that in a general election, Trump’s two biggest arguments will be that the Democratic nominee wants to take away your health insurance and have open borders.

So Biden is wagering that he can take those weapons away from Trump and still win the nomination.

In other words, he’s willing to risk losing the nomination in order to win the general election.

Any way you look at it, he’s rolling the dice here.

2. Odds

I like Biden’s odds.

The reason he’s able to make this bet is because of the assets he brings to the race. He’s the vice president and natural heir to the most popular living Democratic president. He is an exceedingly popular figure and good retail politician. His name ID begins at 100 percent. His donor network is pre-loaded.

In other words, Biden can risk running counter to the base in ways that Harris and Mayor Pete probably couldn’t and Bernie and Warren wouldn’t want to.

And the fact that of the five major candidates, four of them are on the other side of Biden, actually mitigates his risk. Because progressives who want to buck Biden on these two issues are going to split their votes. The consolidated progressive vote is unlikely to come together until reasonably late in the race. By which point Biden may have an insurmountable lead and already be viewed as the de fact nominee.

If you assume that 10 percent of what most politicians do is conviction-based and the other 90 percent is issue-matrix optimization, Biden is probably sitting in the sweet spot where he has minimized his risk and maximized the possible return on the play.

3. One More Thing

I’m a little surprised that the top tier Democrats seem to think that they’re going to talk voters into disliking Biden. That is unlikely to happen.

Here is a thing about voters and politicians: Once the voters decide that they like the guy, you don’t change their minds. No amount of impeachment changed voters’ minds about Bill Clinton. The Iraq War didn’t change the basic affection the median had for George W. Bush. The unpopularity of Obamacare didn’t change the public’s view of Barack Obama.

I’m not saying that partisans don’t hate these figures—that happens always and everywhere. But if you look at the median voter’s bedrock view of “do I like this guy?” That’s pretty much immutable once they make up their minds.

And people decided they liked Joe Biden decades ago.

So how do you run against someone like that? You don’t run at them, you run away from them. You run forward. You make the implicit argument that they’re great and you love them too and that it’s safe for them to let you take over.

You do not scream at them and demand that they HAND YOU THE DAMN TORCH, like Eric Swalwell. You do what Bill Clinton did to H.W. Bush in 1992: You very subtly suggest that it’s time for a grateful nation to hand them their gold watch and move forward.

In a sense, I think that’s what Buttigieg is doing. Warren and Sanders are doing their own ideological fight with Biden for the socialist soul of the party.

But why Kamala Harris and BDB and Gillibrand and Booker have decided that they have to go through Biden, instead of around him, is a mystery.

I suppose that the lower-tier candidates think that bloodying Biden is their best chance to get noticed. But Harris has an actual shot to win the nomination.

She’s unlikely to do that by tearing Biden down. She’s much more likely to do it by charting a brand new course and convincing Democrats to follow her.

The only catch is that to achieve this, she would need to have a unique vision. And five months before Iowa, it’s still not clear that she does.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.