Most candidates for the Democratic nomination are struggling to be noticed in a crowded field. Elizabeth Warren details policy proposals. Bernie Sanders rails against the establishment. Beto O’Rourke stands on tables and flails his arms.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, has not had to do a lot to garner attention. The career politician and former vice president has a big enough and successful enough brand that he was guaranteed to be the favorite merely by existing. American liberals love to soak in a warm bath of nostalgia for the innocent, pre-Trump Obama era, and if they cannot have Barack back, Joe is the next best thing.
Alone among the candidates, Biden could be locked in a cupboard for 23 hours a day, brought out to condemn Trump and say nice words like ‘progress’, be reimprisoned and still triumph. Perhaps his staffers wish they could establish this routine.
Biden is a curiously traditional sort of Democrat. The liberal trend leftwards, embodied in the prominence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar, appears to have passed him by. This is true on economics. Biden held a fundraiser last week at which he reassured the billionaires present:
‘You all are going to do fine, and you deserve to do fine because you’ve broken your necks, and you’ve done well, and you’ve earned what you’ve got…’
It is hard to imagine Bernie Sanders planting such enthusiastic kisses on the ample backsides of the 1 percent.
What could be more damaging for Biden’s campaign is how stubbornly unwoke he is. Of course, he is a liberal – pro-choice, pro-immigration, pro-gay marriage et cetera – but he does not seem to have grasped the rules of fashionably intersectional social and rhetorical etiquette. He keeps putting his foot in it, with almost refreshingly uncalculated carelessness. This might not be a problem for the average Democrat voter but it is for the average progressive journalist, and their ill-feeling towards his campaign has mounted with each mini-scandal.
First, Biden is handsy. His hugging, shoulder-rubbing and head-patting creeps out people to the right, never mind people with #TimesUp pins. At the start of his campaign his strategists should have sat him and said, ‘Whatever you do, stop being weird around women and kids.’ Perhaps they did, but it was futile if so. As soon as he saw a 10-year-old girl – bam – he planted his hands on her shoulders and said, ‘I’ll bet you’re as bright as you are good-looking.’ Sure, this is not in itself a very gross thing to do, but with his record of boundary-hopping it was foolish at best.
Then there is the race issue. Biden entered politics in the 1960s, when desegregation was a contentious issue. He supported desegregation, naturally, but opposed ‘busing’, or the transportation of black and white children to different schools to increase their multi-racial mix. There were many different reasons to oppose busing, but to modern progressives Biden’s stance makes him look soft on racism.
Worse, for them, was Biden’s significance in promoting tough measures against crime in the Eighties and Nineties. For sure, Republicans like Charlie Kirk who opportunistically use this Biden’s past to smear him as some kind of racist are being ridiculous given that he was reacting against enormous rates of murder and rape – but progressives blame him for his role in establishing America’s sky-high rates of incarceration.
Of course, Biden was also the right hand man of America’s first black president, but, still, you might expect him to be warned not to say anything dubious about race which could offend the sensitivities of hot-tempered progressives. Bam. Out of nowhere, Biden decided to pay tribute to segregationists. It would have irritated liberals enough that Biden was singing the virtues of civility when most of them think nothing less than howls out outrage are a suitable response to the Age of Trump, but to use as an example his collaborative work with segregationist senators like Herman Talmadge is hilariously tin-eared. Doubling down and demanding an apology from fellow Democrat candidate Cory Booker for criticizing him must have made his staffers gaze longingly towards the cupboard door.
The irony is that Biden is the safe candidate for the Democratic machine. Someone like Bernie Sanders would be hard to control – and must insult those precious billionaire donors – and Biden can be trusted not to veer too far left. When it comes to public relations, though, it is obvious that Biden cannot be trusted at all. I imagine that every time he meets a pretty woman his staffers freeze in panic at the thought that this might be the day he decides to give someone a pat on the ass. I imagine that every time he meets African Americans his staffers cross their fingers and offer up silent prayers in fear of him off-handedly saying something positive about George Wallace.
Mainstream left-wing commentators are still tolerating Biden as the candidate most likely to beat Donald Trump, but you can sense their exasperation. ‘Bless your heart, Joe Biden,’ says Ian Millhiser of Think Progress in what is somehow an eye-roll in text form. ‘Really, Joe Biden? REALLY?’ seethes the Daily Kos with less restraint. Biden is still the favorite but if his staffers want to make sure that he does not drop a verbal nuke on his campaign they should think about the cupboard trick. It can be a big one, with water and snacks. They just have to make sure that it is sound-proofed
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