To a certain kind of Democratic Party establishmentarian, Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 because she was not “likable” enough — a sentiment that may or may not be thinly veiled code for saying that she’s a woman. Their solution in 2020 is good old Joe Biden.
Biden, on the likability frame, is the opposite of Clinton — a back-slapping pol man who enjoys shooting the breeze with reporters. But the reality is Clinton was plenty likable at key moments in her career. Most notably, one of the main reasons the Democratic Party rallied around her so hard in 2014-’15 is that when she was secretary of state, her approval ratings were far higher than Barack Obama’s, and she was an in-demand midterms surrogate even in states where he was toxic.
Biden, meanwhile, was not especially popular during Obama’s first six years in office and only saw his numbers rise as he appeared to step out of the electoral arena — swapping places with Clinton as the kind of generic Famous Democrat Who Isn’t Running.
What brought Clinton down was public exposure not to her personality — which was sparkling enough to make her the most admired woman in America for 17 years straight before losing the claim to Michelle Obama in 2018 — but extended public scrutiny of every detail of a decades-long career in public life. This, in turn, is the exact same problem Biden will inevitably face as a presidential candidate. Americans like outsiders and fresh faces, not veteran insiders who bear the scars of every political controversy of the past two generations.
Mainstream Democrats like other mainstream Democrats. But what it means to be a mainstream Democrat has changed significantly since Biden entered the Senate 46 years ago. As Democrats gear up to take on Trump, the party’s best shot is to do anything possible to avoid repeating the 2016 experience of defending decades’ worth of twists and turns on various issues from the Iraq War to LGBTQ rights to banking deregulation.
Why nominate another Iraq hawk?
In 2008, Democrats responded to the evident unpopularity and failure of the 2003 war in Iraq in the sensible way — by nominating someone who'd spoken out against the war when he had a chance.
By 2016, there was absolutely nobody left in the party who was prepared to defend the war as a good idea, yet Democrats chose to saddle themselves with a nominee who’d been a prominent advocate for it.
Trump, in debates, sensibly assailed Clinton’s record on Middle Eastern interventions.
“Take a look at Libya. Take a look at Iraq,” he said. “She gave us ISIS because her and Obama created this small vacuum. A small group came out of that huge vacuum. We should have never been in Iraq.”
In fact, Trump was significantly overstating his degree of opposition to the war. But that's neither here nor there — a well-known Iraq War supporter who, unlike Trump, was actually in the Senate at the time was very poorly positioned to argue against him. And by 2020, there’s simply no reason to do that again. Most of the party’s bench consists of people like Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, who are young enough not to have participated in the war debate in Congress. And if a former colleague from around the courthouse were to report recalling some stray pro-war statement, you could always say you were misled by a bipartisan foreign policy elite that swallowed a bill of goods from the Bush White House.
But what’s Biden’s excuse? He was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time — the guy with privileged access to top officials in the American government and around the world. The guy who, though he surely couldn’t have stopped Bush’s folly, certainly could have warned about it.
Foreign policy experience theoretically should be a big Biden advantage over his rivals. But in reality, on one of the only foreign policy controversies voters actually paid attention to or remember, Biden got it wrong in a big way.
To hardcore Democratic Party partisans, this kind of thing is unfair — everyone knows that a Democratic administration would not have actually launched that war, and Biden and Clinton were just going along with what was thought to be the savvy politics of the time. But that’s the problem — the party’s thinking on this issue has changed, and it’s better represented by a politician who reflects the current thinking than one who has to spend a lot of time explaining how he changed his mind.
Clinton’s fans liked to note during the 2016 campaign that if she won, she’d almost certainly be the most qualified president elected in more than 150 years.
A more sober assessment would have begun with the observation that since the founding generation passed away, voters have tended not to want to put veteran politicians in the White House. With only a handful of exceptions, the voters choose to elevate an “outsider” who’s going to “fix the mess in Washington” (or drain the swamp) rather than an inside player who’s mastered the system.
Candidates don’t get credit with voters for mastering Washington. Instead, they end up on defense, defending political decisions that don’t look great in hindsight.
The senator from MBNA
Another major problem for Clinton that emerged over the course of the campaign related to her paid speeches for major banks during the brief window between her service as secretary of state and running for president.
Bernie Sanders surged by hitting Clinton again and again for her ties to banks, demanding she release the transcripts of her speeches and undermining enthusiasm for her both on the left and from moderate good-government types.
Biden is in no better a position. He spent his whole career in the Senate representing Delaware, a major center of the consumer credit side of the banking industry. He was so close to the local banking giant that he was jokingly referred to as “the senator from MBNA” (which has since been bought by Bank of America).
This made him, among other things, a champion of mostly GOP-supported legislation in 2005 whose aim was to make it more difficult for hard-pressed families to discharge their credit card debt in bankruptcy.
There’s a certain unfairness to this. All senators plump for their home state industries.
Sanders is not known as a major opponent of government regulation, but he’s time and again gone to bat for artisanal cheesemakers in various squabbles with the Food and Drug Administration. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), similarly, is a fierce progressive who also has a curious interest in lax regulation of cheese along with promoting the pheasant export industry, which is apparently a thing in Wisconsin.
But not every home state has such cutesy industries.
Clinton was unusually tight with Wall Street for a Democrat because she represented New York in the Senate, and bankers were her dairy farmers and cheesemakers.
But “I just happen to represent a state whose local business interests are unusually evil” is a terrible public-facing argument (which, of course, is why Clinton didn’t make it). The reality is that very little about Biden’s career is extraordinary. But this, again, is precisely why the voters tend not to choose congressional veterans — people hate business as usual in Washington and want to elect leaders who’ll change the game, not play by the rules.
Biden looks bad in hindsight on a lot of issues
Marriage equality is in some respects the best example.
If you trace the long arc of the Democratic Party’s slow, steady embrace of LGBTQ equality as a cause, then Biden is clearly right there on the journey with everyone else. At a critical moment, he actually led the stampede, as the first Obama administration official to openly embrace marriage equality during the great Obama flip-flop of 2012.
But back in 1996, as a senator, he voted for the viciously discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. This was, at the time, a totally unremarkable vote — virtually everyone in Congress voted for it. LGBTQ rights groups didn’t like DOMA one bit, but it wasn’t a litmus test at the time. The state of LGBTQ politics in the late 1990s was that Bill Clinton was trying to make history by appointing an openly gay man to be ambassador to Luxembourg and Republicans were blocking him.
Biden has, in recent years, been a champion of criminal justice reform just like most Democrats. But in earlier years, when most Democrats were “tough on crime” drug warriors, Biden was a “tough on crime” drug warrior who as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee authored a number of harsh anti-drug laws.
It would be a mistake to see him as some kind of carceral maniac, warmonger, or anti-gay bigot — he was a normal Democrat who had normal Democratic Party positions on a variety of issues over time. But while that extreme normality appeals to party regulars, just as Hillary Clinton appealed to them, the sheer duration of normality means you end up flip-flopping or getting behind the curve in a way that a younger politician wouldn't. And then there are some unique home-state issues.
A tarnished legacy
If Biden opts not to run, he’ll go down in history as a senator who was very well-liked by his colleagues and the press, and who served as the popular vice president for one of the most influential presidents of all time. He has a record of public service to be proud of and can spend his retirement years making money, speaking about issues he’s passionate about, and perhaps serving as something of an éminence grise in the party.
But if he runs, he’s much too big a fish to be ignored by his rivals, and they’ll have to tear him down.
Some of that will be policy-based, but some of it will probably be personal. Biden has followed Clinton’s footsteps in doing paid speaking gigs while also harboring presidential ambitions — an error that proved costly for her and will likely prove costly for him if it ends up under the microscope. Old, mostly funny articles like “9 Times Joe Biden Creepily Whispered in Women’s Ears” will get fresh rereads for the #MeToo era, especially because Biden himself can’t seem to decide what he thinks about his handling of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings — alternately apologizing for having mishandled things and griping that it’s unfair for Anita Hill to blame him.
Add it all up and you get a negative portrait of Joe Biden — the buckraker who failed to protect a sexual harassment victim and spent the aughts boosting the Iraq War and bank deregulation after fueling mass incarceration and anti-gay discrimination in the 1980s and ’90s.
There’s something unfair about it. Biden is a very normal senator whose worst mistakes involved getting caught up in the political norms or fads of the moment. But that’s life. Times change, and the 2020 presidential campaign will be waged in this moment. And Democrats deserve a nominee who can either plausibly claim to have been prescient on the big changes that have swept progressive politics or is new enough to elective office to simply be of the current moment.
It’s not just that Biden, despite his currently strong polling, would make for a weak candidate if he runs. The entire spectacle of once again re-fighting every intraparty battle from the past two generations of Democratic Party politics would be bad for almost everyone at a time when Democrats should be talking about their ideas for the future rather than raking over the past.