Joe Biden’s progressive rivals seem convinced that the best strategy take him on is to accuse the former vice president of being insufficiently left-wing and point out his ideological missteps from the 1970s and 1980s. It hasn’t worked. And it won’t.
For one, the stated Biden agenda is actually quite ambitious — from a version of the public option that’s much bolder than anything contemplated during the Obama era, to a massive Green New Deal-esque proposal for clean energy investment, Biden is no Sen. Bernie Sanders, but he’s running well to the left of the status quo. And his political persona is the former vice president to the very popular Barack Obama, not a Stone Age senator.
Instead, progressives should consider adopting the same strategy they complained about during the debates last week when they accused moderates of using “Republican talking points” against them.
“We are not trying to take away health care from anyone,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in response to John Delaney’s characterization of Medicare-for-All. “That’s what the Republicans are trying to do. And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care.”
As a tactical move to delegitimize criticism, the line makes sense. But on the merits, Democratic voters are going to want a nominee who can stand up to inevitable attacks from the other party. If progressives can’t handle them, they have a real problem.
Biden is riding high on a long list of head-to-head polls that show him smashing Trump in a general election. If his rivals want to take him down, they need to take him down with the kind of arguments that could hurt him in a general election. And that means embracing right-wing talking points.
Joe Biden is old
This starts first and foremost with the fact that Joe Biden is old; Trump (though 73 himself) has already signaled he’ll deploy the nickname “Sleepy Joe.”
It makes for a good attack line because it is hard to rebut. Some reporting on the 2008 campaign indicated that Obama picked him in part because he believed that Biden would be too old to run in 2016 and he wanted a No. 2 who wasn’t also trying to advance his own political ambitions. Biden has, obviously, not gotten any younger since the 2016 cycle.
If another candidate had flubbed his campaign’s text request at the end of a debate, as Biden did in July, it’s possible nobody would have thought much of it. Indeed, if Biden himself had done this 10 years ago, we’d all just chalk it up as one of those periodic Biden gaffes. But at the age of 76, every mix-up looks pregnant with possibility.
While other Democrats may be a little leery of directly invoking the president, the fact is that Democratic primary voters have a legitimate interest in seeing how he responds.
It’s not inconceivable that Biden has a great response. Certainly he looks physically fitter than Trump who very much has the physique of a fast food enthusiast. And two of Biden’s top rivals, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are no spring chickens either. But a number of other candidates, especially former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have spent a lot of time hinting that their youth and vigor would be campaign assets.
It would be constructive for them to actually say this directly — “Joe Biden is too old to be the optimal nominee” — and let Biden crush the insult or take a hit. Democrats in 2020 need to try to maximize youth turnout, and they’re going to want a relentless campaigner who leaves it on the field and can’t be accused of failing to visit anywhere important. Biden was literally in the Senate longer than millennial progressives (and many Gen-Xers!) have been alive.
It seems unfair to go after something outside of a candidate’s control, like their age. But politics ain’t beanbag, and Democrats will be better off finding out if Biden has a strong riposte sooner rather than later.
Joe Biden is very establishment
Trump likes to portray complaints about his maniacal behavior as simply reflecting the self-protective instincts of the Beltway political establishment. He could certainly deploy this against Biden, who is an almost comically longstanding fixture of Washington politics. We’re talking about a guy who voted to confirm Gerald Ford as vice president more than 45 years ago.
Other Democrats in the race have a clear outsider storyline they can play up in contrast. Pete Buttigieg and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock have outsider storylines. Bernie Sanders, Warren, Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker have a track record of taking on entrenched forces inside their own party. Kamala Harris arrived in DC contemporaneously with Trump and has just spent her time here fighting his abuses.
Various rival campaigns have spent a fair amount of time litigating things like a 1981 Biden op-ed justifying a vote against a child care tax credit or his opposition to federally funded desegregation busing programs in the 1970s.
It turns out that relatively few people seem to care about this kind of ancient history. But fresher-faced Democrats can reasonably ask their party’s voters if they really want to go into battle against Trump carrying the weight of decades of political insiderdom? Wouldn’t they rather claim the mantle of change and reform the way Barack Obama did, rather than run with the guy Obama picked to make his candidacy more reassuring to insiders? Perhaps after the chaos of the Trump years, the answer to those questions really is that it’s better to go with the tried and true. But so far no one has asked them directly. Someone should.
The Biden family has made money off of politics
In the immediate aftermath of Election Day 2016, it seemed like had Biden run he would have been able to replicate most of Hillary Clinton’s strengths without the biggest unforced error of her campaign — the years she spent doing buckraking speeches during Obama’s second term.
But then Biden went and spent his first couple of post-VP years making millions of dollars doing paid speeches. In an ideal world, it would be nice to go back to the pre-Reagan norm against this kind of unseemly profiting off public service. But at a minimum, the pre-Hillary norm that you do this kind of thing once you’re done running for office rather than to fill your bank account before running for president seems like a line we could draw as a society.
Meanwhile, both Biden’s son Hunter and his younger brother James seem to have made careers off of trading in their political connections. In the close-knit world of Delaware politics where Biden is beloved, but in national politics it looks, well, sketchy.
Some of the Democratic loyalists who vote in primaries will look at this and think “well, Trump’s corruption is way worse.” But while that’s certainly true, Biden’s rivals can very fairly argue that someone who doesn’t have these issues is going to be in a better-situation to take the case to Trump.
It’s better to bloody the nominee sooner
Right now, the electability argument in the Democratic primary is happening on two tracks.
On one track, candidates who are clearly more ideologically progressive than Biden offer the kind of esoteric arguments about electability that progressive activists enjoy hearing.
This is stuff about the value of mobilization over persuasion, the importance of being “inspiring,” etc. There’s something to some of this, but it does tend to fly in the face of the basic reality that politicians perceived as moderate tend to do better and taking unpopular stances on issues tends to hurt candidates. Biden, meanwhile, can just point to the polls showing that he’s doing well.
On the other track, a gaggle of non-Biden moderates are trying to get attention for themselves by attacking the more progressive candidates as unelectable. But this doesn’t work because one chunk of voters finds this unpersuasive and another chunk of voters does find it persuasive and that’s why they’re voting for Joe Biden. Biden himself, again, just floats above it all pointing to his strong polls — a particular problem for candidates like Bullock and Amy Klobuchar who have strong electability arguments but whose head-to-head polling is bad because they are so obscure.
The solution for candidates from either faction is to try to bring Biden’s numbers down by going after him the exact same way that Republicans will — he’s an old guy who’s served in the senate forever as a member of a corrupt political establishment.
When the top is popped on this argument, there will immediately be a backlash from rank-and-file Democrats who don’t like to see the front-runner bloodied up in this way. But the obvious reality is that Trump is going to run these arguments no matter what happens in the primary — and Biden’s numbers will go down somewhat.
Maybe Biden will prove to be a highly effective counterpuncher, in which case they won’t go down very much, his head-to-head polling against Trump will still look super-strong, and his electability argument will likely carry the day. Or maybe he won’t, in which case his head-to-head polling will plummet and his electability argument will collapse.
Either way, the country will be better-served by having this argument sooner rather than later. And while it’s understandable that nobody really wants to go first in this regard, ultimately someone has to do it. Especially with so many candidates in the race who don’t even have a particularly clear ideological critique of Biden, it’s essential to actually make the arguments — especially about age — that have driven insider skepticism of his candidacy despite the strong early polling.