The Old, White Giant

Joe Biden’s age, race, and controversial record present loads of vulnerabilities in 2020. Here’s why he’s still the obvious favorite to be the Democratic nominee.

Joe Biden stands at a podium.
Joe Biden speaks at Whitney Hall in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 7. Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images

The very early months of the Democratic nominating race have been far from predictable. Kamala Harris shot up to the top tier pretty much overnight. Bernie Sanders revealed that he’d spent the past four years building a small-donor ATM. Amy Klobuchar taught us you could eat salad with a comb. And just last week, Sherrod Brown proved it is actually possible for a politician to resist the siren song of glowing press coverage trying to lure him into the race.

The one major constant throughout: the looming presence of Joe Biden, who has been teasing a presidential run more or less since the day after the 2016 election. Biden would face many hurdles if he gets into the race—his age and his record chief among them—but it’s far from certain any are the deal breakers that some pundits and prognosticators have suggested.

To be clear, I do not think Biden should win the Democratic nomination; I simply fear that he will. Despite a record that looks conservative in hindsight, a worldview that is troubling in the present, and an identity that does little for the future, Biden appears to be too well-known, well-liked, and well-connected to be denied the nomination.

Let’s begin with the polls. Biden has led nearly every hypothetical field in almost every single major survey taken since Election Day 2016, notwithstanding the usual caveats about polls. Polls can’t predict the future, but they can tell us plenty about the present—and the present looks mighty good for Uncle Joe. He sits just shy of 30 percent in RealClearPolitics’ rolling average, roughly 10 points clear of a crowded field in which all but Sanders and Harris remain mired in single digits. More telling than the size of Biden’s lead is the consistency of his support, which has not wavered even as a bevy of credible and compelling contenders has taken turns introducing themselves to the nation.

The common refrain this far out from the early nominating contests is that polling performances are driven largely by name recognition, which is true. But last I checked, name recognition is a requirement for electoral success, especially in a crowded field. Any candidate would love to be in Biden’s position, which allows him to take press coverage as a given and would help him overcome his lack of a small-donor network. And more crucial than being well-known is being well-liked, and no one in the field is more beloved than Uncle Joe, even when you account for his national profile. According to the latest data from Morning Consult, which has been in the field daily since early January, a whopping 79 percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion of the former veep, compared with just 11 percent of Democrats who do not. That’s largely why Biden was also the most common answer when fans of Sanders, Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke were asked for their second choice.

A lot of commentators believe that these good feelings won’t last if and when Biden officially jumps in. He is, in his own words, a “gaffe machine,” and it’s easy to see him finding a way to fit both feet into his mouth shortly after kicking off a campaign. He’ll face serious questions about a host of his past positions that look downright conservative by today’s standards: He opposed school integration in the 1970s, he was a drug warrior and incarceration hawk in the 1980s, he mishandled the Anita Hill hearings and helped pass the Clinton crime bill in the 1990s, and he was a vocal supporter of the Iraq war in the 2000s.

There’s a lot Biden should have to reckon with, much of it having to do with race, but I am unconvinced that he will be forced to in any meaningful way. Take his opposition to busing in the 1970s, which the Washington Post highlighted last week by digging up some comments the then-freshman senator said in support of a position that he stands behind today. Biden said then that he did “not buy the concept” that in order to make up for centuries of racism that “we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race.” He added: “I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” He went on to claim that the school integration plan being offered by his opponents was “the most racist concept you can come up with.”

Today, those comments aren’t just to the right of Harris and Elizabeth Warren, they’re to the right of David Brooks. Still, I can imagine a lot of Democratic voters, particularly white ones, half–paying attention to the headlines and being turned off not by what Biden said then or even what he says tomorrow, but instead by the larger uncomfortable dialogue about race—starting as a legitimate debate about Biden’s past positions and ending, at the other side of the outrage cycle, as some insinuation that he is racist. That will be unthinkable to many Democrats who watched Biden enthusiastically serve the nation’s first black president and heard President Barack Obama declare at the end of eight years that Biden was “the best vice president America ever had.” Biden, in effect, has the most famous black man in America vouching for him, and he already has strong support from black leaders in early nominating states like South Carolina. And while that won’t stop him from talking awkwardly about issues of identity, anyone who watched last week’s debate on the House floor about an anti-hate resolution knows he has plenty of company in that respect in today’s Democratic Party.

Yes, Biden is an old, white dude at a time when his party has shown an increasing preference for candidates with the lived experience of anything but that. If you look at each of those three attributes in isolation, however, it is unclear they are liabilities. Age may be a legitimate concern, but it’s not a concern most Democrats seem to have at the moment; roughly half are currently backing either 76-year-old Biden or 77-year-old Sanders. Biden is white, but so too are nearly two-thirds of Democratic voters; the party includes roughly twice as many white voters without college degrees as it does black voters of all education levels. Being a man in 2020 likely won’t be the electoral advantage it has been in the past, but it would be foolish to assume the refreshing success of female candidates in the 2018 midterms will supplant every election that came before it.

Biden isn’t just an old, white dude on paper; he’s an old, white dude who acts like one. He loves to wax nostalgic for the bipartisan days of yore, seemingly unable to grasp that the friends he made back then were segregationists like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, or that Congress was so male-dominated when he first arrived in Washington that it would take another two decades before women got their own restroom off the Senate floor. But let’s not pretend that the entire Democratic Party is woke—or even that it wants to be. Roughly half of the party self-identifies as either “conservative” or “moderate.” While those terms mean different things to different people, polls suggest that sizable slices of the party believe the barriers preventing women from getting ahead are “largely gone” and that blacks who “can’t get ahead these days” are mostly responsible for their own condition. Furthermore, many liberal Democrats will give Biden the benefit of the doubt, since, in addition to his time by Obama’s side, he also campaigned hard for the woman who tried to become the nation’s first female president.

Meanwhile, Biden’s moderate record is at odds with where the grassroots left is pushing the party. But as much as Biden will seem wildly out of place in the next iteration of the Democratic Party, the former veep is right at home in the current one. Unlike his main rivals, Biden does not support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal or Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan, but neither idea is Democratic orthodoxy yet. Establishment figures like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi largely dismiss both as unrealistic, and support from the party’s rank and file begins to fade when the conversation turns to cost. With other moderates like Brown, Deval Patrick, and Michael Bloomberg deciding against a presidential run, Biden will have the center lane largely to himself. Pragmatism doesn’t make for the most compelling stump speeches, but Hillary Clinton was able to ride it to the Democratic nomination. Biden could easily do the same.

In campaigns, the perceptions of a candidate matter more than the reality of one. And the perception of Biden is that he was a happy warrior under Obama and that he has a special connection with the kind of working-class whites who helped put Trump in the White House. Biden believes himself so perfect for the job of defeating Trump that he is adamant not just that he can prevail in 2020 but that he also would have done so in 2016. The conversation about “electability” at this point is at best silly and is at worst harmful, as it can easily become a proxy for which candidates look like our past presidents, who with just one exception were all white men. But Democrats are unusually focused on winning in 2020, and Biden has perhaps the easiest story to sell: He looks the part and, what’s more, was on the ballot the latest two times Democrats won the White House. Biden can make the case that electing him would roll back the clock to before Trump’s 2016 victory. For many Democrats, that will be enough.