The 2020 Candidates Smell Blood

The reason so many Democrats are running is they think Biden won’t survive.

Photo collage of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls: Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, with Joe Biden in the center.
Clockwise from left: Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sergio Flores/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images.

Joe Biden is finally, officially getting into the race. If you want to get a sense of how threatened other presidential aspirants feel about this, consider their own decisions. Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton joined the race this week, just a couple of weeks after his House colleagues Eric Swalwell (California) and Tim Ryan (Ohio) did the same. Beto O’Rourke, Jay Inslee, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper entered in March, joining Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker. Michael Bennet, Bill de Blasio, Steve Bullock, and Stacey Abrams are still weighing their options, so let’s safely say at least two out of four of them will go for it.

The story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary so far has been the historic size of the field, which will end up in the mid-20s before all is said and done. And the size of the field is, in large part, a reflection of how Democratic politicians view Joe Biden: as a paper tiger, whose fall will make the nomination anyone’s for the taking.

Candidates jump into the presidential race for all different reasons: to actually become president, yes, but also to raise their national profiles for the vice presidency, Cabinet positions, book releases, and cable news contributor agreements. And yet, when Democratic senators and governors had a similar opportunity in 2016, the only mainstream opponent willing to challenge Hillary Clinton was former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. (How’d that profile-raising work out for him?) The field in 2016 was so small not because politicians with national aspirations didn’t exist, but because they thought Clinton—with her name recognition, financial resources, party relationships, high early polling numbers, and general next-in-line aura—was inevitable. She cleared the field of most competition because other mainstream candidates knew she would win (and non-mainstream Bernie figured she would too).

Biden is something more like a 2016 Jeb Bush: a weak establishment favorite whose time might be past and—should voters deprioritize his top perceived strength, electability—who could soon face the wolves. He leads in national and some early state polling, but not by much. The only potential candidates who’ve bowed out because Biden took their space were Terry McAuliffe and Michael Bloomberg. And though he may have far more charisma than Bush did, the financial resources will be harder to come by.

Biden’s biggest challenge in the primary will be a compromised past spanning nearly 50 years. The vetting process he’ll face in the Democratic Party of 2019 will not be even close to the vetting he faced during his last campaign in 2008—and, let’s face it, as a middling-to-lower-tier candidate then, he didn’t face much vetting at all. The crime bill that he authored in 1994 is considered by the modern iteration of the party to have been an embarrassment, as is his handling of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination. Some of his anti-busing rhetoric from the 1970s was, even by the standards of 1970s anti-busing rhetoric, astonishing. As a senator who for 36 years represented Delaware, a small fiefdom run by banks, his economic record has more than a few blemishes, such as his support for the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill, one of the slimiest pieces of legislation passed this century. In the first presidential primary since 2004 where past votes regarding the Iraq war shouldn’t be an issue among major candidates, simply because it was so long ago, there’s Joe Biden, with a vote for the Iraq War on his record.

The size of the field is a representation of the candidates’ belief that all of this will sink Biden, unlocking the tentative support of roughly one-third of the party for the taking. The field’s bet on Biden’s fallibility is now shared among the punditry too. Everything Biden does will be interpreted through the same knowing lens that he’s out of his element and it’s a pity no one was able to dissuade him from launching this last, egotistical crusade. That was the interpretation when, in his first public appearance after allegations of inappropriate touching, he cracked a couple of jokes about how he had gotten permission to give hugs. Even the delay in his launch this week prompted another round of head-shaking, when his initial plan to kick off the campaign on Wednesday in Charlottesville, Virginia, followed by a couple of rallies in Pennsylvania, was scrapped in favor of a video launch on Thursday and a Pittsburgh rally next week. Every miscue in Biden’s campaign will be viewed in the press as a development toward the inevitable tanking.

The question is: Are politicians and obsessive political observers right? Apart from the press, no one cares whether Biden launches his campaign on Wednesday or Thursday, via video or at a rally. And Biden’s numbers following the inappropriate touching allegations were barely affected. That’s why I’ve never fully bought the interpretation that Biden is foolish—pathetic, even—to go down this path. What if enough primary voters hear all of the scrutiny of Biden’s past, and all of the declarations that he’s out of touch with the party’s present and future, and … still like him anyway? What if none of this matters, because Democratic primary voters—who might be becoming more ideological, but still aren’t as discriminating as Republicans, and definitely aren’t as left as Fox News would have you think—like him, remember his time in the Obama administration fondly, and think he’s their best chance at beating Donald Trump, regardless of what he said or did in 1975, 1991, 1994, 2002, 2005, or 2019? Other candidates have made the bet that Biden’s collapse is inevitable. But it’s just a bet.