The Slatest

Is Joe Biden Better in Theory or Practice?

The answer could decide the 2020 race.

Joe Biden arrives at a  rally organized by UFCW Union members to support Stop and Shop employees on strike throughout the region on Thursday.
Joe Biden arrives at a rally organized by UFCW Union members to support Stop and Shop employees on strike throughout the region on Thursday.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Biden has finally made up his mind and is ready to share it with the world. So says the Atlantic, which reported Friday that the former vice president will officially kick off his presidential campaign next week. Reports that Biden’s launch is imminent have been a staple of political coverage this year, but this one—confirmed by the Associated Press—has the kind of details that suggests this is not a drill: Biden plans to announce on Wednesday with a video featuring footage shot two weeks ago outside his old family home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and will then follow it up at some point in the near future with a kickoff rally, possibly at either the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which would make for a cutesy Rocky-themed launch, or in Charlottesville, Virginia, which would call for a far more serious one.

The former veep has been teasing a run more or less since the day after the 2016 election, but he’s spent 2019 in a liminal space as both the hypothetical polling front-runner and not yet a real-life candidate. That was by design. It allowed Biden to loom over the field while also affording him the opportunity to respond to complaints about his handsiness with women—criticism his team knew was coming—from the controlled safety of his couch and the stage instead of at a freewheeling town hall or press conference.

It’s too early to say that his inappropriate touching won’t hurt Biden with voters, but the evidence we have suggests it hasn’t hurt him yet. On March 29, the day Lucy Flores came forward with her story of him putting his hands on her shoulders and kissing the back of her head before a political rally in 2014, Biden sat at 30.3 percent in the RealClearPolitics’ average of national polls, about 8 percentage points ahead of Bernie Sanders and 21 points ahead of Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke. The three weeks since have brought a number of similar stories of Biden invading a woman’s personal space, and yet his polling position remains almost identical: at an even 30 percent, roughly 8 percentage points ahead of Sanders, 21 ahead of O’Rourke, and 22 ahead of Harris. Likewise, Biden’s approval rating remains sky high and limited second-choice surveys suggest he remains the top fallback option for those supporting the three candidates closest to him in the polls. Many voters, particularly older ones, appear willing to give Biden the benefit of the doubt.

I’m on record about my fear that Biden will enter the race with so much goodwill among Democrats from his time as President Barack Obama’s sidekick that he won’t be forced to fully reckon with his past, which among other things includes: his opposition to school integration in the 1970s, his turn as a drug warrior and incarceration hawk in the 1980s, his mishandling of the Anita Hill hearings and help passing the Clinton crime bill in the 1990s, and his support of the Iraq war in the 2000s. Biden’s cringe-worthy reaction to criticism about his inappropriate touching, meanwhile, is just the latest evidence that the 76-year-old is stuck in the past. He loves to wax nostalgic about 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.

Still, Biden’s formal entrance into the race will answer what is, to my mind, the biggest question in the Democratic primary: Is the former VP as strong in practice as he is in theory? His first White House run ended in a plagiarism scandal, and his second included a tone-deaf description of the man who would become the nation’s first black president as “articulate and bright and clean.” But while the current version of Biden admits he’s still a “gaffe machine,” it’s hard to imagine those past gaffes being considered disqualifying in the age of Trump.

This will also be the first time he’s running since he became the kind of Democratic folk hero that liberals write fan fiction about. His plan all along has been to present himself as the elder statesman in the field, one who can be the steady hand needed to restore a sense of normalcy to the nation. That’s a message that may resonate a little louder coming just days after Robert Mueller painted a detailed picture of a president who lies and then asks others to lie about those lies.

If Biden hits the ground running, he could consolidate support from the Democratic establishment, particularly the large swath that is increasingly afraid of Sanders and eager to rally around a centrist alternative. That wouldn’t shield the former veep from criticism from progressives unhappy with his preferred half-measures on issues like health care, but it would likely help expand his base. The primary electorate has its fair share of moderates, and voters are currently preoccupied with nominating the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump. The answer to that question is unknowable at this point, but many voters will take their cues from party leaders. The party’s rank-and-file could get their first long look at Biden since he left Washington two-plus years ago and fail to feel the pangs of Obama nostalgia Biden is banking on. Or Biden could step on stage in Philadelphia or Charlottesville and turn out to be exactly what he’s looked like all along: the favorite, but a flawed one. Either way, the waiting will officially be over and the 2020 race will have unofficially begun.