The man’s been in public life for more than 40 years, starting back when micro-aggressions didn’t register on the Richter scale compared to more obvious aggressions. Culturally, he’s a product of the Kennedy era — even with the aura of contemporary cool that comes from having been President Barack Obama’s Veep. He is on what would typically be the wrong side of the unprecedented generational divide in this crowded Democratic field between the first millennial to run for president, Pete Buttigieg, and elders like himself and Bernie Sanders.
And yet, a new Harvard Institute of Politics poll finds that younger voters like the oldest candidates in the race (Sanders and Biden) best at this point. Biden, whose candidacy at this point is anticipated but undeclared, has been leading most 2020 polls, with his highest approval ratings among African-Americans (despite candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris being in the race). And perhaps most crucially in a contest where the ability to beat Donald Trump is the number one criterion for Democrats, Biden does best in a matchup.
For a party that usually backs the hot hand rather than the political veteran — and got burned by backing Hillary Clinton — what explains this persistent love for a loose-lipped 76-year-old?
I’ll answer with a story about former California Gov. Jerry Brown that his longtime political aide, Joe Trippi (a CNN contributor) , told me. Back in 2010, Golden State voters were looking to replace the two-term roller coaster Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ultimate celebrity outsider at that time. The state had been in an ornery outsider mood for a while, unceremoniously kicking the technocrat Gov. Gray Davis out of office via recall in 2003. And now Jerry Brown was looking to make a comeback.
The man known as “Governor Moonbeam” had already served two terms beginning in the 1970s. He’d rebounded as mayor of Oakland and the state attorney general. But he seemed to be not just a blast from the past but downright old compared to comparatively fresh-faced candidates like eBay CEO Meg Whitman and the telegenic and progressive then-mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom.
So Trippi was fearing the worst when he did a focus group. Here’s what he told me: “As we simply told voters of Whitman’s stellar biography — voters said ‘no way.’ ‘We tried someone from outside — look at Arnold.’ ‘I just want someone who has been there and knows how government is supposed to work.’ When we told them about Newsom the young rising star — the reaction was just as stark — ‘we need experience.’ ‘I want someone who knows how to turn on the lights.’ It turned out Jerry Brown, who had been around forever, was exactly what the voters wanted.”
In our short attention span, celebrity driven culture it seemed absurd that California voters would go for a comparatively ancient ex-governor. But they did. And Brown delivered — taming a fractious state legislature in Sacramento, turning a $27 billion deficit into a $15 billion budget surplus in addition to a $14.5 billion rainy day fund to help deal with future budget crises. That’s a fiscal record any Republican governor in the country would envy. On the liberal side of the ledger, he made California a leader in the fight against climate change, dealt with droughts and championed criminal justice reform ahead of the national trend.
So what does this have to do with Joe Biden? After the reign of Captain Chaos in the White House, voters just might be in the mood for tried and true. Biden is respected on both sides of the aisle in the Senate (which of course doesn’t mean that Senate Republicans won’t attack him mercilessly in the context of a campaign). His political brand is set as a fighter for middle America with an ability to connect with working class white voters, many of whom turned out for Donald Trump in 2016. He’s got a comparatively liberal voting record, but he’s not seen as a left-wing culture warrior, let alone a socialist.
All this matters, especially when it’s obvious that President Trump’s entire re-election strategy — as amplified by opinion anchors at Fox News — is based on appeals to negative partisanship. That means demonizing the Democrats as the party of socialist radicals who believe that the white working class is irredeemably racist. This helps account for the parade of Fox banners framing the election as “Trump vs Socialism” and the attempt to make freshman congresswoman — and Democratic Socialist — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into the face of the Democratic Party. And the leftward lurch of the party on policy substance like Medicare-for-all (which actually is the government takeover of health care that Obamacare never was) as well as style is playing right into the Trump re-elect playbook.
But Joe Biden is largely inoculated from these attacks. He can’t be defined by Donald Trump. And he’s got deep credibility with the voters Democrats need to win back after 2016. Not coincidentally, he’s popular in the must-win battlegrounds of 2020 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and retiree-rich Florida. If Trump will again play the “us against them” game, Biden will look to a lot of swing voters in those states as “one of us.”
That’s not to say there aren’t risks with a Biden candidacy. With a four-decade voting record, there will be plenty to hit him on, public positions that haven’t aged well, from busing to his handling of Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas. Biden would be considered an undisciplined communicator compared to anyone but Donald Trump. And while another woman, Amy Lappos, has come forward like Lucy Flores did with an account of Biden’s public touching, and there may well be more, my guess is that many more will be in the Stephanie Carter camp — and none of it so far is in the same ballpark as Donald Trump’s record of alleged (and denied) sexual assaults and sexual harassment.
The most obvious deficit is Biden’s age. Trump is old, but Biden is older. If he seems to have lost a few miles off his fastball, the old nickname “Slow Joe” could take on a whole new meaning. But barring a lackluster campaign with literal faceplants, there’s a way to blunt this concern: campaign for one term out of the gate. Campaign as Biden the Bridge-Builder between generations as well as the hardhats’ advocate, determined to heal our divides and make America again seen as a leader on the world stage. Balance the ticket with age, race and gender. A Biden-Harris ticket, for example, would be hard to beat and give the fresh-faced Veep time to train up to take the top job rather than running into the “inexperienced” buzzsaw against an incumbent.
The future is always uncertain. Sure, Biden could blow up. But there are plenty of compelling reasons for Joe Biden to get in the race of a lifetime, aiming to reunite his party and the nation.