Electability and Joe Biden
By Rick Holmes
Sept. 12, 2019
Keene, NH – It’s a clear, warm Saturday morning, and the crowd that nearly fills a corner of the campus at Keene State waits for Joe Biden. It’s a well-behaved group, older and quieter than you might expect on a college campus. They are supportive – many carry Biden signs or wear Biden stickers – but there’s not much excitement in the air.
Biden takes the stage to applause that is warm, but not wild. He starts off as what Donald Trump calls low-energy Joe, rambling from issue to issue, paying tribute to service members, declaring his principled refusal to criticize the president’s foreign policy while Trump is overseas, and saying nice things about Keene. Biden keeps calling troops killed in battle “fallen angels,” which I find strange, but he didn’t misuse the word literally once, something he used to do every other sentence, so there’s that.
I notice no gaffes, but the Biden gaffe-watch is a gotcha game that is more distracting than illuminating. Biden is a loose speaker, for sure. Barack Obama never started a sentence without knowing exactly how the paragraph that followed would end. Biden just opens his mouth and watches the words pour out.
Once Biden gets into his stump speech, the familiar applause lines carry more energy and get more response. After the speech, he hangs around for more than an hour, shaking hands and taking selfies. A young man in the crowd confesses to him that he has a problem with stuttering, and Biden lights up. He too had a stuttering problem, he says, and makes arrangements to speak with him later in private.
That’s the Joe Biden so many people love: Uncle Joe, who’s got more empathy in his little finger than Donald Trump has in his plus-sized body.
Biden’s greatest strength is one that doesn’t carry much currency in an age of reality TV politics, when people vote for the candidate who is most like them, who voices their grievances, shares their values and stirs their emotions. After decades on newspaper editorial boards weighing endorsements for offices from school board to president, I look at elections as hiring decisions. I want to know if a candidate has the knowledge and skills to do the job. I want to know what they’ve done, not just what they think. I value experience.
On these measures, Joe Biden comes out way ahead of the competition. He knows how to do the things presidents do; how to negotiate with foreign leaders, how to manage judicial nominations, how to command generals, how to get major legislation through Congress, how to staff an administration, how to formulate public policy and see that it is executed according to plan. He’s done it before.
There are back-bench Congress members running for president who have never been asked to make a decision with a national impact. Sure, his opponents say the right things, but what have they actually done?
Biden has been leaving footprints on the public record for 40 years. It’s a mixed record, to be sure. He wrote the 1994 crime bill that included an assault weapons ban and the Violence Against Women Act, but it also promoted mass incarceration. He chaired the confirmation hearings that left Anita Hill humiliated and put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he came to understand leaders and conflicts around the world. He came up with a plan to partition Iraq that, in retrospect, looks promising. But as vice-president, he failed to end the war in Afghanistan and left Iraq even messier than he found it.
Biden was a good vice-president, earning Obama’s confidence and affection. He oversaw the successful implementation of the sprawling 2009 stimulus act, an exercise in practical governance too little noted. But what Obama needed most was for Biden to use his 36 years of Senate experience to get the administration’s agenda through Congress. His most important job was to outsmart Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader bent on total obstruction, and on that, Biden came up short. Worse, he doesn’t seem to have learned anything from it.
Biden’s many years in the public eye have made him the front-runner in a huge field of lesser-known Democrats. But voters often parrot pundits, leading to circular logic. Biden leads the polls because he’s considered most “electable” – easily the most important test for Trump-obsessed Democrats – and he’s considered most electable because he leads in the polls.
But it’s a long five months before New Hampshire’s Democrats cast the first votes of the 2020 primaries, and voters here are sampling the candidates with an intimacy unavailable to voters in most other states. These days you can find candidates shaking hands on every New Hampshire street corner, with clipboard-carrying aides at the ready to sign up volunteers.
Those listening to Biden in Keene will surely lend an ear to the other contenders, and my guess is that even the ones most enthusiastically waving Biden signs have thought about who their second choice might be. They are vetting the candidates face-to-face, getting to know them without the filters of TV and social media, and that’s a good thing, especially given the high stakes and the large cast of candidates.
New Hampshire has toppled front-runners before. Next February, when Democrats here and in other early primary states actually vote, we’ll know a lot more about who is really electable.