Why Biden Leads the Democratic Field

Why Biden Leads the Democratic Field
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Why Biden Leads the Democratic Field
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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Why does Joe Biden, with all his obvious weaknesses, currently lead the Democratic presidential field?

A big part of the answer is that his party knows him, likes him, and respects his years of fighting for their side. They also know his manifold shortcomings. He is not the brightest bulb on the chandelier. He is prone to gaffes—often big ones—and makes inexplicable policy errors, like his statement last week that China is hardly a U.S. adversary. His years of Washington experience leave him with a vulnerable record of votes and statements, many of them out-of-step with today’s electorate, especially Democratic activists. He is a consummate Washington insider in an era when everybody wants an outsider. Even worse, some of his insider connections apparently benefited his family, especially his son Hunter, who flew with the vice president on official trips and then forged profitable business ties in those countries.

With all those negatives, why is Joe Biden leading the 2020 Democratic field?

One reason cannot be stressed enough: He loves campaigning—old-fashioned, “retail” stops where pols slap backs, kiss babies, shake hands, and toss red meat to the crowd. (Smelling hair is less welcome.) Americans are attracted to candidates who project upbeat, positive images, candidates who enjoy being with them and asking for their support. What they don’t like are finger-wagging school principals who tell them to eat their broccoli. That’s why Elizabeth Warren does not wear well. Most of the other candidates don’t seem to connect at all. The only exceptions are South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and possibly New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Biden is a happy contrast to this glum crowd. Like President Trump, he has fun at his rallies and is energized by the cheers. The downside is that Biden’s improvisations often end with his foot wedged in his mouth.

Second, he has nearly universal name recognition. Better yet, that recognition is largely positive. Naturally, his primary opponents will work hard to tarnish his image. Trump could wait for them to do this work, but he won’t. Biden and the Democrats will be attacking Trump, and the president always hits back, hard.

The advantage of Biden’s positive name recognition is that he can spend his campaign dollars on other things, primarily building his organization and burnishing his image. Meanwhile, his opponents are still trying to get voters to spell Klobuchar, Hickenlooper, or Bennet with one “t.” That’s a big advantage for Biden.

Third, no candidate is more closely associated with President Barack Obama. That will be an asset in the general election and is an even bigger one in the Democratic primaries. Yes, the Democrats have moved further left since Obama left office, but the party still nurtures warm memories of what the former veep calls the “Obama-Biden years.”

That’s a winning phrase, at least for Democrats. They would gladly perform electro-shock therapy, if they could, to erase the intervening years, with Hillary Clinton’s disastrous ascendancy and Trump’s victory. Biden takes the party back to a happier time, when they were in power and the country was led by a calm executive who advocated traditional Democratic policies—and then pushed them to the next level, especially on health care.

Biden promises to sustain this legacy. He will run as the third term for a popular president, just as George H.W. Bush did. That unique position gives Biden a major advantage.

Fourth, and closely related to the Obama connection, is Biden’s position as a center-left candidate. So far, he is the most prominent one, by far. That could change if Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Mayor Pete manages to build a broader base. For now, though, Biden is the frontrunner in the middle lane, the one Democratic professionals, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, believe is the only path to victory in 2020.

The activist base is much further left, of course. Since these activists dominate the primaries and fundraising, their views have already pulled the field toward them. That includes Biden. The candidates know these more extreme positions will be albatrosses in the general election, but they know, too, that they won’t reach the general election unless they win the primaries.

Winning in November depends on retaking the industrial Midwest, and only centrist Democrats can do it. That is Biden’s fifth advantage. He has a well-earned image as a "fighter for workers" and, equally important, as an ordinary guy, not a member of the party’s coastal elite. That’s why Democratic insiders think Biden is their best chance to beat Trump in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If Biden falters, then Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and others will try to grasp that mantle. It is out of reach for most others, including Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).

So far, Biden has edged leftward, but he has not jumped in the deep end. Instead, he is promising to extend Obama-era programs rather than initiating huge new ones. As the primaries heat up, Biden will face a choice. He will either have to move further left (to co-opt his opponents) or directly attack their proposals as too costly and unrealistic. Attacking is risky as long as leftists dominate the primaries. It will certainly alienate many left-wing activists, especially Bernie Sanders’ supporters, whose votes are vital in the general election. We simply don’t know yet what Biden will do. He probably doesn’t know himself.

What are Biden’s immediate challenges, beyond building a “ground game” and fundraising? First, he has to develop concrete policy proposals on immigration, health care, the environment, gun control, abortion, and tax policy. His proposals have to thread a needle: They must be acceptable to both the Democratic base and the general electorate. Second, he must respond to damaging attacks from his primary opponents. Third, he must rebut the charge that his family profited from his official connections. Fourth, he must deal with the scandals beginning to envelop the Obama-era FBI, Department of Justice, and intelligence agencies. Finally, he must avoid any glaring gaffes on the campaign trail, a near-impossible task for voluble Joe.

If Biden can do all that, he will remain in front. Some Democrats will support him enthusiastically. Many more will do so grudgingly. “He’s our best shot, and I guess he’s okay." That might work against Trump’s polarizing presidency, but it’s a narrow path to the Oval Office. Very narrow.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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