Countless Democrats champion Joe Biden as the most “electable” candidate against Donald Trump. But the events of the last week alone illustrate just how rickety that theory is.
Last week the former vice president begged ultra-wealthy donors on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to support him and promised them that “nothing will fundamentally change” about their status in society. He also waxed nostalgic for a time where “civility” reigned in politics even as he worked with segregationists, and awkwardly reminisced about how the viciously racist Sen. James Eastland used to call him “son” instead of “boy.” And at a forum hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign he promised that he could break congressional gridlock by making efforts to “shame people” like Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mconnell into cooperation before a plainly skeptical audience.
These statements raise serious questions about Biden’s alleged lock on “electability.” I should note that the concept of electability, which tracks quite a bit with the hateful idea of “likability,” tends to buttress status quo thinking, gives an edge to white males, and leads people astray analytically — who thought Obama or Trump were highly electable during their primaries or general elections? But for the sake of engaging directly with proponents of this idea, let’s grant that electability is knowable and desirable. Recent events are a reminder that nobody should be confident that Biden has any special claim to it.
That’s because being eminently electable isn’t just about winning over moderates, it’s also about inspiring your base to vote for you in the first place. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss is a clear cautionary tale: Four million Obama voters, disproportionately young and non-white and fairly liberal, stayed home instead of voting for her. Given that Clinton lost by some 80,000 votes in three swing states, polling experts estimate that her inability to motivate registered Democrats to show up for her is a reason she lost the election. Biden’s sycophancy toward the 1%, his tone deaf ear on racial politics, and his naivete about the nature of power are liabilities for a candidate who must mobilize an increasingly liberal and diverse base in huge numbers in 2020. Remember: Trump caused Republican turnout to surge in the 2018 midterms — he’s not to be underestimated. In that context, electability isn’t just about being able to schmooze with blue collar voters in the Rust Belt, it’s about having your finger on the pulse of your own party.
Biden courted elite donors last week at the $34 million penthouse of a hedge fund billionaire in New York where he promised them that, unlike so many other candidates in the race, he wouldn’t threaten their way of life. Here’s a bit of what he said, via a press pool report by the Wall Street Journal’s Ken Thomas:
By the way, you know, remember I got in trouble with some of the people on my team, on the Democratic side, because I said, ‘You know what I’ve found is rich people are just as patriotic as poor people.’ Not a joke. I mean, we may not want to demonize anybody who has made money.”
The truth of the matter is, you all, you all know, you all know in your gut what has to be done. We can disagree in the margins but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change. Because when we have income inequality as large as we have in the United States today, it brews and ferments political discord and basic revolution. Not a joke. Not a joke. I’m not (inaudible) revolution. But not a joke. It allows demagogues to step in and say the reason where we are is because of the other, the other.” You’re not the other. I need you very badly. I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down. I promise you.
Biden’s language here is characteristically meandering, but the overall point is that any policy agenda he undertakes to address inequality will not infringe upon the extreme wealth of the ultra-rich. His message is a defense of the order that triggered the very boom in populism that’s now rippling through America.
This is part of a broader trend — Biden’s tack has been to collect as much money as possible from super-wealthy donors, in contrast to other front-runners like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The money, of course, comes with strings attached. And there’s a growing number of Democratic voters who aren’t fond of that.
The remarks about segregationist senators were also the kind of thing that would concern an increasingly diverse and antiracist base:
Mr. Biden then recalled his time serving in the Senate. “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Mr. Biden said, briefly channeling the late Mississippi senator’s Southern drawl. Mr. Biden said of Mr. Eastland, “He never called me boy, he always called me son.”
Mr. Biden then brought up a deceased Georgia senator, “a guy like Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys. Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
These comments are not, as some critics have suggested, condoning segregation or racist lawmakers. But they’re troubling on a number of levels.
Firstly, it’s beyond comprehension why Biden would either take pride in or make a joke about being called “son” instead of “boy” by Eastland, when clearly the use of “boy” is a racialized term and wouldn’t typically be used to refer to a white colleague. Cory Booker took issue with this and called for Biden to apologize, which Biden responded to by saying that he didn’t have “a racist bone in” his body and demanding that Booker apologize.
Secondly, as New York magazine’s Jon Chait pointed out in a thoughtful analysis, it’s a strange example to use. Biden can draw from countless examples of difficult or morally complex cooperation — why single out working with segregationists? His theory might be that he’s using the most extreme example possible to make a point about how good he is at finding common ground. But that’s not really the case here. These segregationist senators were in his own party— as fellow Democrats, they had natural incentives to work together, and don’t they represent an example of the bipartisan relationship-building that Biden likes to tout. Furthermore, Biden’s background reveals he wasn’t actually always at odds with the segregationists. In Delaware, a former slave state, he aggressively lobbied againstdesegregation busing in the 70s. He and Eastland both opposed marijuana legalization and amnesty for Vietnam-draft evaders, putting them at odds with many Democrats. Biden also was a key architect of the Democratic Party’s move toward mass incarceration, and worked with rabid segregationists to craft and pass extremely extremely racialized crime bills.
Put it altogether, and it’s evident that Biden doesn’t grasp the seismic shifts in racial politics that have taken place since his days in the Senate and even just the past five years. A politician with electable discipline wouldn’t be so nonchalant about these stories, and wouldn’t demand a black senator apologize to him for expressing concern over Biden’s distasteful remarks about not being called a “boy.” So far there aren’t any indications that Biden’s segregationist remarks have hurt his overall standing, but in a Politico/ Morning Consult poll a not-insignificant number of voterssay the remarks made them less likely to vote for him in the primaries. The key question is how many more of these moments will happen between now and the end of the primaries.
Finally, Biden’s remarks at the Poor People’s summits about how he thinks he can use “shame” to force politicians like McConnell to work with him is almost an obscenity in the Trump era. In fact even in the Obama era, McConnell shamelessly admitted that his only goal was to prevent Obama’s reelection, and that he had no interest in governance. Biden’s faith in some kind of magical spell that will change Republican behavior is not going to cause voters to abandon him per se, but it speaks to a broader problem with his pitch — he lacks a compelling theory of power, and he is unable to identify antagonists that explain why society is structured the way it is. That’s not a problem that Warren or Sanders — who are hot on his heels — have. And that might be why he reportedly received a uniquely unenthusiastic response from his audience.
Clinton’s 2016 pitch was predicated on technocratic competence, while Biden’s is schmoozing competence. It underpins everything from his theory of power to his legislative outlook to his fundraising strategy. But while he has the trappings of a good schmoozer — he speaks quickly, confidently and intimately; he seems to be friends with most everybody — he’s not all that great at it. Fast but sloppy talking helped destroy his first two presidential campaigns, and there are signs that it could happen again.
More importantly, Biden’s schmoozing worldview is a risky strategy in an era of extreme volatility and growing populism. It involves whispering in the ears of the powerful, and exceptional trust — gullibility, really — when negotiating with opponents. Will that inspire non-moderate Democrats in 2020? Biden’s standing in national polls has fallen about 10 points since its peak in early May. That’s not necessarily because he has been driving away voters as much as other candidates are outshining him, but in either case it’s not surprising considering how clumsy he is in trying to keep pace with the zeitgeist.
If you support Biden because you’re a moderate, fair enough. If you are convinced he’s the most “electable,” it’s probably time to pay closer attention.
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