I Underestimated Joe Biden
Citing certain lagging indicators (waning support, money problems, an enthusiasm gap, etc.) I asked a question last summer — is Joe Biden the new Jeb Bush?
Well, that didn’t age well.
I wondered if Biden’s brand could still resonate with the Democratic base. The progressive element of the electorate is energized, and Biden’s pragmatic centrism — a relic of a bygone era — might not be the soup du jour.
Alas, I was wrong. Let me be the first to admit that I underestimated Joe Biden.
We were promised gaffes, but there haven’t been many. Of course, the “you ain’t black” comment was cringeworthy, but part of its noteworthiness was its uniqueness. Had Biden made similarly outrageous comments regularly, as was anticipated, it would be harder to remember specific examples.
I am particularly struck with Biden’s ability, even as a mature statesman, to evolve. During the primary, his campaign struggled to raise money, routinely finishing in the second or third tier among his Democratic colleagues. As the nominee, Biden has raised nearly three quarters of a billion dollars in just August and September alone. In October, so far, Biden is tripling Trump’s fundraising, making the Biden campaign an absolute financial juggernaut. The average donation is just $44, signaling grassroots enthusiasm.
The transformation is breathtaking, and it goes beyond money. Primary candidate Biden struggled in the early debates, failing to find his voice in a sea of newcomers. A cluttered debate stage that favored soundbites wasn’t the ideal situation for a stuttering politician who’s prone to detailed policy discussions and long-winded, personal anecdotes. Nervous Democrats saw the performances and wondered how Biden would look next to bull-in-a-China-shop Trump.
Let me tell you how he looked — fantastic. Biden easily trounced the president. He was calm, on message, and deliberate. His empathy was easily seen, and instead of listing personal grievances he discussed policy and his record. It was a breathe of fresh air. There was only one president on stage for those two debates, and it wasn’t Trump.
Biden’s messaging has also seen a positive transformation. “Return to normalcy” seemed to be the theme early on. “Big, structural change” was the lingua franca, and Biden didn’t speak the language. In some ways, it was probably harder for Biden to win the nomination than the presidency itself. Returning to normalcy, dare I say “making the news boring again,” is a winning argument. He’s been relentlessly on message, discussing Covid-19, building back the economy better, and taking swipes at Trump’s character and corruption. Even when Trump tried to change the topic, such as defunding the police, the Biden campaign steered through choppy waters and stayed the course.
It was easy for Biden to avoid the Trump labeling effort. Nobody thinks Biden is a socialist…because he isn’t a socialist. He’s not taking your guns, your Bible, or your oil. The Trumpian struggle to corner Biden was clear from the onset. On one hand, he was the senile elder who didn’t know where he was. On the other hand, he was the mastermind behind a radical progressive agenda. One day he was the author of the notorious 1994 crime bill, which expanded federal funding for the police and contributed to mass incarceration. The next day, he was for “defunding the police” and opposing law and order.
Well, which is it?
(Trump’s most efficacious line of attack was probably that Biden was a career politician. Unfortunately for the president, he debuted this messaging at the second debate. Too little, too late.)
The ultimate genius of the Biden campaign is its deployment of certain permission structures. By occupying the centrist lane, and keeping the liberal flank in line, Biden has allowed certain moderate Republicans to rent — albeit not buy — Democrats for one cycle. The underlying dynamic this election is that the liberals are motivated to vote against Trump. With the left solidly in his corner, Biden has focused resources, messaging, and energy towards the center, allowing him to gain ground with independents.
Part of Biden’s brilliance is not in something he does, but in something he avoids: wedge issues. This is especially impressive given there has never been a culture war that Trump has sought to avoid, even once claiming there was a “war on Thanksgiving.” But Biden is smart. He didn’t focus on cultural appropriation, intersectional feminism, or any other buzzword in a college lecture.
He’s Scranton Joe.
There is a famous quote from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche concerning monsters,
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
Trump tried everything to make this election as muddy and personal as possible. He churned up laptops, talked about Joe’s family, and even called for Biden’s incarceration. But Biden never lost his composure. He didn’t become a leftwing version of the president. For the most part, Biden avoided hurling blatantly personal insults towards the president. The differences are about character and policy, and Biden kept it that way.
Biden was walking a tightrope. He couldn’t completely disregard Trump’s brutish attacks and interruptions and be the victim of bully pulpit pugilism. But he also couldn’t become Trump lite. He couldn’t become a monster himself. Voters choose the antidote, not the replica.
Biden has also learned from previous failures. Four years ago this week, Hillary Clinton visited Arizona in the days leading up to the election. The ill-begotten trip has lived in infamy. Clinton lost Arizona, as every Democratic presidential candidate has done for decades. She didn’t visit Wisconsin, taking it for granted, and she lost that state too. Her campaign was accused of trying to run up the score instead of winning.
Biden’s campaign has been much more disciplined. Outside of a single trip to Texas and Georgia, Biden has been relentlessly devoted to resurrecting the “blue wall” in the upper midwest. The prospect of flipping Georgia or Texas, of capturing Arizona, of winning back Ohio…shiny objects have littered the pathway, but the Biden campaign has exercised discipline. They stuck to the script.
As a Democrat, a voter, and an American, I couldn’t be more proud of Joe Biden. His transformation these past two years has been nothing short of remarkable. I underestimated Joe. But I won’t make that mistake again.