Joe Biden has led Democratic polls since day one, holding the kind of consistent lead within his party that Donald Trump held heading into the 2016 primaries. The numbers say he will be the nominee. They also say he will beat Trump. They’re wrong: you should still bet against Biden getting the nomination or getting into the White House.
Biden himself knows that his age and state of mind are a problem, and Glenn Thrush’s recent New York Times story showed that Barack Obama knows it, too. “At some point” in 2008, Thrush reports, while Biden was on his way to becoming the Democrats’ VP pick, he “told Obama aides that ‘Barack would never have to worry’ about him positioning himself for another presidential run. He was too old…”
That was over a decade ago. Today, according to Thrush, while he has accepted that Biden is running, “Obama has hammered away at the need for his campaign to expand his aging inner circle.” It’s the innermost circle of all that must worry him the most. Obama also told Biden’s people, per Thrush, “Win or lose, they needed to make sure Mr. Biden did not ‘embarrass himself’ or ‘damage his legacy’ during the campaign.
Biden at 76 shows his age more than Bernie Sanders (77) or Donald Trump (73). When Trump says something outrageous, that’s Trump being Trump. When Biden says something outrageous or bizarre, that’s partly his old habit, too—Thrush reminds us that in 2007 he called Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”—but his casual slips are increasingly worrying. The gaffes keep coming. How many will it take before voters seriously question his competence? If Biden is meant to be a contrast to Trump, those who say Trump is mentally unfit for office will have a hard time making the case that Forgetful Joe is an improvement.
Even the most ardent Biden supporter—and he’s not a man who inspires much ardor—can’t take seriously the idea of Biden as a two-term president. He would start a first term already older than Ronald Reagan was when he left office, and just two years from turning 80. The question will have to be asked sooner rather than later: will Biden acknowledge before the nomination is decided that he will be at most a one-term president?
Ah—but wouldn’t a one-term pledge be to his advantage? Republicans uncomfortable with Trump might be reassured: this would mean that after four short years of Biden, they could get what they really want, Nikki Haley or another establishment robo-Republican with Bush 3.0 software. And “woke” progressives otherwise unhappy with Old White Cisgender Joe could tolerate him for four years, too, if he had a sufficiently radical running mate poised to replace him after 2024.
That all sounds plausible, except that voters really do take one election at a time. Biden 2020 is not going to be about post-Biden 2024. And a one-term pledge, or even an informal understanding that Biden will be a one-termer, concedes right here and now that Biden can’t cut it as a normal president. It amounts to an admission that not only will he be too old in four years’ time, he’s already too old.
These are early days in the Democratic contest. We’re at a point where Biden’s name recognition is tremendous, but voters polled in, say, South Carolina, are surely remembering the Biden of the Obama years, not the post-Obama Biden. As Biden’s gaffes become as well known as the man’s name, his odds of beating Trump will tumble. Should he make it past the primaries, he won’t seem like a pair of safe hands with which to restore America to “normal.” He’ll be an unsteady old man who will look weak in the face of surging right-wing and left-wing movements. Will Joe be vigorous enough to keep the socialists in his own party in check? Will he be able to withstand a GOP opposition that is part-Trump, part-Tea Party? Will have the wherewithal to outmanoeuvre Mitch McConnell? I doubt Democrats can answer of these questions with confidence.
The issue with Biden is not just his age but the burden of his long record. It’s harder to lie than to tell the truth—you have to keep track of more things. And it’s harder to reconcile the contradictions in a long record in government, like Biden’s, with the ideological demands of today’s radicalised politics.
Biden is a politician of the 1970s. By habit he thinks in those terms. In one sense that’s his greatest strength: he can appeal to voters who are repulsed by the Democrats’ turn toward the lunatic left. But Biden is no Trump, prepared to run against his own party. He will have to lead the party of Ocasio-Cortez and “The Squad” even as he continues to defend his record on busing and the 1994 Crime Bill. That requires mental agility that many a politician half his age doesn’t possess. It’s a time bomb waiting to explode.
Biden is the quintessential establishment politician, a man who has to defend all of the ruinous judgments made by the political elite in the last 25 years, including the Iraq War—which Biden supported, like failed Democratic nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and unlike Obama. Biden is a step backward in that regard. Not that his association with the Obama record will save him, either. Immigration? Obama deported more people. Jobs? Unemployment is lower under Trump. Foreign policy under Obama? The Iran Deal and Obama’s war in Libya are hardly going to strike a nostalgic note with voters. (Thrush notes, by the way, that a terrible foreign-policy idea, “a plan for partitioning Iraq into three ethnic enclaves,” was also one Biden’s reasons for running in 2008.) Healthcare? Biden is stuck defending Obamacare, which is too left-wing for half the country and not left-wing enough for the other half.
All the obvious lines of attack against Trump are blunted if Biden is the Democratic nominee. Trump’s a racist? He reformed criminal justice; Biden sponsored the crime bill. Sexist? The pictures are worth a thousand words; Joe’s an old man who likes to touch young women. Will women in the suburbs really have a clear choice if Trump’s opponent is Gropey Joe?
The best thing Biden has going for himself is the division of his opposition. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are keeping the Medicare-for-all left split. If he were facing only one of them, Biden would be in serious trouble already. Even better for Biden, Warren and Sanders look about equally tough—Warren is determined, she’s more acceptable to the party’s moderates than Sanders is, but Sanders remains the favourite of the activist left. Neither has an obvious path to knocking the other out of the race: Sanders can hardly attack Warren from the left or accuse her of not being viable; and she can’t deploy a viability argument without risking a loss of her left flank to the very candidate she’s attacking. And so far, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg show little hope of chipping into Biden’s support on the centre-left.
Biden has wanted to be president for a long, long time: he first ran for the White House over thirty years ago, and according to sources “in Biden’s orbit” who spoke to Glenn Thrush, he never got over his failure. He saw 2008 as “his final chance to exorcise the humiliating memories of a promising 1988 campaign demolished by reports he had plagiarised speeches.” Biden told Obama he would never run for president again, yet now he is. His ambition has blinded him to reality: his time has not come, it’s already past, and as soon as Democratic voters decide between Sanders and Warren, they’ll let him know.