Biden Notwithstanding, It’s Biden

A likely majority of Democrats settle on the former veep, but the party remains deeply divided.

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Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

Lazarus had Jesus and Joe Biden had Jim Clyburn. If ever a candidate was raised from the dead, Biden’s the guy. In a way, Biden’s resurrection was the more impressive. Lazarus, after all, didn’t carry Texas.

Outside of California, Colorado, Vermont, and Utah, Joe Biden swept Super Tuesday so decisively that by the time you read this, he may have driven Michael Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren from the race (though it was Warren who doomed Bloomberg; Biden merely drove a stake through his heart). By the time you read this, since California will still be in the early stages of vote-counting, Biden will likely hold a lead in delegates over Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator will probably regain that lead when all of California’s votes are counted, but I suspect it will be Biden, not Bernie, who comes to Milwaukee with a majority of the delegates in hand.

That outcome isn’t foreordained, however. Joe and Bernie—the Sunshine Boys of the winnowed field—still have a number of debates remaining on their dance card, and debates are Bernie’s friend. In his Tuesday night speech, Sanders pointed out that Biden had voted for the Iraq War, on which he had voted no; had voted to reduce increases in Social Security, while he had consistently called for increasing benefits; had voted for every rotten trade deal of the ’90s and the aughts, which Sanders had opposed; and had voted for a bankruptcy bill that victimized consumers, which Sanders—and Elizabeth Warren—had worked mightily to defeat.

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Since he arrived in the Senate in 1973, Biden has personified, for better and worse, the conventional wisdom of the Democratic Party, in both its humane initiatives (he authored, for instance, the Violence Against Women Act) and its kowtowing to Wall Street (see previous paragraph). The sole basis for hoping a Biden presidency would be better than those of the last three Democratic presidents is that the party today is well to the left of where it’s been since the ’60s, and Biden neither gets out front nor lags far behind his sense of where the party is.

The exit polls from Tuesday’s primaries show a party that has certainly moved leftward. In every state that voted Tuesday, a majority of Democrats told the pollsters that they supported Medicare for All over a system of private insurance. (Interestingly, those majorities were slimmer in states where the share of the uninsured was lowest, like Massachusetts and California, and fatter in states with a high share of the uninsured, like Texas.) In most of those states, the Democrats who said they viewed socialism favorably outnumbered those who viewed it unfavorably.

Why, then, did Sanders lose so many of those states if their voters actually endorsed his beliefs? The main reason has to be their belief that he’d be a weaker candidate than Biden when pitted against Donald Trump. The coming debates offer Sanders his one real opportunity to reverse that perception, should Biden falter. After an uncharacteristically stellar victory speech on the night of the South Carolina primary, Biden was sub-spectacular last night, shouting rather than speaking (though he certainly was entitled to his elation), and at one point even sounding alarmingly like Trump—not, I hasten to make clear, echoing Trump’s bigotry and cruelty, but suggesting, as Trump often does, that his mind is stuck in the 1950s. If elected president, Biden vowed, he’d legalize the Dreamers and the 11 million undocumented immigrants, he’d be labor’s friend—all standard-issue and completely commendable Democratic positions. Then, however, he reeled off a list of the workers he’d help: “the iron workers, the boilermakers,” and a host of kindred working stiffs, most in construction, all in trades whose numbers have dwindled since his youth.

The sole basis for hoping a Biden presidency would be better than those of the last three Democratic presidents is that the party today is well to the left of where it’s been since the ’60s, and Biden neither gets out front nor lags far behind his sense of where the party is.

Boilermakers? Perfectly fine to single these workers out, but where were the nurses and fast-food workers and teachers, the workers, most of them female, who constitute the majority of today’s working class? Just as it’s disquieting to think that Trump sees the economy still centered on coal and steel, it’s also vexing that when Biden thinks of workers, the boilermakers spring to mind. How many millennials, much less Gen Zers, even know what a boilermaker is—or was?

Which brings us to the biggest problem with Biden’s electability: He often seems as incapable of connecting with the world of the young as Trump is. In Massachusetts yesterday, Biden won just 18 percent of voters under 45; in Texas, just 16 percent of voters under 45; in Minnesota, just 17 percent; in California, an appalling 8 percent.

Sanders does almost as poorly among voters over 65. If either were to win the nomination—and one of them almost surely will—he’d have to do more than reach out rhetorically to the other’s supporters. He’d have to modify some of his positions—in Biden’s case, for instance, going beyond his commitment to tuition-free community college to abolishing tuition at all public colleges and universities, and abolishing student debt. As to Bernie, he’d need, for starters, to focus less on creating Medicare for All and more on adding to the Medicare coverage that seniors currently receive some big-ticket items, like dental and vision care, that Medicare doesn’t cover. These suggestions just begin the list of altered policies the Sunshine Boys need to embrace, and programmatic shifts like these may do no more than boost their support by a couple of percentage points.

But neither of these candidates has shown they can cross the great divide in the Democratic universe—a crossing which is the prerequisite for beating Trump. They had better start working at it, pronto.

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