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Letter from Washington

Uncle Joe In the Arena

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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Can Barack Obama’s former vice president stop Donald Trump?

SOMETHING ODD HAS happened in the Democrats’ presidential primary. For the first few months of the year, as a dozen Democratic members of Congress put themselves forward to challenge Donald Trump next year, their party seemed to be gripped by left-wing fervour. The leading candidates, including senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Corey Booker, all promised some form of state-funded universal healthcare, free college and a massive state-led effort to combat climate change. Others, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, harped on the hot-button gender and racial equality issues that conservative Americans consider even more characteristic of the “radical left”. Trump’s strategists, chortling with glee, began plotting a campaign in which the president would present himself as America’s last-best defender against socialism. But then, late last month, Joe Biden entered the contest and everything changed.

The 76-year-old former vice president is no one’s idea of a socialist firebrand. Over the course of a five-decade-long political career, in the Senate and as Barack Obama’s deputy, he has stayed within or close to the Democrats’ moderate mainstream. A son of hardscrabble Scranton, a coal-town in northern Pennsylvania, Biden has never tired of trumpeting his working-class roots, long after he departed them. He is too maverick to be easily compartmentalised, yet has strong ties to the labour unions, a depleted Democratic constituency, and a history of caution on divisive social issues, such as abortion, which he once largely opposed. He also has old-school manners that can sit uneasily with the modern Democratic Party. For example, he has a famous disregard for personal space: the former vice president has a habit of hugging and tickling his constituents, young and old, male and female. This, minus the gropiness, was why Obama recruited him. Allying Biden’s working-class ‘Regular Joe’ image with Obama’s cooler, younger, more cosmopolitan and multi-racial cache was a means to unite the Democrats’ fractured coalition. Yet Biden is currently doing a surprisingly good job of uniting the party on his own.

The septuagenarian politician, who entered the Democratic 2020 contest later than any of his main rivals, has led in 38 of the 40 most recent polls. And his lead is growing. A collation of polls by the website Realclearpolitics.com puts him on 41 per cent. That is 27 points ahead of his nearest rival, Bernie Sanders, in a 14-man field: Sanders, the runner-up to Hillary Clinton in 2016, is on 14 per cent. So much for the conventional wisdom that the senator from Vermont’s hard-left positions had redefined the Democratic Party. The latest poll from South Carolina, an early voting state and the first with significant number of African Americans, gives Biden an even bigger lead. It puts him on 46 per cent, which represents a startling dominance of such a fractured field. At the equivalent point in the similarly crowded Republican primary in 2015, by contrast, the top candidate, Jeb Bush, was polling at 15 per cent—a level he only narrowly surpassed before succumbing to Trump’s insurgency. Biden is now the clear frontrunner to take on Trump next year. And if he does so, early polls suggest, he would have a decent chance of becoming America’s next president.

Why has his candidacy turned the Democratic field on its head so dramatically? It is not only because Biden is well-known. Sanders has similarly high name-recognition among Democratic voters. Nor is it because Biden is a great politician, exactly. He is well- informed, right-minded, likeable and respected for his loyalty to Obama, who is revered among Democrats. Biden’s connection to him, which he will talk up endlessly on the trail, is plainly one of his strongest suits. So is the fortitude he has shown in dealing with a pair of terrible personal tragedies. Shortly after he was first elected to the Senate from Delaware, aged 30, his first wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident. In 2015, his eldest son Beau—a survivor of that fatal crash—succumbed to brain cancer, a catastrophe Biden has written a moving book about. Yet, for all his political strengths and personal courage, the former vice president is garrulous, gaffe-prone and has proved to be a dreadful campaigner in the past.

Joe Biden is too maverick to be easily compartmentalised, yet has strong ties to the labour unions, a depleted Democratic constituency, and a history of caution on divisive social issues, such as abortion, which he once largely opposed

His two previous runs for president, in 1988 and 2008, started ingloriously and quickly fizzled in to nothing. His latest run could go the same way—especially after his rivals start digging up the many embarrassing votes he has cast and insensitive things he has said over the decades. As recently as 2007, Biden called Obama “the first mainstream African America who is articulate and bright and clean”. By the likes of the relentlessly right-on modern Democratic Party, Biden is a dinosaur. Then why are Democratic voters, at this early stage of the contest, embracing him so fulsomely?

It is, first of all, because the party’s leftward drift has been exaggerated. The hard-left positions taken by the early primary contenders are popular among the well-educated progressives who dominate the party’s activist cadres and social media ecosystem. The rise of online fund-raising, as pioneered by Obama and Sanders, has also encouraged candidates to take hard-left positions, as a means to stand out from the crowd. Yet many Democratic voters remain fairly moderate, especially non-White ones, who constitute around 40 per cent of the total. The alacrity with which most Democratic candidates have nonetheless herded to the left, where they are competing for a smaller share of votes, therefore left a huge opportunity for a moderate candidate. And though Biden is not the only such pragmatist in the race—Beto O’Rourke, a former Congressman from Texas and Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old mayor from Indiana, are two others—he is by far the best-known.

Equally important, even Democratic voters who yearn for a more social democratic America, seem willing to put that ambition aside for now. Democrats’ overriding concern is to get rid of Trump, and they are liable to favour the candidate who looks likeliest to beat him. Polling of the general electorate suggests that candidate may be Biden.

Kamala Harris has not lived up to the promise of her dynamic entry into the race. Her several policy gaffes—she briefly suggested, for example, that she would abolish private healthcare insurance— have reinforced a suspicion that her embrace of hard-left positions was tactical and ill-thought-out

Given his manifest weaknesses, that does not say much for the alternative candidates. Again, this is partly a matter of political judgment. Sanders has similarly high name recognition, formidable fund-raising powers and a ready-made campaign architecture, assembled during his strong run against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic ticket in 2016. Yet, he seems to have a hard ceiling of around 20 per cent of the Democratic vote: most Democrats find his left-wing ideas and radical style off-putting. Others may be better equipped to challenge Biden’s current dominance. Perhaps most notable is Kamala Harris, a mixed-race senator from California (born of an Indian mother). She has not lived up to the promise of her dynamic entry into the race. Her several policy gaffes—she briefly suggested, for example, that she would abolish private healthcare insurance—have reinforced a suspicion that her embrace of hard-left positions was tactical and ill-thought-out. She can seem a mechanical campaigner, too. Yet she has gravitas, a potential following among non-White Americans, and the policy smarts to pivot back to the centre-left if she chooses to.

Buttigieg is another with the potential to rise. In many ways he has been the phenomenon of the primary thus far. Little- known before he announced his intention to run for president, the young mayor has looked the most accomplished and likeable campaigner in the field. He has a polished and interesting resume, as a musical, multilingual, graduate of Harvard and Oxford, who was deployed to Afghanistan as a naval reserve. He also has sharp instincts. Buttigieg thinks voters follow leaders they like and trust, not those with the most ingenious answer to the college debt burden, and he is probably right. Yet he has so far struggled to find support beyond well-educated White liberals like himself. His status as America’s first openly gay presidential candidate, married to a man, might be making this harder than it would be otherwise. African Americans, in particular, tend to be more hostile to gay marriage than Americans at large. The recent poll from South Carolina, ominously for Buttigieg, suggested none supported him there.

Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old mayor from Indiana, thinks voters follow leaders they like and trust, not those with the most ingenious answer to the college debt burden, and he is probably right. Yet, he has so far struggled to find support beyond well-educated White liberals like himself

In addition to those three, there are perhaps three candidates with a lesser, but appreciable, chance of emerging from the pack. O’Rourke is another whose campaign got off to a high-octane start, then spluttered. Yet he remains charismatic and likeable. Senator Corey Booker is another likeable and impressive all- rounder—the African American former mayor of Newark senator played college football in California and also studied at Oxford. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a left-winger and former Harvard law professor, is by far the most accomplished policy wonk in the field. Yet all three have weaknesses that their most immediate rivals lack. O’Rourke appears less serious and well-prepared than Buttigieg. Booker’s commitment to bringing Americans together is not something the fiercely partisan general electorate seems to share. Warren needs to unify the left-wing vote to present a serious challenge, but this looks hard given the faithfulness of Sanders’ supporters. The rest of the field—a dozen more members of Congress, self-funded millionaires and mayors—appears to be little more than a distraction.

MEANWHILE TRUMP, WHO is gearing up to launch his own re-election campaign, is licking his chops. Having little serious interest in policy or governing, the president has found the two-year pause from campaigning—the business of being president, that is—rather hard to deal with. His zest for creating a constant stream of new hate figures and enemies—including Black American football players, immigrant children and the late Senator John McCain—is indicative of this. Everything is personal with Trump and every day is a new battle for personal vindication. He is accordingly never happier (in so far as the combative president ever seems happy) than when lambasting his rivals and accusers in front of an adoring crowd. So it is a relief for him that the Democrats are at last in the process of selecting a fresh target for him to aim at.

At a rally at Panama City, in Florida’s panhandle, last week the president trialled various efforts to rubbish his wannabe challengers. He called them socialists. He sneered that Buttigieg would be putty in the hands of Xi Jinping. But he struggled to be as rude about Biden as he would no doubt like to be. He calls him “Sleepy Joe”, which is hardly devastating by Trumpian standards of personal destruction. Indeed, Trump is believed to consider the former vice president his most formidable potential opponent, chiefly because of his rival appeal to working-class Whites. That alone suggests the Democratic voters who have so dramatically boosted Biden’s chances are onto something.

Even so, it is hard to be altogether thrilled by the prospect of Biden as the Democratic champion. His limitations are too obvious; his habit of putting his foot in it is sure to be in evidence before long. Therefore, even if Biden does turn out to be the most unifying candidate for Democrats, he is unlikely to be, on his merits, a strong presidential candidate. He never has been before. And there are doubts about the vice president’s age and vigour. Biden—who he is pitching to become the oldest new president ever—is not young for his age. For the many who fear the prospect of Trump securing a second presidential term, Biden’s candidacy is likely to be a white-knuckle ride.

Yet, it has perhaps already done the Democrats a favour by reminding them of their political interests. The notion that the party had veered hard to the left, from whence its challenge to Trump would probably come, was conventional wisdom a few weeks ago. Now it seems improbable. Democratic voters have signalled their different view of the matter. If Biden falters, as he may, he is likeliest to be replaced by another pragmatist. Harris, whose drift to the left never seemed altogether plausible, may well be best-placed.

That, in turn, is an indication of how the winning Democrat is most likely to take on Trump. Implicitly or otherwise, he or she will promise America and the world a return to normalcy, after the chaotic Trump years, not an alternative burst of disruption from the left. It is still too early to predict how that pitch might fare: the state of the economy, foreign policy, and Trump’s Byzantine legal troubles will all play a part in that. Even so, it would be a reassuring message to many in America and elsewhere: more normality in the Oval Office would be good.

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