Joe Biden Can Beat Trump in 2020, but Will the Democratic Party Let Him Run?

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In this handout from the White House, then-Vice President Joe Biden poses for an official portrait in his West Wing Office at the White House January 10, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Illustraion by Gluekit; Photo by David Lienemann/The White House/Getty

Five months—five agonizing months. That’s how long it had been since Joe Biden’s eldest son, Beau, died of an aggressive brain tumor. For three years, Joe had cared for Beau, an Iraq War veteran and Delaware’s attorney general, but by the spring of 2015 he was gone. The pain of his son’s death was still raw for the vice president as he stepped behind a microphone in the White House’s Rose Garden in October 2015, flanked by his wife, Jill, and President Barack Obama.

You could see Joe Biden’s hurt; his normally ebullient smile was gone, replaced by a fatigued grimace. Facing a small crowd and live cameras, Biden announced what many had long expected: He would not be running for president in 2016. The longtime senator was not emotionally ready. The “grieving process,” Biden said, “doesn’t respect or much care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.”

What few in Washington knew then was that Biden had come very close to running. As the former vice president writes in his new book, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, Steve Ricchetti, his White House chief of staff, and Mike Donilon, a campaign strategist, among others, had secretly been planning his presidential campaign. They knew how they were going to raise money, get him on the ballot and make a strong bid for the nomination. Politicians such as Bill Bradley had offered support, as had celebrities such as George Clooney. Donilon, with help from others, had even penned a 2,500-word speech announcing Biden’s candidacy. “We’re one America,” it read. “And everyone—I mean everyone—is in on the deal.”

The plan was in place, but the night before Biden’s Rose Garden speech, Donilon suddenly reversed course. “You shouldn’t do this,” he told Biden, who had to admit he was right. For months, he had been wrestling with Beau’s death, sometimes welling up in public, most notably in an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in September, and he’d come to believe he wasn’t capable of giving all his energy to a presidential bid.

This was the second family tragedy for Biden during his long tenure in D.C. In December 1972, just after he had been elected to the Senate at age 29, Biden’s wife, Neilia, and their 4-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed when a tractor-trailer hit their car. Biden’s sons, Beau and Hunter, then just 2 and 4, survived but were hospitalized for months.

Biden spoke poignantly about those losses during his recent cross-country book tour. And inevitably, he’d be asked about the 2020 election. That’s what happened on a crisp night in November, when almost 2,000 people piled into Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theatre. “I haven’t decided to run,” he insisted, but the implication was clear: He hasn’t decided not to run.

FE_Biden_02_99615201 Then-Senator Joe Biden, D-Del., facing camera, hugs his son Beau Biden on the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver when he made is vice-presidential acceptance speech, August 27, 2008. om Williams/Roll Call/Getty

This wiggle room encourages all those who believe Biden could thump Donald Trump. And he certainly has the résumé: After 36 years in the Senate and two terms in the White House alongside Obama, he knows how to get things done in D.C.—from pushing the Clinton administration to get more involved in the Balkans wars in the ’90s to spearheading the massive stimulus program under Obama after the 2008 financial crisis. Yet Biden’s greatest strength—his experience in the Capitol—could be his greatest weakness for Democrats. With anti-establishment fever still burning all over the country, progressives like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts seem to be the ones energizing the party.

Biden supporters counter that the ex-veep—with his affability and charm—may be the best person to unite the country after the divisive Trump years. He may also be the only person who can bring white working-class voters in key states like Michigan and Ohio back to the Democratic Party.

No one is certain how that voting bloc would have gone if Biden had run against Trump, but Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska is confident he knows who would be sitting in the Oval Office this morning. “[Biden] would have won in a landslide,” he told The New York Times.

The former veep might have beaten Trump in 2016, and he might beat him in 2020—if he gets that far. Biden is well liked by most liberals—he championed the nation’s first black president and came out for gay marriage ahead of Obama and both Clintons. But compared with Warren and others, he may seem too moderate, too establishment, too white and maybe too old (he’s now 75) to mount a bid in 2020. And if he runs, his progressive rivals will pore over a half-century-long paper trail and inevitably find plenty with which to bludgeon him during the primaries.

America may want him to run, but do the Democrats?

Blue-Collar Uncle Joe

It was totally unscripted—as most of Biden’s best moments are—and a poignant reminder that politicians are, occasionally, human beings. In mid-December, he appeared on The View, which is co-hosted by Meghan McCain. Five months earlier, her father, Arizona Senator John McCain, had been diagnosed with cancer—the same aggressive type that killed Beau Biden, whom many thought would become Delaware’s next governor.

As McCain spoke about her father’s illness, and of reading about Beau’s, the former vice president left his seat and plopped down next to her. He then spent the next five minutes comforting McCain and holding her hand. “One of the things that gave Beau courage—my word—was John,” he told her.

During the 28 years they were colleagues, the two men often disagreed. They were even on opposing presidential tickets, when Obama defeated McCain in 2008. Yet their ideological differences never hurt their friendship. “I know if I picked up the phone tonight and called John McCain and said, ‘John, I’m at Second and Vine in Oshkosh, and I need your help; come,’ he'd get on a plane and come,” Biden told the audience. “And I would for him too.”

This extraordinary display of friendship, compassion and bipartisanship went viral, yet another reminder that Biden can bring people on opposite sides together. As Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, once put it, “If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, then you’ve got a problem…. He’s the nicest person I ever met in politics.”

At times, Biden’s exuberance and spontaneity seem unpresidential. And he’s always been prone to slipups. In 2010, as he introduced Obama before the president signed the Affordable Care Act, Biden proudly told him, within earshot of the microphone, that the bill was a “big fucking deal.” It might have hurt another politician, made him or her seem impetuous, even adolescent. But for some, that’s just “Uncle Joe,” a nickname playing on the fact that he is nearly two decades older than the man he served under as vice president.

FE_Biden_11_632202436 US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden arrive for the Presidential Inauguration of Donald Trump at the US Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States today. Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty

Supporters say Biden’s unvarnished persona is a large part of his appeal, which is perhaps why memes about his bromance with Obama—the president is always the straight man—have gone viral. In one, Uncle Joe plants tiny, travel-size soaps in the White House bathrooms before vacating the premises, because he hears the “new guy has tiny hands.” It’s also why there’s even been talk of a Barack and Joe cartoon.

Today, Biden is remarkably popular. An August poll showed him with a 74 approval rating among the Democrats being touted for a 2020 run against Trump. Warren was second with 51 percent. And a recent head-to-head Morning Consult survey gave him a 46-35 edge over Trump.

If Biden were to challenge Trump, he’d boast impressive credentials. Of the 1,971 people who have served in the U.S. Senate, only 18 have served longer than him. As the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was on a first-name basis with most of the world leaders before he became Obama’s veep. He’s spent more than 100 hours with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and heads of state still call him. In February, his foreign policy think tank opens in Washington, and he just co-authored a treatise in Foreign Affairs magazine on how to contain Russia—something the Oval Office’s current occupant seems to have no interest in doing.

It’s also telling that Biden was just about the only white Democrat invited to Alabama to campaign for Doug Jones in his bid to defeat Republican Roy Moore for an open Senate seat. That suggests Biden might have some success with the white working-class voters who shunned Hillary Clinton in 2016. Biden’s proud of being from a working-class family from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and his speeches have always reflected his roots.

The best example of Biden’s working-class appeal came on the same night Clinton made her biggest gaffe of the campaign. In the fall of 2016, at a fundraiser organized by Harvey Weinstein, no less, the former secretary of state called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.” Meanwhile, Biden was lamenting to reporters that Democrats have relied too heavily on advisers with an Ivy League pedigree. “Too many of those leaders can’t connect with the everyday lives of the middle class,” he told The Washington Post. After Clinton’s comments were relayed to him aboard Air Force Two, he said nothing, according to the Post, but appeared to fume.

Clinton went on to lose the white working-class vote by 37 percent, compared with a 26 percent loss by Obama years earlier. No Democrat is going to win a national election without pulling in more of those voters. And no prominent Democrat has a collar as blue as Biden’s.

#HimToo

For all of Biden’s working-class appeal, he still faces considerable obstacles—even within his own party. Back in 1991, he was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. President George H.W. Bush had nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court, but as the hearings drew to a close, word leaked that a young law professor named Anita Hill had accused the nominee of sexual harassment.

Hill had made those accusations to committee staff on the condition of anonymity, but once her name got out, several Democratic congresswomen marched over to the Senate to confront the party’s leaders—including Biden, who presided over the hearings—about her allegations. In a moment that seems to have foreshadowed the post-Weinstein, #MeToo era, they demanded that Hill be allowed to testify. Biden insisted he had to keep his word to Thomas’s mentor, Senator John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, to not extend the hearings.

More than a quarter-century later, those congresswomen are still angry about what happened. “We went to see Biden because we were so frustrated by it,” former Representative Pat Schroeder of Colorado told The Washington Post this fall. “And he literally kind of pointed his finger and said, You don’t understand how important one’s word was in the Senate, that he had given his word to [Danforth] in the men’s gym that this would be a very quick hearing.”

Days later, the hearings were extended, and Hill and Thomas exchanged accusations. She said he touted VHS porn tapes like Long Dong Silver, and he called the hearing a “high-tech lynching.” The country was riveted, and liberals were outraged that Biden never called other Thomas accusers to testify and back up Hill’s charges. He noted that the most important one, a former colleague of Thomas’s, didn’t want to appear in public. But as Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor who advised Hill during her Senate testimony, told Politico, “I was shocked and dismayed that Joe Biden was...not in her corner as a Democrat.”

FE_Biden_07_50314079 Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. waving from back of a train after announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

During Biden’s long career, his judgment has been far from perfect. He seemed to oppose the raid to capture and kill Osama bin Laden and backed the disastrous second Iraq War. He also voted for a George W. Bush–era bankruptcy law that liberals now hate, in part, because it makes it harder for consumers to get protection if they are swamped by medical bills .

But for many on the left, the Hill hearings remain his most controversial moment. Liberal publications like The Huffington Post have skewered Biden for not coming to her rescue. “Joe Biden 2020 Is a Terrible Idea in a Post-Weinstein America,” blared one headline on that site. Essence proclaimed, “Joe Biden Is Still Trying to Right His Wrongs With Anita Hill.”

At an event in November sponsored by Glamour, Biden was reminded yet again that Hill believes she didn’t get a fair hearing. The former veep replied, “The message I’ve delivered before is, I am so sorry if she believes that.” That non-apology apology prompted Hill to jab back: “I still don’t think [he] takes ownership of his role...women were looking to...his leadership.”

In recent years, Biden has shown that kind of leadership. He authored the Violence Against Women Act, which created a federal rape shield law and funded victims’ services, among many other provisions. He even teamed up with Lady Gaga to fight campus assaults through public service announcements. Yet he seems to know the Hill incident remains a burden.

Which is maybe why just a couple of weeks after his tepid mea-kinda-culpa, Biden tried to make amends. In an interview with Teen Vogue, he offered up more fulsome regret—admitting, finally, that he should have defended Hill against Republican attacks. “I owe her an apology,” he said.

Incarceration Nation

Biden’s problems with his base go beyond Anita Hill. Despite a long liberal voting record and ardent support from African-Americans, he has had to defend his role in writing and championing the 1994 crime bill. The Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act was once hailed for dramatically reducing crime, but Democrats and progressives now blame it for the criminally high rates of incarceration among African-American men.

The press has frequently asked Biden about his role in crafting that bill. In 2016, for instance, on the Amtrak ride Biden regularly took home from Washington, D.C., to Wilmington, Delaware, a reporter asked him if he was “ashamed” of the legislation. “Not at all,” he said. “In fact, I drafted the bill.”

That position isn’t popular among his peers. In 2015, as Hillary Clinton was mounting her presidential campaign, she tried to give herself some distance from the crime bill by saying she wasn’t in the Senate then and didn’t vote for it. That was a classic bit of political double-talk, because she supported it and her husband, Bill Clinton, signed it into law. But even he’s now largely against it. In 2015, he told an annual meeting of the NAACP that parts of the law “made the problem worse…. And I want to admit it.”

In his book, Biden writes that some parts of that crime bill always troubled him, including its three-strikes-and-you’re-out provision that sent some federal lawbreakers to prison for life. He also said he wished Congress had eased mandatory minimum sentences. But Biden still points to parts of the bill he says were positive. He and other supporters of the act note that the surge in America’s prison population began before Congress passed it, so the legislation is not entirely responsible for that increase.

FE_Biden_04_95650328 Then–Vice President-elect Joe Biden stands with his mother Jean during an election night gathering in Grant Park on November 4, 2008 in Chicago. Joe Raedle/Getty

They also note that the crime bill had lots of things that are still popular with Democrats, such as the assault weapons ban, a community policing grant and the Violence Against Women Act. And they point out that members of the Congressional Black Caucus backed the bill by more than 2-to-1.

As with his role in the Hill affair, Biden—if he runs—would probably have to issue a stronger denunciation of the bill to win the support of many liberals. Or not. Some savvy politicos, such as Joel Benenson, who was a pollster for both Obama and Hillary Clinton, doubts that “elections in the 21st century will be dominated by issues from the 1990s.” He says Trump’s legacy of divisiveness and economic inequality are more likely to dominate the national conversation in 2020.

That might be true in the general election, but activist groups play an outsized role in the Democratic primaries, and they are unlikely to forget about criminal justice issues. Patrisse Cullors, a political organizer and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, told The New York Times that Biden or any candidate is “going to have to deal with a large amount of criticism from those who were affected by this policy.”

In other words, “Sorry, Joe…”

‘The Rest of Your Life’

Biden knows that the 2020 presidential campaign will be nasty, brutish and long, and it doesn’t sound like a humble-brag when he says he hopes he’s not the best Democrat for the job. “The way to get incredibly popular,” he joked during his event at Washington’s Warner Theatre, “is not to run.”

Biden would be the oldest candidate to run for president; he would turn 78 a few days after the election. (Trump is now 71.) It would also be his third presidential bid. His 2008 campaign against Obama and Clinton fizzled in Iowa; his once-promising 1988 effort ended quickly when he was caught plagiarizing a speech by then-British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.

This time, he’s got a much bigger fan base, but one that can be fickle. After Biden’s speech at the Warner, I found plenty of enthusiastic supporters, and many wobblers. “It’ll be awesome if he ran for 2020,” said Michael Jones, a 29-year-old university administrator. “But there are other people we need to focus on, not just the people who have been standard-bearers.”

Many in the crowd worried that Biden isn’t emotionally ready for the race. Obama had the same fears back in January 2015. During a private lunch in the small dining room off the Oval Office, the president not too subtly hinted that he wanted Biden to stay out of the contest. Obama had a “soft touch,” Biden recalls in his book, and talked about all the ways one could help the country by not being president. “How do you want to spend the rest of your life?” the president asked him.

Biden’s answer then was to step away, to heal himself and his family. But that was before Trump won. He’s now had a couple of years to think about Obama’s question and watch the country argue about walls and bans and “Dreamers.” He is the anti-Trump in so many ways, both personal and political, in background and outlook. Blue-Collar Uncle Joe vs. the Bullying Billionaire. He may be the antidote the Democrats so desperately need—if only they could swallow it.