Waiting for Biden: the Democratic favourite faces a backlash
Advertisement

Waiting for Biden: the Democratic favourite faces a backlash

New York: American politics is not known for its subtlety.

So when former US vice president Joe Biden strode onto the stage at the International Association of Fire Fighters conference in Washington this week, it was to the accompaniment of Bruce Springsteen’s patriotic anthem We Take Care of Our Own.

In a video clip that looked remarkably like a campaign advertisement, Biden praised middle-class Americans for never letting the country down.

'Run Joe Run': former vice president Joe Biden addresses firefighters.

'Run Joe Run': former vice president Joe Biden addresses firefighters.Credit:Bloomberg

As he began speaking, the muscle-toned, mostly white men in the crowd waved yellow signs reading “Fire Fighters for Biden” and chanted “Run Joe, run”.

Advertisement

“Save it a little longer," Biden said with a smile. “I may need it in a few weeks.”

Loading

Almost a year out from the Democratic presidential primaries, the jigsaw puzzle of potential nominees is rapidly falling into place.

A procession of big-name Democrats have announced their candidacy, the latest being former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke who entered the race this week.

Last week, two high-profile contenders, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, announced they were not running.

That leaves just one major piece of the 2020 puzzle missing: Biden.

Electable, not left-wing

The 76-year old has been wary, in part because of fear about putting his family into the spotlight. Biden's son, Beau, died in 2015 and his widow later formed a romantic relationship with one of Biden's other sons, who has since divorced his wife.

But the growing consensus in Washington is that Biden will run and that he is the favourite to win the Democratic nomination.

A Monmouth University poll released this week found that 28 per cent of Democratic primary voters want Biden to be the party’s nominee - more than any other single candidate.

“He’s definitely the front-runner,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“A lot of people want him to run not just because he would be a great president but because he is by far the most likely to beat Donald Trump. That is Democrats’ number one priority.”

Polls show Democrats most want the party's 2020 candidate to be "electable" rather than someone who shares their values.

Biden is the guy who can win back the votes of white Catholic men in the heartland.

Veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf

Biden’s appearance at the firefighters convention in Washington underscored why Democrats find his candidacy so appealing. While firefighters have traditionally voted Democratic, just 27 per cent of the union’s members reported voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Now here they were begging Biden to run.

The message was clear: here is the candidate who can win back Trump voters and deliver Democrats victory in 2020.

“This is a guy that can bring civility back into the arena,” firefighters union president Harold Schaitberger, a longtime friend of Biden, told reporters after the speech.

“And it’s somebody who can speak to what I believe is the electorate that’s going to decide the next election.”

Blue collar kudos

It won’t be enough for Democrats to win more votes than Trump in 2020; indeed, Clinton easily won the popular vote in 2016 but lost the electoral college. The key to victory will be winning back swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Florida.

Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist, thinks that Biden has the best chance of any Democrat to win these states.

“Biden is the guy who can win back the votes of white Catholic men in the heartland,” he says.

Asked to name Biden’s strengths, Lake says: “His stature, his blue-collar roots and sensibilities, his foreign policy experience, his willingness to stand up to bullies, his experience on economic issues. He can appeal to swing voters and still mobilise the base.”

Biden gestures while speaking during the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Legislative Conference in Washington.

Biden gestures while speaking during the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Legislative Conference in Washington.Credit:Bloomberg

The latest Monmouth University poll found Biden had a net favourability rating among Democrats of plus-63, higher than any other candidate. He polls particularly well among older voters and those who describe themselves as moderate or conservative.

Biden, who was born in Pennsylvania and grew up poor, has an obvious appeal to white working class voters.

But, having spent eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, he is also popular among African Americans. (Obama and Biden’s close friendship sparked a multitude of “bromance” memes.)

Having previously spent almost four decades in the Senate, Biden is far more experienced than top rivals like Kamala Harris, who has only been a senator for two years.

The backlash begins

Yet even before declaring his candidacy, Biden has faced an intense backlash from progressives who believe he represents the party's past rather than its future.

If Biden were successful in 2020 he would be 78 years old at his inauguration, making him the oldest first-term president in US history.

Loading

The March edition of Harper’s Magazine features a damning 5600-word cover story on what it calls Biden’s “disastrous legacy”.

The piece argues Biden is the “champion of yesterday’s sordid compromises”, citing his past positions on abortion (he once argued Roe v Wade “went too far”), racial segregation (he opposed the busing of black children into white school districts), criminal justice (he authored a famous tough-on-crime bill that helped lead to mass incarceration) and foreign policy (he supported the Iraq War).

The piece also chronicles Biden's close relationship with Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who was one of the most fierce civil rights opponents in Congress.

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie explored similar terrain this week in a piece entitled "The Trouble with Biden".

"Biden could lead Democrats to victory over Trump, but his political style might affirm the assumptions behind Trumpism,” Bouie argued. "The outward signs of our political dysfunction would be gone, but the disease would still remain."

Strom Thurmond turning 95 in 1997.

Strom Thurmond turning 95 in 1997.Credit:AP

The disconnect between Biden's old-fashioned style and that of the Democratic Party's left was evident last month when, in passing, he described Vice President Mike Pence as "a decent guy".

Actress Cynthia Nixon, who last year ran for governor of New York, said it was tone-deaf to describe the country's "most anti-LGBT elected leader" as decent.

"You’re right Cynthia… there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the  vice president," Biden responded on Twitter.

These criticisms come despite Biden having a solidly pro-abortion rights record as a senator and publicly supporting same-sex marriage before Obama.

'Better off dead'

Political tribalism has reached such heights in the US that 20 per cent of Democrats - around 12.6 million voters - think the country would be better off if large numbers of Republicans died. Polls show a similar percentage believe violence would be justified if their party loses the next election.

In this heated environment, Biden’s folksy manner and belief in bipartisanship can seem out-of-step with modern politics. So can his more moderate policy positions.

But pollster Celinda Lake says that Twitter and the pages of Harper's do not reflect the sentiments in the broader Democratic party base.

"Many people want us to return to an era of civility and respect - not the vocal activists but to the silent majority in the party it is appealing."

Indeed, although the progressive wing of the Democratic party appears to be in the ascendancy, recent polls show more Democrats want the party to move to the centre rather than the left.

"The question for Democrats is whether they want to be the party of complaint or the party of accomplishment," strategist Hank Sheinkopf says.

"Biden represents the party of accomplishment."

Matthew Knott is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age based in the United States.

Most Viewed in World

Loading
Advertisement