Joe Biden's 2020 presidential campaign calls to mind nothing so much as Sideshow Bob among the rakes. It's been one media firestorm after another, most of them totally self-inflicted. What hilarious pratfall will strike next?
It's true, Biden is currently leading Trump in head-to-head polls — and by more than any other potential Democratic nominee, though Bernie Sanders is close on his heels. But insofar as traditional political skills like messaging, campaigning, and sheer common sense matter at all, Biden is an exceedingly risky choice to take on Trump.
For one thing, Biden's political instincts are hideously out of tune with the times and the electorate. Most recently he stirred up a multi-day scandal by speaking fondly about his friendship with the late Senator James Eastland, one of the most violently feral racists ever to sit in Congress (and the bar for that qualification is extremely high).
This was a jaw-dropping choice by Biden on multiple levels. The point of his anecdote was to argue that he will be able to bring back norms of bipartisan comity, because he did it in the past. On its face this makes no sense, because Eastland was a member of Biden's own party. Worse, it immediately brings up Biden's history of seeking the support of racist troglodytes like Eastland to pass bills rolling back school integration and throwing millions of poor black people in prison.
James Eastland hasn't been in office for 40 years and has been dead for more than 30. As of a couple weeks ago, few outside historians remembered who he was at all. Why on Earth would Biden choose to bring this goblin up himself? Surely — as Biden's own staff reportedly urged him to do — he could pick another example, perhaps an actual Republican from the old days who also wasn't a gutter racist? Hugh Scott maybe? But no, Biden stubbornly plowed ahead, and indeed demanded Cory Booker apologize to him for criticizing the comments.
Furthermore, the premise itself is mind-bendingly stupid. The age of bipartisan comity depended on ideological circumstances which are firmly dead and gone. Biden was just vice president in an administration which faced continual scorched-earth partisan war from its Republican opposition, despite desperate attempts from President Obama and Biden to achieve bipartisan compromise. It doesn't even make sense as a rhetorical ploy — the Democratic electorate is clearly in a fighting mood, looking to defeat Republicans rather than compromise with them for the sake of "civility" or whatever. After Trump was elected, the percentage of Democratic voters favoring compromise with opponents has fallen by 23 percentage points, eliminating the longstanding gap between them and Republican voters.
Even Jonathan Chait, as likely a friend as Biden could have among the center-left pundit class, savaged him over the Eastland comments. "It suggests that he has not grasped any of the tectonic changes in American politics, and that he is equipped neither for the campaign nor the presidency," he wrote.
The rest of Biden's campaign is only somewhat less feckless. Biden's rallies have attracted notably small crowds, and unlike Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Pete Buttegieg, his oratory is rambling and low-energy. He's doing fewer public events in general than other candidates — but attending plenty of private gatherings with the oligarch class, whose fat checks he is collecting by the barrel. At one recent event, he promised he would not "demonize" the rich, in part because "I need you very badly." If he were elected, "No one's standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change."
After Hillary Clinton lost in part due to a perception that she was in the pocket of the ultra-rich, and unconcerned with an economic system which is rigged against average people, Biden is going to run on the exact same messaging.
All this surely comes as no surprise to students of Biden's previous presidential runs, both of which failed spectacularly. In 1988 he withdrew after repeatedly lying about having participated in civil rights marches and plagiarizing a speech from the British politician Neil Kinnock. In 2008 he was crushed in the Iowa caucuses, partly because of media firestorms over him saying: "You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent," and calling Barack Obama "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." As Matthew Stoller writes, at bottom, Biden is a lazy and undisciplined politician who nevertheless refuses to delegate key tasks.
To be sure, getting Trump out of office by any means necessary is clearly Democrats' first priority in 2020, even if they have to stomach Biden to do it. But it seems pretty likely that any number of candidates ought to be able to defeat him. The president is consistently extremely unpopular, which is especially remarkable given the relative strength of the economy.
Campaigning still surely matters to some degree though — witness Hillary Clinton's disastrous decision to not even visit Michigan. At a minimum, it seems wise to choose a nominee who can at least carry out a halfway-competent campaign. And given that the other top candidates are also polling ahead of Trump, risking everything on a Biden campaign that will undoubtedly be a months-long train wreck is an unwise choice.