The Other Biden

Currently, the former vice president of the United States under Barack Obama stands alone as the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket. Head to head polls which he often touts show him with strong leads over Donald Trump. In spite of this superficial veneer of electability, Joe Biden is a uniquely weak candidate with glaring fundamental weaknesses which mainstream outlets have thus far been fairly loath to address. His record has largely been treated with kid gloves by the media and frankly by the candidates who challenged him, something which Donald Trump and the Republican Party will most certainly not do come November. From the 1970s till today, Biden has a closet brimming with skeletons ripe for the picking.


In 2008 and 2012, a key component of Barack Obama’s winning coalition was young people. It is among young people that Biden’s weaknesses are perhaps most straightforward. In the Democratic primary, younger voters overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders and his more progressive politics. For the group which Biden last year proclaimed he had “no empathy” for, it seems the feeling has, thus far, been mutual, with recent polls showing Biden significantly underperforming with the demographic. Even with his best efforts, it seems unlikely Biden will be able to galvanize turnout among youth, at least nowhere near levels seen in past elections.


High African American turnout was another crucial factor in Obama’s electoral success. Throughout the primary campaign, Biden relied heavily on support from the black community, yet how much that trend endures in a general election, especially after scrutiny from his opposition, is another question. How might Biden respond when the GOP inevitably cuts ads showcasing his praise of segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond or perhaps highlighting the debate moment when Kamala Harris all but called Biden a former segregationist himself? Following that thread, Republican opposition researchers will also inevitably stumble upon Biden’s past fears that overzealous desegregation would result in his children growing up in a “racial jungle,” if they have not already. In a recent interview with the Breakfast Club, Biden did himself few favors by callously declaring that any black person with reservations about supporting him “ain’t black.”


On more concrete policy terms, Biden’s record is equally open to attack. For decades, he proudly claimed authorship of the 1994 Crime Bill, which, while having some celebrated provisions such as the Violence Against Women Act, is often seen as having ensconced mass incarceration in American society, greatly damaging the communities of color which it disproportionately targeted. Biden stands by the bill to this day, aggressively defending it in his recent Breakfast Club interview and claiming it did not increase mass incarceration but that “other things” did. Trump, on the other hand, while having been linked to gross racism throughout his life, on policy can tout the First Step Act which as the name suggests is only a small step in the right direction, did some work to undo the damage bills like Biden’s contributed to.


Latinos, another key piece of the Democrats’ traditionally minority base, have not been especially enthused by the former Vice President. Like young people, the hispanic vote in the primaries gravitated towards Bernie Sanders. While the Trump administration has been met with outrage over its draconian imigration policy, this backlash has also opened renewed discussion of the Obama Era. It has been noted that deportations reached a then-record high under President Obama and that the highly scrutinized chain link housing enclosures at border facilities were built and used during the Obama administration. It was suggested at one of the primary debates that Biden refused to take responsibility for these past policies. While Latinos are by no means a monolith in their policy concerns, it is understandable why a community with a relatively high share of recent immigrants in its ranks may not be wholly sympathetic toward Biden.


Though Biden has, at times, been praised for his leadership on womens’ issues as in the Violence Against Women Act, attempts to distinguish himself with his Republican opponent on such things may backfire. For one, on the question of abortion, Biden had long lauded himself as being fairly conservative, though he may have recently moved left on the matter, as shown through his recent disavowal of the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for most abortions. Trump may well characterize these moves as disingenuous flip flops if discussion on the topic arises, ironic given Trump’s former position supporting abortion and then subsequent threats to arrest women who had the procedure. 


Even more seriously looms the spectre of sexual assault. Biden has been known for his perhaps overly affectionate interactions with women, a number of whom have made known their discomfort, but this March, Tara Reade, who worked in Biden’s Senate office in the early 1990s, levied a charge of sexual assault against her former employer.  Though mainstream outlets remained mum on the story for weeks, following Biden’s ascension to presumptive nominee, papers like the New York Times began addressing the issue. As more people came forward attesting to Reade’s contemporaneous telling of the story, Biden was finally asked directly about the charge over a month after initial reporting


While Biden denies the allegations, and doubts about Reade’s credibility have been raised, this is unlikely to stop Republicans from pouncing on the accusations. In 2016, Trump took full advantage of allegations against Bill Clinton, even inviting some accusers to a debate. It is wholly probable that Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by over a dozen women, would, without any sense of irony or self-reflection, use similar tactics again. Apart from the deeply troubling nature of these claims, they present ready fodder for the Trump team to suppress turnout among Democratic-leaning women.


Biden also has difficulties distinguishing himself from Trump on a number of other, though obviously less potentially grievous, issues. He certainly can’t claim to be untainted by money in politics. While he supported campaign finance reform measures, like McCain-Feingold in the senate, that did not stop him from amassing contributions from corporate donors and super PACs throughout his career. Indeed, a young Biden (in partial jest) stated that, upon first entering politics, he “went to the big guys for the money” and was “ready to prostitute” himself. On the front of nepotism, Trump is clearly not concerned with such appearances. Yet, the goings-on of Hunter Biden have already proven too scandalous for the GOP to resist, whether Hunter’s father is involved or not.


Even when it comes to the question of truthfulness, Biden is wide open for attack. While Trump may have made an artform of innumerable blatant lies, Joe Biden himself has had a questionable relationship with the truth. Though little remembered now, Biden’s first run for president ended in disaster when the senator became embroiled in a highly publicized plagiarism scandal.  Not only was he accused of lifting parts of his speeches from numerous contemporary and historical political figures but it was revealed that five of the fifteen pages in Biden’s first law school paper had been entirely plagiarized.  While the ship has sailed for Donald Trump on the truth front, if questioned on his lies, he can easily pull this card from his sleeve and deflect guilt on yet another issue.


Though it might be seen as unseemly and rude, Joe Biden’s mental acuity also presents serious concerns. I will not delve into conspiracy theorizing or armchair diagnosing, and it must be acknowledged that Biden has grappled with a stutter which may contribute to these hiccups. However, the fact of the matter is that Joe Biden has always made gaffes, and this election cycle they have grown with alarming frequency, running the gamut minor flubs to serious lapses in memory.  


For instance, early in the primary race, Biden inarticulately stated that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids” before catching himself and tacking on “rich kids” and “asian kids.”  He has twice muddled the status of black women in the Senate, first claiming the endorsement of the only black woman ever elected to senate, which Senator Kamala Harris quickly corrected, and later stating that he was “looking forward to appointing the first African-American woman to the United States Senate,” presumably meaning the United States Supreme Court. On February 24, Biden confused China’s current leader Xi Jinping with its former leader Deng Xiaoping, who has been dead for some 23 years. Later that same day, he seemed to mistakenly say he was running for Senate at the close of a speech. The former vice president has also fumbled an attempt to quote the Declaration of Independence, mixed up both Teresa May and Angela Merkel with the late Margaret Thatcher and made countless other stumbles. It is plainly obvious Trump will and, in fact, already has exploited Biden’s frequent mental guffaws.


Biden’s weakest point, however, is probably in the rust belt; those states which flipped from blue to red in 2016 and were crucial in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Biden may style himself as “Middle-Class Joe” and claim an affinity for blue collar workers, but a number of votes lie in his past that may come back to haunt him. The former vice president voted for both NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China, measures which have been blamed for the migration of industry away from the Midwest. Biden was also a firm supporter of the Trans Pacific Partnership and cannot even claim any great distinction from Trump on the latter’s USMCA trade deal, as the former vice president voiced support for the measure in December. It goes without saying that Biden’s record on trade may prove highly damaging in key swing states.


Though Biden exhibits significant weaknesses with the Democrats’ traditional base in the ways enumerated above, it appears the party’s establishment hopes to make up for those loses with more affluent suburbanites and moderate Republicans. For one, this strategy seemingly relies on the belief that independent voters are moderate, which Pew Research polls have largely debunked. Secondly, it is true a subset of longtime Republican voters have bristled at the unorthodox style of Trump. Yet, who is to say that many of them will not swallow Trump’s infantile behavior and erosion of norms at the ballot box if it means preserving his tax cuts and maintaining a steady stream of new conservative judges. Relying on voters who have traditionally been ideological opponents and whose primary misgivings with the other candidate deal with style rather than substance seems a fundamentally unsound plan. 


To court these voters, Biden has very much made revulsion toward Trump and a return to normalcy the heart of his message. Regardless of what policy plans he and his team may produce, Biden never fails to return to a promise of “restoring the soul of America” after the damage it has suffered through the acrid presence of Donald Trump. This campaign centered on denunciation of Trumpism seems an eerie repeat of 2016, when the Clinton camp heavily prioritized character attacks above policy. Reflecting on how that election turned out, one would think it obvious such a strategy would best be avoided.


Most recently, the present crises this country faces seemed an opportune moment to demonstrate leadership. COVID-19 was largely ignored and downplayed by the president in the virus’s early spread, and has now resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 Americans. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to say Biden stepped up to the plate. In stark contrast to figures like Trump and Andrew Cuomo, who have held near daily press conferences, Biden’s presence during this time has been limited to the occasional cable news appearance. Biden has been so eclipsed by Cuomo in his virus response that the governor was asked if he planned on replacing Biden on the presidential ticket. More than anything, COVID-19 has revealed the difficulty for the Biden campaign to adapt to these new circumstances.


Following the police killing of George Floyd, the nation has also been rocked by protests and riots of a character and scale not seen since 1968. President Trump’s response – echoing the language of segregationists, threatening to deploy the military in cities across the country and forcing peaceful protesters out of a park to facilitate an abysmal photo opportunity outside a church – have not been well received. On this, Biden has struck a more empathetic tone and, putting aside his aforementioned positions on policing from the 1990’s, has offered some substantive recommendations for reform. Yet, even in this, Biden could not avoid shooting himself in the foot. Speaking at a church, he suggested to police that, when there is “an unarmed person coming at them with a knife or something,” officers should “shoot them in the leg instead of in the heart.” Needless to say, the problems with this statement are self-evident.


It would be foolhardy to definitively predict a Biden loss in November. Biden has maintained a steady lead in national aggregate polls, and the current climate of the United States is unlikely to brighten people’s view of Donald Trump. Yet, even in the event that Biden does win, it will be hard to call it some astounding victory. Trump has seen his once superficially strong economy thrown into chaos in the wake of a deadly virus whose early warning signs he outright dismissed, and has struggled to address an unprecedented outpouring of anger over systemic racism and police brutality beyond constitutionally dubious exertions of military force. Under any other circumstances, defeating an incumbent under whom national stability has so thoroughly eroded would be no great challenge.


The stage is set for a vicious election cycle where Republicans, if they have any good sense, will pummel Biden’s record in an effort to depress turnout in those groups which have become Democrats’ core constituency and, in the Upper Midwest, maintain their hold on the working class Obama-Trump voters. This may not be a herculean task, as a recent ABC News poll indicated that Biden already holds the lowest number of “very enthusiastic” supporters of any Democrat in that poll’s 20-year history. Though Republicans’ intentions might not be pure, it is the sad truth that many of their attacks may very well be factually correct. The Democratic Party chose to leave its front runner effectively unvetted this primary season for the supposed sake of party unity, yet in doing so, they have largely relinquished their ability to litigate and shape the narrative around these potential controversies and instead handed that job to Republicans on a silver platter. On virtually every issue, Joe Biden’s past and present gives him a meager leg to stand on when attacking Donald Trump and offers the incumbent a clear path to flip the narrative and easily make false equivalencies. All these things considered, Democrats have a much messier road to the presidency than early indications might have them believe.