The Biden Fade, and an Anticipatory Mea Culpa

[Note to readers: My new Verdict column, "Go Big, Democrats: Attempts to Rig Elections Are Not the Only Impeachable Offenses," was published yesterday.  Today's column here on Dorf on Law addresses a different topic entirely.]

by Neil H. Buchanan

It is good for the soul, I think, to look for situations in which one has made an error and to admit as much out loud.  Or, if not actively to look for such examples, at least to recognize them when they arise.  I confess that I might be jumping the gun here (as I will explain below), but it is beginning to look as though I was wrong about how Joe Biden's impending failure in the Democratic primaries will play out.

Note two things up front.  First, I did not say that I seem to be wrong in predicting that Biden would fail.  Rather, the question is how that failure will happen and how it will be received by the punditocracy and the Democratic elite.  More importantly, second, we are still months away from knowing who the Democratic nominee will be, and history does provide at least one example of a candidate who was dead in the water a year before Election Day but ended up being nominated: John McCain in 2008.  (Of course, he also lost fairly badly in the general election.)  And Biden, while struggling, is still one of the frontrunners.

In any case, let us take a break from the rolling disaster that is the Trump Administration and the Republicans' bizarre responses and non-responses to the impeachment inquiry.  Let us act as if this is a semi-normal presidential election and that navel-gazing about the out-party's candidates is at least arguably not a waste of time.

The evidence at this point suggests pretty strongly that Biden will not be the nominee.  More interestingly, however, his likely failure will not be the cause for much angst, even among his strongest supporters in the party's establishment.  Why not?

Let us begin with the evidence from public opinion polling.  Biden, quite unsurprisingly, has been the leader in national polls since even before he officially entered the race, based largely on name recognition but also on his ability to project genuine disgust with Donald Trump.  The depth of his support was always suspect, but sometimes name recognition and the establishment credibility that goes with it can be the all-but-sufficient condition for a win.  (See George H.W. Bush, 1988.)

Many people, myself very much included, predicted that Biden would be a very weak candidate -- again.  He is undisciplined while speaking (to say the least), and he seems incapable of making a case that he should be president.

That is, he at most makes the argument that he should be the Democratic nominee because he would be the most likely among them to become president -- that is, the electability trope -- but beyond "getting back to normal" (which many of us think is both impossible and even unpopular), why does he think he should be president?  Apparently, because he has always wanted to be president.

And it has come to pass that Joe Biden is, lo and behold, a very weak candidate.  Despite efforts by his establishment pals to kneecap Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and even though both of those progressive candidates have had their stumbles, Biden woke up this morning to find this headline in The New York Times: "Warren Leads Tight Iowa Race as Biden Fades, Poll Finds."

This is truly bad news for Biden.  It is only one poll, but it has him now in fourth place, 5 points behind Warren (a hair more than the poll's margin of error) and in what amounts to a statistical tie with Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.  Buttigieg?!  If you had told Biden a year ago that he would be struggling for the moderate vote at all, much less with a guy half his age whose only experience is as the mayor of a small city, Biden would have hugged you (for an inappropriately long time) and said, "God love ya, I have to say that you've been smoking something."

And Biden's campaign is showing signs of desperation. Biden's communications director Kate Bedingfield this week showed that Biden has completely bought into the but-is-it-called-a-tax Republican talking point about Medicare-for-All, offering this gem: "Any candidates who would scrap the Affordable Care Act — not protect it and strengthen it, like Joe Biden will — have an obligation to be straight with the American middle class about the tax increases they’d be forced to shoulder while losing the option of employer-sponsored and other private health insurance."

Just wow.  Biden is sure that middle-class people will "be forced to shoulder" tax increases, which might not even be true, and he is willing to ignore the reality of health-care costs to ratchet up this dishonest attack on Sanders and Warren.  This is not the rhetoric of a campaign that is confident in its arguments -- or its candidate.

Again, this might all be a story-of-the-week that is quickly reversed by some other poll.  Maybe Biden will soon have a very strong debate performance (but forgive me if I bet against it).  But let us imagine that things continue to go downhill, with Biden either getting out before the first caucus or getting thumped early on and ultimately facing reality.  Where is the part about me being wrong?

Back in April, I responded here on Dorf on Law to an emerging narrative among mainstream pundits to the effect that we should want Biden to run simply because his not running would undermine the ultimate nominee.  Citing two establishment columnists for whom I generally have great respect (E.J. Dionne and David Leonhardt), I specifically disputed the corollary establishment talking point that Biden running and failing would at least make everyone satisfied that he was not the best nominee.

Specifically, Dionne argued that "if [Biden] fails, the ultimate nominee will be far better off for having faced down Biden and not be haunted by the ghost of a candidacy that never was."  I was having none of it, saying that Biden's supporters would Monday-morning quarterback by saying that "it all went wrong only because Biden's opponents wrongly conflated his over-touching with #MeToo issues, or that Sanders's people hijacked the process, or that Biden's supposedly sensible centrism could not overcome the fact that primaries are dominated by the party's liberal base voters."  I concluded:
"I am not saying that some people will not pine for Biden if he is not the nominee. I am saying that the lamentations will happen whether Biden runs or not. Even if he turns out to be as weak on the campaign trail as he has been in the past, there will nonetheless be a default among the establishment class to say that Biden would have been stronger in the general election."
Even though this has not happened yet, it is now fairly clear that I had it wrong. When/if Biden fails, it now seems that his partisans will not be able to say that he was submarined.  His weaknesses as a candidate are becoming so obvious that almost everyone will be happy to see him withdraw, if for no other reason than simple human compassion.

As I said above, therefore, "his likely failure will not be the cause for much angst, even among his strongest supporters in the party's establishment."  I am not saying that there will not be bitter recriminations and excuses from some of them, and we can certainly be sure that he will be lionized even as he fails.  Even so, the people who care about Biden are likely to find his loss regrettable but his departure from the race a welcome relief.

That, however, is a guess about the personal feelings of Biden's bevy of personally connected supporters.  What about a second group, the people to whom he is trying to appeal by sliming Warren and Sanders as tax-loving liberals?  (There is quite a bit of overlap between those two groups, to be sure.)  They might like Biden personally -- most people seem to, and he certainly can convey compassion well -- but will they not be freaked out about the possibility that an unacceptably lefty candidate will win the nomination?

No problem.  Buttigieg is their guy.  As I noted last week, the formerly lovable Mayor Pete has decided that the path to power is to go full establishment, sounding like a Republican not just on health care but on guns.  And he is doing it with a snarl -- which, as I anticipated, is not being portrayed in the press as dickishness (as I described it) but as "a fiery performance in the last debate," both "forceful" and "commanding."

He is, in other words, exactly what the Democratic establishment wants on policy, and he presents it in a younger, more articulate package.  Even better, he can be presented as a breakthrough candidate for being openly gay, rather than just a center-right Bidenish white guy.  And as an added bonus, he has already shown the moral ... flexibility, that's it ... to attack liberal positions that his party's establishment continues to tamp down.

Again, that Iowa poll has Sanders at 19%, Buttigieg at 18%, and Biden at 17%.  (Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, despite her willingness to be as damaging in her rhetoric as Buttigieg, was rewarded with 4% support in her neighboring state.  I guess it is not only Liz Warren's hopes for Medicare-for-All that are "pipe dreams.")  Buttigieg is already the only non-septuagenarian who has been able to break into the top tier.  He had been stuck in the mid-single digits, but now he might be the dark horse that everyone was looking for.

In a sense, I liked my original prediction better.  I saw Biden losing in an increasingly acrimonious race (a la 2016) but looking arguably like the better candidate -- at least arguably enough that his supporters could cry foul in one way or another.  Instead, we are watching him wither away, with the possibility that his strongest supporters will take but a moment to rue his departure before excitedly jumping aboard the South Bend express.

People makes their own choices about how to go out.  Some athletes retire in their prime, but most hang on until their fastball is all too hittable or their knees (and head) cannot take another blow.  If Biden wants to have this last run, more power to him.  And again, this might all be a minor pothole on his road to the presidency.  At this point, however, Uncle Joe does not appear to be going out in a blaze of glory.