Former Vice President Joe Biden did not appear with the mass of presidential candidates at the California Democratic convention two weekends ago; this past weekend, he was missing from the annual Hall of Fame event in Iowa. He had excuses for both — in Ohio for a Human Rights Campaign event in Columbus for the former, and at a grandchild’s high school graduation for the latter. His absence, however, was noticed.
Last week, he also stumbled on the Hyde Amendment, finally joining the other Democratic candidates in advocating for its repeal.
Does any of this matter? On one level, these issues are purely matter for media chatter. Most voters are not going to hold it against Biden that he used to be in favor of the Hyde Amendment; they care more about what his current position is and whether he seems sincere about it. (Indeed, the Morning Consult poll released Tuesday showed virtually no change in his support from last week.) Likewise, no one a few weeks from now, let alone months ago, will remember which events he attended. However, Biden and his team may want to consider six questions that may be the difference between winning the nomination or winding up as the Jeb Bush of the 2020 race.
First, what if he’s not the only electable Democrat? At least for now, polling shows that several Democrats could beat President Donald Trump. For Democrats fixated on electability (a subjective, elusive concept) that may detract from the argument Democrats need Biden to beat Trump. Rather, Biden must figure out how to communicate that Democrats and the country as a whole needs Biden to govern.
Second, why isn’t he elevating foreign policy? The one arena in which few if any candidates can claim more experience over Biden is foreign policy. (One can question whether Biden has been correct more times than he’s been wrong — e.g., the Iraq war — but he knows world leaders, understands how diplomacy functions and appreciates the stature that the president brings to international affairs. Frankly, the rest of the field has been shy about even discussing foreign policy, and Biden should make more of the gap in foreign-policy bona fides. Trump has ruined U.S. credibility, turned his back on human rights, emboldened illiberal regimes and lost influence in the Middle East. His China policy is a muddle and has yet to bear fruit. Who’s going to right the ship? Biden needs to make the case it is him, and that foreign policy (from trade to climate change to China’s theft of U.S. technology) directly affects Americans.
Third, could Biden make his relationships with Republicans into an advantage? Biden annoys the left when he says he gets along with Republicans — or worse, likes some of them! Biden however has a powerful case that he knows how to unify Democrats and pick off enough Republicans to get the progressive agenda through Congress. What’s President Bernie Sanders going to do when not even all the Democrats support “Medicare for All”? When Republicans block President Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, how’s she going to pay for all her creative plans? Biden needs to convey that it’s one thing to give a campaign speech or to roll out a legislative wish list, but what most candidates are proposing won’t survive contact with the real political universe. He’s going to have to make the case that he has the secret sauce for luring Republicans into deals that deliver what progressives want.
Fourth, can Biden reassure women voters he’s on their side? Women are disproportionately Democratic, and African-American women are the most loyal Democrats out there. Biden needs put his Hyde Amendment stumble in the rearview mirror and gain an upper hand with critical female voters — no easy task with multiple female candidates. It might seem gimmicky to some, but he could flat-out promise to pick a female running mate and to make half his judicial and executive picks (including his Cabinet) women. Perhaps there is some daring policy plan others haven’t figured out that can be used to gain female voters’ support but, barring that, Biden would be wise to make the case that “personnel is policy” — and that half his administration would be made up of women.
Fifth, how does he keep himself above the scrum of candidates (making Trump his primary focus) without seeming to take the nomination for granted? Biden needs to get out more, submit to interviews, go to town halls, keep a more vigorous schedule and show that he is hustling for every single vote. He can still focus on Trump, but the lackadaisical schedule needs to end. Warren stays at her events until the last autograph and selfie. Biden should be similarly dedicated to winning over voters person by person — at least in the early states.
Sixth, is “rebuilding the middle class” too nebulous a campaign message? Biden is a union man, a defender of the middle class that he says built the country. However, Warren is talking about leveling the playing field; other candidates talk about the wealth gap between whites and blacks. Biden, however, could stand out from the crowd in promising to make everyone who wants to work able to compete in the 21st-century economy. Embrace automation and globalization as irreversible and then lay out the most detailed, effective scheme for educating and training the workforce for current and future job markets — not rerunning the 1950s. Biden can make an impression by promising to eliminate not just the income and wealth gap, but the skills, productivity and education gaps as well. (Promising to go after a college admissions system rigged in favor of the wealthy would get him a ton of goodwill from millions of college students and their parents.)
Biden is still the front-runner and still retains major advantages over the Democratic field. However, his status is far less secure than he and his staff might imagine. It’s time to make the case why he is the best person to govern in the post-Trump world. If he cannot, he’ll wind up losing his advantage over other endearing and accomplished competitors who will have an equal claim to electability.