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Biden’s In for 2020 Campaign, Betting Big That the Democratic Center Still Holds

Biden needs to make two sales: That he can win, and that he can be acceptable to younger, leftier voters. To make them, he’ll need to reach deeper within himself than he ever has.

Michael Tomasky4.25.19 9:44 AM ET

Well, it wasn’t the smoothest launch from Joe Biden, was it? First it was Wednesday, and three speeches. Then it was Thursday. But still a speech, or so I thought. Then it was just a video.

Although, inevitably, he’s doing a fundraiser, too. And now it’s Pittsburgh next Monday, with the official unveiling apparently put off until May 18, in Philadelphia. Kinda weird, like Sly Stone’s concert schedule in the ’70s.

But, we do have this video…

…and it’s actually pretty good.

He could have started this video in a thousand different ways. The obvious thing, of course, would have been Scranton. His hometown, which codes Pennsylvania working class like few other places, has the benefit of making some people smile as they think of the Dunder-Mifflin gang. Plenty of upsides there.

So it was interesting that he chose Charlottesville. He started with Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Then the music changed to a minor key, and he upshifted to what happened in Charlottesville in 2017. Stark images of Nazi flags and marching thugs carrying torches. Reference to “Europe in the 1930s.” Reference to Donald Trump’s “very fine people”—words, he said, that “stunned the world.”

“With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said. “And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I’d seen in my lifetime.”

With four more years in the White House, he continues, Trump “will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.” Then, some old black-and-white footage: the Statue of Liberty, suffragists, D-Day, Iwo Jima, civil rights marchers. Finally, a long-ish paean to America and “who we are.”

Well written, well delivered. Charlottesville is Biden’s bid to get the attention of some younger voters, while the video’s second half is aimed squarely at his base, the kinds of Democrats whose blood still stirs at the sight of men storming Utah Beach.

By the way, those Democrats still exist, in very large numbers. This is one proposition Biden’s candidacy will put to the test—whether the center of gravity in the Democratic Party today has shifted irrevocably to the younger and leftier crowd one encounters on social media.

In December, Gallup asked Democrats whether on the whole they’d rather see their party become more liberal or more moderate. More moderate won, and pretty convincingly: 54 to 41 percent. By the way, Gallup asked Republicans that question too, about their party, except of course “more conservative” instead of “more liberal.” Shockingly (not), Republicans said more conservative by 57-37 (can you imagine? More conservative than this!).

Also according to Gallup, about half of Democrats say they’re liberal. On the one hand, that’s a recent historic high. But on the other, it means that about half don’t. About a third say moderate, which leaves around 15 percent who actually call themselves conservative.

That’s the Democratic Party. You’d never know it from the media, which is drawn to the left-wing story line like cocaine. But most Democrats are middle-aged—and older—people, most of them women, of all races, who’d call themselves liberal to moderate. Those are the people who usually decide who the Democratic nominee will be.

This is Biden’s theoretical crowd, but I think he has trouble even with them. Since they are predominantly women, and on the older side, they’ll remember the Anita Hill hearings, along with his two previous and spectacularly bad presidential runs and his penchant for awkward malapropisms and all the rest.

In my anecdotal experience, this group doesn’t love Biden. White union men do, and as nominee he would win enough them back in the key states, I think there’s not much doubt about that. But they make up a smaller portion of the party’s base with each election. As for other older Democrats, there’s a lot about Biden they don’t especially like. But they probably are open to being persuaded that he can win. That he can stop Bernie Sanders, whom they don’t like as a general rule, and that he can beat Trump.

So that’s the first sale Biden will have to make: I can win.

The second sale he needs to make is to those younger and leftier voters. There are enough of them that he can’t ignore them. They’re never going to love him. They’re with Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke. But Biden can make himself vaguely acceptable to them.

He could do this in two ways. First, some blunt apologies about some of his past positions. He can’t just excuse himself away by saying it was a different time. He has to explain his old thinking and explain his current thinking in a way that convinces people that maybe this old dog has learned some new tricks.

The other way is to talk about class in a much sharper manner than he’s ever done. He should not come out for Medicare for All and free college and the current version of the Green New Deal. That will look phony.

But he absolutely should say that today’s capitalism is not the capitalism he grew up with. In other words, it’s not enough today to talk in the usual chicken-soup way about restoring the American dream. For a lot of people, especially young people, the American dream is a nightmare. He needs to show that he understands that this isn’t just a temporary bad turn, but that we’re entering the fourth decade of a political-economic epoch that has stolen trillions of dollars from working people and given it to the rich. And he ought to name a few names. Identify some bad guys. Not easy for an establishment guy to do, especially one who represented the corporate headquarters state for umpty-ump years.

Democratic voters want electability. If Biden can make those two sales, he’ll have a shot. There’s not a lot in his track record that suggests that he can, but maybe the extraordinary nature of the historical moment will make him reach deeper into himself than he ever has. He’ll need to.

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