DOVER, Delaware—Joe Biden and his allies know the criticism coming their way. The former vice president's brand of politics is too outdated, his ideology too centrist, his career too riddled with bad compromises and even worse votes. And yet, as Biden readies to formally announce his third presidential bid in the coming weeks, they aren’t only prepping for the attacks ahead, they don’t think it will ultimately have much of an impact.
“I don’t think that Joe Biden wrings his hands about his legacy one bit given what he has accomplished as a senator, VP and family man. Regardless of whether he runs or he doesn’t run or if he runs and wins or loses he know who he is,” pollster John Anzalone, who has been advising Biden on a 2020 run, told The Daily Beast. “Joe Biden is a resilient, tough son of a bitch. You can quote me on that.”
Presidential campaigns are uniquely trying crucibles. Few know that better than Biden, who has launched two failed bids, one ending in controversy and the other with not much fanfare at all. Those bids have left some wary that a third run will end in similarly dispiriting fashion, only this time with a sterling reputation built up through decades of public service effectively diminished.
“He operated at a different time and environment and will have a lot to answer for,” a former Obama-Biden aide told The Daily Beast. “Look at Hillary Clinton’s numbers before she got into the 2016 race. The most popular moment is when you're a prospective candidate and a statesman who can shape the field from the outside. Being in presidential campaigns tends to be diminishing for everyone except for the victor.”
But those past runs also have given Biden and his team the type of experience that they believe can suit them well in 2020. Cognizant of the criticisms to come, they have begun the prebuttal process, readying endorsements, pitching him as the man to beat Trump, and stressing not just Biden’s electability but positioning him as instrumental to some of the most important pieces of progressive reform in the past few decades.
“I recognize the energy within a significant part of the base of the Democratic party and I recognize the good people that have put themselves forward and I understand youth and young, inspiring ideas—but I just think Joe goes into this believing the country needs someone who can really make sure that our place in the world is what it should be,” Harold Schaitberger, president of the IAFF Firefighters Union, told The Daily Beast after Biden spoke at their recent conference where members urged him to run.
Though he’s a couple weeks away from announcing a decision, the coverage around Biden’s impending entrance into the race has been doused with skepticism. Political observers, reporters and operatives have questioned whether a modern Democratic party would see the man who helped force the White House’s hand on gay marriage or the one who thundered about “predators on our streets;” whether they would see him as crucial to passage of the Affordable Care Act or blast his votes on the Iraq War and controversial bankruptcy legislation.
Hoping to preempt the framing, Biden and his allies have already begun defending his legacy as the “scrappy kid from Scranton.” He and his team have conceded that he has been wrong in the past. But there is also a growing desire within the ranks to defend his 36 years as Delaware’s senator and eight years as sidekick to the nation’s first African-American president. A preview of that took place at a dinner held by Delaware’s Democratic party on Saturday night, where Biden directly addressed his progressive skeptics.
“I’m told I get criticized by ‘The New Left,’” the 76-year-old former vice president said, as he regaled an adoring hometown crowd at the Dover Downs and Casino Ballroom that left the First State Democratic Dinner attendees on their feet.
“I have the most progressive record of anybody running,” he caught himself as the sound of clinking cutlery was replaced by clapping that soared to the chandelier above the ballroom. “Anybody who would run,” Biden clarified above the roar.
Neither Biden nor his team appear naive about the process ahead. His decades in public office will yield a treasure trove of votes and actions for progressives to use against him. And should he make it through the primary, a showdown with President Trump would devolve into a particularly nasty form of campaign politics. Through those turns, Biden’s current political legacy would undoubtedly suffer some bruises.
But supporters say he considers the risk worth it. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), a longtime friend and ally of Biden’s, said Biden was prepared for the worst but driven by a sense of urgency about restoring America’s standing on the world stage. Leaning against a pillar in the ornate lobby of the Dover casino, after exuberantly shaking hands with nearly everyone who passed, the senator argued that few people in the country had a better disposition to handle Trump’s mudslinging.
“He’s a big boy,” he said of Biden. “He’s been through a lot. Had a lot of adversity in his life. He’s an adult and he’ll be the adult in the room. Bring it on.”
Carper, and Delaware’s junior Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), have expressed certainty and hope that Biden will jump in. Their theory of the case is that Biden can win over Republicans who are discouraged by Trump’s presidency but put off by the Democratic Party.
But the idea that building bridges across the political aisle is a political savvy way to sell yourself in a Democratic primary has struck others as dumbfounded.
“This is a generationally different moment in the party and the hardest core of progressives are having their records questioned,” said the Obama-Biden aide. “So when you’re at the center of the approach to mandatory minimums or worked in a more collegial Senate where even the most conservative Republicans would work with you and you praised them, it’s difficult.”
As of now, early national and primary polls show Biden in the lead, and there is a pervading sense that electability is on the minds of every Democratic voter feverishly eager to make Trump a one-term president. But even while voters adamantly want someone who can defeat President Trump, they don't necessarily think it will take a moderate to do it. In a recent Des Moines Register poll of prospective Democratic Iowa caucus-goers, in which Biden was in the lead, those surveyed wholeheartedly backed ideas like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and a tax on the ultra-wealthy.
This is the needle Biden is likely going to have to thread. His allies and admirers think he is more than capable of doing it, though they recognize that the costs of failure could be high.
“You have to decide what you want your last chapter to be,” David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama, told The Daily Beast. “Obviously if he were to be elected president, that’s a pretty significant final chapter. But if he loses, it’s not the chapter he wants. Right now the book has a pretty good ending.”