I’ll admit it: I’m skeptical about former vice president Joe Biden’s third presidential run. But when I read last week—in The Atlantic and the Philadelphia Inquirer, two outlets I trust—that he planned to launch his campaign with a speech in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Wednesday, I thought: That’s bold, given the backdrop of the appalling August 2017 white-supremacist riot there that killed protester Heather Heyer, which Donald Trump refused to condemn. That’s daring. Maybe he’s going to run a campaign that’s in step with the new, multiracial, progressive Democratic Party.
But within a day or so, the same outlets reported that no, Team Biden wasn’t doing that. Instead, he’d launch with a video announcement on Thursday, and then head to Pittsburgh for his first official appearance, in a union-heavy crowd, on Monday. Nope: It’s clear Biden still intends to center his campaign on blue-collar white men. Meanwhile, he can’t care about his reputation for being too close to corporate America, the author of a bankruptcy bill that’s emerged as a case study in how Democrats, not just Republicans, sold themselves out to the banking industry—and sold out millions of Americans. Biden’s first actual campaign event—it’s not public—will be at a fund-raiser held by Comcast senior vice president David Cohen in Philadelphia on Thursday.
Biden may still be the front-runner in this race, but there’s absolutely no sign that he gets where he’s out of step with the party base. I hope he enjoys his campaign launch, because it could be his best week on the trail.
To be fair, Biden’s announcement video leads off with Charlottesville: pitting the lofty ideals of its most famous resident, Thomas Jefferson, against video footage of Nazis in khakis marching through the streets shouting, “Jews will not replace us!” (He mentions that “a young woman” was murdered protesting the riot, but does not name Heyer.) He centers Trump claiming there were “very fine people, on both sides” of the clash, along with his own response at the time, when he proclaimed in an op-ed, “We are in a battle for the soul of the nation.” As we see familiar photos of World War II battles, civil-rights marches, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a suffragist rally, Biden intones, “We have to remember who we are: This is America.” The video is titled “America Is an Idea,” and its big idea is that only Joe Biden can make America America again.
I doubt he’s intentionally riffing on the famous Langston Hughes poem “Let America be America Again,” but Biden calls it to mind—along with Hughes’s moving refrain “America never was America to me.” I’m reminded that, for most of us—women and Americans who aren’t white—America hasn’t yet been the America of the great dreams and soaring rhetoric that Biden brings to the video. Make no mistake, it’s a lovely video, but it’s backward facing. Biden is running against Trump, but he has to get through at least 20 Democratic rivals for the right to do so. This video doesn’t give me confidence he’ll get there.
For one thing, Biden doesn’t entirely seem to realize that you don’t campaign by video. I’m struck that he dodged, or at least delayed, a formal, in-the-flesh campaign announcement, the same way he dodged an in-person apology for a lifetime of over-familiar, cringe-making treatment of women when it became an issue earlier this month, after former Nevada assemblywoman Lucy Flores and others complained about it publicly. That Biden video, like this one, was well-produced and appealing (though it was certainly not an apology). But when he actually appeared in public for the first time after releasing it, he was Clueless Joe, “joking” about asking for permission to hug men at a white-male-dominated union event, insisting he “regrets” nothing, making clear to every woman who harbors reservations about his behavior that no, he doesn’t get it.
And once again, he has chosen to make his first public campaign appearance at what is expected to be a white-male-dominated union event, in Pittsburgh on Monday—instead of a rally in Charlottesville, which would have felt courageous and compelling. Of course many candidates soft-launch their campaigns with videos, and then make a public debut in a comfortable setting: Senator Kamala Harris in front of 20,000 fans in Oakland, California, near her Berkeley birthplace; Senator Elizabeth Warren in her home state of Massachusetts; Senator Cory Booker at home in Newark. (One could argue Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar were more daring: Gillibrand standing in front of Trump Hotel and Tower, and Klobuchar braving a blizzard in Minnesota). Generally, there’s nothing wrong with a video soft launch, and there’s certainly nothing wrong in scheduling your first event in front of a crowd that’s going to love you; that’s expected.
But with his choice of a video, and not a rip-roaring rally and conversation with reporters, and with his choice of a Pittsburgh union hall but not Charlottesville, Biden is dodging the biggest questions about his candidacy. More than any other candidate, he needed an in-person, full-charisma kickoff to demonstrate that he’s not, at 76, too old and out of touch, and that he can handle the tough questions—his crime bill, his bankruptcy bill, his opposition to school busing; the Anita Hill hearings, his political career of so-called “handsiness” with women (which amounts to not respecting our personhood)—straight off the bat.
Maybe worst of all is heading straight for a corporate fund-raiser. Biden doesn’t intend to soft-pedal his ties to corporate America; he’s announcing them. But that underscores one key weakness: Ironically, it’s fund-raising. Biden has no small-donor base—nothing like that of his chief rival to date, Senator Bernie Sanders, or Beto O’Rourke, or even Harris. Politico reports that Biden sounded the alarm in a conference call with donors, telling them: “The money’s important. We’re going to be judged by what we can do in the first 24 hours, the first week.” (Sanders and O’Rourke raised around $6 million each in their first 24 hours, and Harris $1.5 million.) Biden may feel he has no choice but to head straight for a big fund-raiser; he may be right.
Let me be clear: If Biden is the nominee, I will wholeheartedly support him despite my reservations (well-articulated here, as usual, by Rebecca Traister). If his backers are right, and he’s the best candidate to beat Trump, so be it. Although I’m on record as being annoyed by the attention paid to the so-called “B-boys”—Biden, Bernie, Beto, and (Mayor Pete) Buttigieg—at the expense of women and candidates of color, now he’ll have to face those same candidates in debates—and I expect them to rise to the occasion. If they don’t, that’s on them.
I look forward to Warren grilling him on his bankruptcy bill; to the way he’ll make Harris look like a genuinely progressive prosecutor, given his crime bill; to the contrast between the way Klobuchar, Booker, and Harris eviscerated Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Biden’s handling of Anita Hill’s charges against Clarence Thomas. This won’t be a battle of videos, but one of principles and accomplishments. It’s a tough test, and one Biden hasn’t risen to in two previous tries. Maybe the third time really is a charm. We could find out sooner than later. May the best person win.