Biden Is Already a Zombie Candidate

If he runs, his campaign will likely end in South Carolina.

He hasn’t yet announced formally his intentions, but I think Joe Biden is already a zombie candidate. Most of us can’t quite see it. As the nomination process gets underway, however, the truth of the matter will become more apparent.

In a way, Biden has been running for president his whole life. The problem has always involved timing, and shifting political landscapes. His 1988 campaign, for instance, was derailed over accusations of plagiarism. That’s laughable by today’s standards, as the current president, his spouse and administration think nothing of stealing copy from any source any time without fear of being held accountable for dishonesty.

Whenever there was an open field, it seemed that Delaware Senator Joe Biden was there, running. Yet tragedy punctuated those bursts of ambition. His first wife and infant daughter were killed in a 1972 car wreck. His son Beau survived, went on to become Delaware attorney general, and nursed national aspirations of his own. But in mid-2015, when his dad would have been preparing a run to succeed Obama, Beau died of brain cancer. If there were a moment for President Joe, it was then.

There are two reasons Biden’s name keeps coming up as a presidential contender, one serious and the other unserious. The serious one first: He’s a party elder, known by everyone and associated largely with the legacy of Barack Obama. That would take any Democrat a very long way in a party grounded in issues of political equality. But add Biden’s white working class background, which inspired the kind of fiery rhetoric that overjoyed us in 2012, and Biden would seem to be the party’s total package.

He’s not. That leads me to the second and unserious reason his name keeps popping up. Democratic Party elites seem to believe only Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump. Timing, as usual, is the problem. Biden’s “total package” would have been formidable in 2016 when facing a fake-populist. But Beau died and Trump won, and the political landscape shifted yet again. 2020 will be a referendum on the incumbent, and a chance to heighten the differences between the parties. That means Joe Biden, despite being a true and charismatic working man’s hero, is probably not going to make the cut.

The Times reported on Wednesday that Biden accepted a big fee to speak last year at a Michigan gathering that ended up helping a Republican Congressman’s reelection. The news comes as Biden is testing the nomination waters again, and the report seems to have ticked off a few stakeholders. Charles Blow, a liberal Democrat’s liberal Democrat, responded thusly on Twitter: “This is NOT good, ⁦@JoeBiden⁩. The progressive wing of the party is already suspicious of the ‘corporatist’ wing of the party. You did yourself no favor with this one, and likely some real damage.”

Neither this nor allegations of “corporatism,” however, are going to be Biden’s biggest obstacle to the nomination. His biggest obstacle is the wondrous abundance of Democratic candidates ready to challenge a Republican president, the most diverse field in my lifetime. Party elites are saying that Biden is the man to beat, but that’s not credible given that South Carolina’s primary comes before Super Tuesday. More credible is the party’s interest in saving Biden from humiliating himself.

Biden could win Iowa and New Hampshire, but there’s a snowball’s chance of his defeating a candidate of color in South Carolina. For this, I can be accused of assuming black citizens vote by skin tone. But I can also be credited for being cold-blooded and pragmatic. Biden’s ties to Obama will have immense appeal. But to think that would overcome enthusiasm for someone like Kamala Harris is unrealistic.

Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Astead Herndon remind us how the Democratic nomination process has changed. After South Carolina’s primary next year comes Super Tuesday. That’s when nine states pick a candidate. The winner is probably going to be the nominee. Super Tuesday voters are going to be heavily influenced by South Carolina, where 60 percent of Democrats are black. Jim Clyburn, the most powerful Democrat in in that state, who is black, said Biden will be the front-runner should he decide to run. “Everybody else would be running for second place,” he said.

I doubt it.

Clyburn, like Biden, is 78 years old. I think he’s giving voice more the importance of respect, deference, and seniority than he is to voter enthusiasm. Think of it as what a man says when another man has his due coming. And Biden most certainly does.

But Biden’s bond with the party won’t be enough, I suspect, to overcome the excitement of a Democratic field that includes Harris, who appeals to the most powerful pillar of the party: black women. Clyburn might not see it yet, but he will.

So will Biden.

—John Stoehr

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