Joe Biden is riding high on the headlines of his “spectacular comeback.” The same pundits who gave him up for dead last month now gush over him. But his success has less to do with his qualities than those of his opponents. He beat an exceedingly weak field.
Just as Bernie Sanders reaped the benefits of the anti-Hillary vote in 2016, Biden benefited from the anti-Bernie vote in 2020. Biden didn’t even have to break a sweat against Bernie and company, such were their obvious weaknesses. Biden has largely avoided interviews and given short speeches, as his handlers keep him on a tight leash.
Yet even with all this obvious handling, Biden has managed to get himself into some trouble. On Tuesday, before the Michigan primary, he called a Detroit union worker a “horse’s ass” and said he was “full of shit” for raising concerns about Biden’s record on guns.
Now the party elders who have pulled Biden across the finish line want to keep him out of any more debates. James Clyburn, the congressman who was so critical to Biden’s success in South Carolina, said on Tuesday, “It is time for us to cancel the rest of these debates.”
The less Biden talks, the better, according to the party elders who orchestrated his victories. “The waters parted for Joe Biden like no other candidate has ever seen,” said Gloria Borger of CNN. “It’s almost as if he’s standing there saying, ‘What? What? I’m here?’ Because he did everything wrong. He lost a couple times, he came in second or third. This should not have happened, but it did happen to him.”
Still, his passive campaign has filled some pundits with hopes that he can rebuild the “blue wall.” Anything is possible, but at present the Dems are trailing in Wisconsin, which is a bad omen for Biden. His fight with the Detroit union worker also foreshadows troubles ahead. Biden did himself no favors in the Blue Wall states by recently holding up Beto O’Rourke as his future guns czar.
Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate, to his credit, has no illusions about Biden’s recent success:
Choosing Biden was based entirely on a theory of necessity. His flaws are evident, which is why he finished fourth and fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s still capable of delivering inspiring rhetoric but talks over himself, makes errors, and even becomes agitated when required to get into details. He’s enthusiastic when talking about Obama’s accomplishments, but presents almost no vision of what his own administration’s achievements might look like.
He argues that Biden simply won by default:
[V]oters and party leaders were unable to settle on any of the many available non-Biden, non–Bernie Sanders candidates — too young, too female, too not an actual Democrat — and have decided Sanders himself is too risky despite widespread sympathy for his goals. So it’s Uncle Joe by a nose, thanks in part to the goodwill he built up under Obama and in part to all the other horses having died.
The Democrats, says Mathis-Lilley, simply see Biden as a shaky vehicle to ride back to power, one they will have to steer to the finish line and past it into the presidency:
The Biden 2020 campaign isn’t about following its nominal leader, or even listening to him; it’s about the party pushing him over the line collectively — and about making plans to give him the necessary support once he’s in office, as [Cory] Booker’s endorsing statement alluded to in references to “winning races up and down the ballot” and thinking of a presidential victory as the “floor” rather than the “ceiling” of Democratic Party potential.
Biden has taken to referring to himself as a “bridge,” as if his geriatric candidacy was little more than a stopgap measure for a party bereft of leadership. But Biden does have at least one advantage over the party’s last candidate, Hillary Clinton. He is not nearly as reviled as she was. Then again, he won’t be facing a rookie candidate in Donald Trump but rather an incumbent president with a record of demonstrable successes. Democrats who are reading too much into Biden’s comeback against an inept field may be in for a rude shock.