As he ponders a third presidential run, Joe Biden is wrapping himself in familiar imagery, casting himself as an optimist who likes working with Republicans, an experienced and stabilizing force in a rocky political period.
But the open question, asked even by longtime Biden supporters and advisers, is whether there is a market in 2020 for the Biden brand.
The Democratic Party over the past two years has become increasingly partisan and sharp-edged. It has been fueled by a visceral hatred of President Donald Trump. And in its sharp shift it has turned toward things that Biden, the 76-year-old lifetime pol, most certainly is not: fresh faces, minorities, and women.
His strategy of casting himself as the bridge from one generation to the next, and as the one who can win over pragmatic Democrats as well as disaffected Republicans, would test the limits of Democratic primary voters who have encouraged the most diverse crop of candidates in history.
During a speech on Thursday before the United States Conference of Mayors, the former vice president displayed some of his strengths. He was the man who either knows everyone or makes it seem like he does (“Mayor, how ya doin’ man – how things down in Kentucky?” he said at one point, before calling out Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for being Irish and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown for installing charging stations for electric vehicles).
But his weaknesses were also evident. His opening lines referred to Adlai Stevenson, who died 54 years ago. He seemed at times to not have control over the volume of his own voice, and he meandered so much that at one point he stopped himself to say, “Now I’m beginning to sound like the wonk I hate.” He did not mention Trump by name.
He made light of a New York Times story about how he went to Michigan just before the November election and, during a $200,000 paid speech, praised Rep. Fred Upton in remarks that were used to help the Republican incumbent win a tight reelection campaign.
“I read in the New York Times today that one of my problems is, if I were to run for president, is that I like Republicans,” he said. Then he crossed himself, adding, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“It’s like we’ve divided the country into pieces,” he added. “How can we be one America if we continue down this road? I don’t care what your party affiliation is.”
Biden is one of the few candidates whose decision could shape the field, at least minimally, and alter the calculus of other prospective presidential candidates. But unlike most any other potential presidential aspirant, he has a lengthy legacy to consider that could be greatly impacted by a presidential campaign.
His past campaigns, in 1988 and in 2008, were dismal failures and there is some concern among allies that some of his flaws as a candidate would emerge againwere he to run, including his propensity for gaffes. (“No one ever doubts that I mean what I say,” he said Thursday. “The problem is, I sometimes say all that I mean.”)
Biden has done little spadework in the early primary states. If he waits much longer, some advisers worry, he could risk losing potential staffers to other candidates who are much further along.
He has never been a prolific fundraiser, and has not developed fresh email lists of supporters as some of the other candidates have.
“He’s in one of those deep, dark moments where he’s pondering the imponderable,” said one close adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve their relationship. “Everybody’s guessing, other than the fact that they know he’s trying to make a decision.”
His self-imposed deadlines have slipped, becoming a running joke among those who are following him closely. Biden has told some that he plans to run, but even those people don’t fully believe it. He is keeping most of his counsel close to a small group that includes his family and a handful of advisers.
Biden allies and former advisers have been circulating a 441-word document that outlines the rationale for his campaign. It emphasizes his ability to connect with working-class voters, a target audience for a portion of the party that believes the pathway to the presidency will be winning back moderates in the industrial Midwest.
“He has been a warrior for the middle class for his entire life – he speaks directly to working class people, not down to them,” the document says.
His allies also emphasize Biden’s steady hand.
“At a time when faith in institutions in this country is at an all-time low and every day’s headlines bring new crisis and chaos, Americans are looking for a trusted leader – someone who has their backs,” the document says. “Someone who provides a sense of unity for a country that is desperate for a sense of stability.”
Attempting to answer to the liberal energy in the party, they also point to his stance on gay rights, his climate-change legislation in the Senate, and his support for unions. The talking points do not mention issues like crime and protections for women, areas where he could be vulnerable in a Democratic primary.
Biden allies concede that other candidates have caught the attention of primary voters. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has gotten off to a quick start, while there is heavy interest in Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who is formally launching her campaign this weekend. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas still attracts outsize attention and could harness the same network of Obama activists Biden would tap.
Biden allies point toward the 2004 primary, where voters flirted with several new candidates but ultimately landed on the more workmanlike John Kerry.
“I think he’s got two things that make him a very appreciable candidate,” said New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D. “People like him and people trust him. The question will be, do people want a new face. I can’t answer that one because I don’t know.”
In mid-November, Biden called Steve Shurtleff, D, a New Hampshire state representative who had just secured the votes to become House speaker. The call to Shurtleff, who worked on Biden’s campaign in 2008, was brief and congratulatory.
“I just said to him offhandedly, ‘It’d be nice to see you here in New Hampshire,’ ” he said. “He said, ‘We’ll see.’ Very noncommittal.”
Shurtleff also received calls from Warren and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who have both made trips to the state since then.
During his speech on Thursday, Biden tried to remind his audience of the economic challenges the Obama administration faced coming into office, and the efforts made to turn things around.
He said climate change was the most important issue facing the nation.
“We cannot ignore science, we cannot abdicate our duty to lead the world,” he said. He also tried to highlight his sense of optimism.
“I think we gotta start to believe in our people again,” he said. “They’re tougher than you think they are. They’re ready to do great things. They’re looking to be led.”
The question unanswered: whether he will attempt to be the leader.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Matt Viser