Caught in Trump impeachment storm, Joe Biden holds steady

Why We Wrote This

In attacking President Donald Trump, Democrat Joe Biden runs a risk – having his own résumé as a Washington insider turned against him.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden works the grill during the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry, Sept. 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

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On Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden became the last of the top-tier Democratic contenders to call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment. It was his most forceful response yet to Mr. Trump’s apparent efforts to get Ukraine – and later, China – to investigate him and his son Hunter for corruption. “Trump will do anything to get reelected, including violating the most basic forms of democracy,” Mr. Biden said at a town hall in New Hampshire.

There’s no evidence that the Bidens did anything illegal in Ukraine. And so far, Mr. Biden’s collateral role in the scandal hasn’t appeared to hurt his standing in the polls.

But the situation is serving to highlight a key tension in Mr. Biden’s candidacy. To many voters, Mr. Biden represents a known quantity, a return to normalcy after the turmoil of the Trump years. “People are looking for something they can trust, something they can depend on,” says Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. 

Four decades spent in the nation’s capital, however, inevitably bring some baggage. And as the Ukraine scandal continues to grow, some suggest he’s too much of an insider, too mired in “the swamp,” to bring about the kind of change that’s needed in Washington. 

As the impeachment fight between President Donald Trump and House Democrats escalates, it has largely pushed the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates out of the news. 

All, that is, except one. 

On Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden became the last of the top-tier Democratic contenders to call for President Trump’s impeachment. It was his most forceful response yet to Mr. Trump’s apparent efforts to get Ukraine – and later, China – to investigate him and his son Hunter for corruption. “Trump will do anything to get reelected, including violating the most basic forms of democracy,” Mr. Biden said at a town hall in New Hampshire. “It’s stunning, and it’s dangerous.” 

There’s no evidence that the Bidens did anything illegal in Ukraine. And so far, the former vice president’s collateral role in the scandal hasn’t appeared to hurt his standing in the polls. The Trump campaign’s focus on him may even be helping perpetuate his image as a front-runner. 

But it’s also serving to highlight a key tension in Mr. Biden’s candidacy: One of his main strengths – his many years at the heart of the Washington establishment – may also be his biggest weakness.

To many voters, Mr. Biden is respected and well liked, a known quantity. Wrapped in the halo of affection Democrats have for former President Barack Obama, he has presented himself as a return to “normalcy” after the turmoil of the Trump years. It’s one of the reasons his poll numbers have held steady despite months of attacks by Mr. Trump, his Democratic rivals, and the social mediaverse. 

Four decades spent in the nation’s capital, however, inevitably bring some baggage. Some younger progressives see Mr. Biden as an unwanted return to now-obsolete ways. As the Ukraine scandal continues to grow, some also suggest he’s too much of an insider, too mired in “the swamp,” to bring about the kind of change that’s needed in Washington. 

“He needs to fight the perception that his presidency could be a return to the status quo,” says Ryan Pougiales, senior political analyst at center-left think tank Third Way. “There is no appetite among voters for going back to the way things were. How can Biden be [seen as] an agent of change and still bring the country together?”

Nick Wass/AP/File
Former Vice President Joe Biden sits with his son Hunter at the Duke Georgetown NCAA college basketball game in Washington Jan. 30, 2010. Since the early days of the United States, leading politicians have had to contend with awkward problems posed by their family members.

Mr. Biden has made the past central to his campaign, often calling up his relationship with President Obama and advocating a return to a less partisan era. His primary rivals have used those same features to cast the 76-year-old as a relic who needs to “pass the torch” and to question his ability to “carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling.”

Mr. Biden’s rambling, gaffe-prone stump appearances haven’t helped. He has confused New Hampshire for Vermont, Margaret Thatcher for Theresa May, and his campaign’s text-message code for its website. His reliance on big-dollar donors when his opponents are raking in small donations online left him fourth in third-quarter fundraising, behind Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

Even his message of bipartisanship – that he can reach across the aisle and work with Republicans – feels a little dated, says Jim Manley, a veteran Democratic strategist.

“He needs to step out of the reality that was the Senate in the 1990s and do a better job showing that he understands the concerns of today and he’s prepared to take them on,” Mr. Manley says. 

The Ukraine issue also could take a toll. Mr. Trump has suggested that the former vice president helped oust a Ukrainian prosecutor in order to protect an energy company where his son Hunter sat on the board. Mr. Biden’s defenders – and many independent experts – say the move, which was backed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, was spurred by the prosecutor’s failure to root out corruption. But these days, a claim doesn’t have to be proved, or true, to be damaging. 

Moreover, the story illustrates the kind of elite influence-trading that many Americans hate about Washington – the legal “soft corruption” that candidates like Senator Warren rail against. Some voters will likely recoil when they hear that Hunter Biden earned $50,000 a month thanks to his father’s political cachet (though of course, Mr. Trump’s children have been accused of doing the exact same thing).

“It’s not at all the same as asking a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, but let’s not pretend that this doesn’t feel swampy,” says political scientist Erin O’Brien, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Still, the situation hasn’t seemed to hurt Mr. Biden. While Senator Warren has crept up in the polls over the summer, cutting his lead in some surveys and even overtaking him in others, her rise seems to have come more at the expense of other candidates. Mr. Biden’s numbers have been stable, especially in crucial states like South Carolina. 

Terry Shumaker, a U.S. ambassador under President Bill Clinton and longtime Biden friend and supporter, says it reflects the fact that these are unusual times. Democratic voters, he notes, usually prefer the fresh and the young. The only three presidents to have been elected while in their 70s – Mr. Trump, Ronald Reagan, and Dwight Eisenhower – were all Republicans.

Now, after three years of Mr. Trump, “the revolution can wait,” Mr. Shumaker says, paraphrasing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. 

“On Jan. 20 of 2021, somebody’s gotta go into the Oval Office with not a dustpan, but an enormous shovel, and start cleaning up the mess,” Mr. Shumaker says. Mr. Biden, he argues, “is ready to go on Day One. His bike does not need training wheels.” 

Research conducted by Third Way found that a majority of likely Democratic primary voters want a candidate who can unify the country more than they want someone who’s fighting for a cause, and who takes on urgent problems that Americans are facing rather than someone who’s shifting the national debate. While the nomination race is still “absolutely” anybody’s game, Mr. Biden can point to years of experience doing precisely those things, Mr. Pougiales says.

“People are looking for something they can trust, something they can depend on,” adds Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. “He has the reliability factor.” 

What Mr. Biden hasn’t done effectively is take charge of the narrative. Few of Mr. Biden’s policy ideas – which include a proposal to invest $5 trillion in public and private money into climate change over the next decade, and a new education plan that calls for two free years of community college – have been able to break through the noise about his age or the chaos over impeachment and Ukraine. Doing so will be key to proving that he can take on Mr. Trump.

“The [Biden] campaign has to block and tackle more: Block out any distractions that may be coming their way from the left or from the right, and tackle the issues that matter to everyday people,” Mr. Seawright says. “The bubble wants to talk about Trump. But the people want to hear about the quality-of-life issues that Joe Biden is known for.”

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