In Joe Biden’s last stand, a test for American centrism

Why We Wrote This

Individuals run for president. But Joe Biden’s candidacy is more than a test of the American public’s faith in one man. It is a test of how relevant centrism is in modern American politics.

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Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden talks with the Rev. Isaac Holt during Sunday services at Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina, Feb. 23, 2020.

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For 50 years, Joe Biden has been a standard bearer for American centrists. Now, it's up to South Carolina to decide whether that way of looking at the world still has a place in divided Washington.

It’s unclear whether a campaign centered around decency and restoration will be enough. But take this exchange at a CNN town hall Monday night with a Charleston pastor who lost his wife when a white supremacist murdered nine parishioners as they prayed.

“Well, Reverend, I kind of know what it’s like to lose family, and my heart goes out to you,” responded the former vice president. “I don’t know how you’ve dealt with it, Reverend. But ... I’ve only been able to deal with it by realizing they’re part of my being,” he said, fighting tears.

The emotional exchange underscored what may be one of Mr. Biden’s most powerful assets as a candidate – not his decades of governing experience or his connection to former President Barack Obama, but his humanity. The tragedies he’s endured, and his ability to wrest meaning from them, connects him to many voters in a way that transcends politics.

Updated March 1, 2020: Joe Biden resoundingly won South Carolina, garnering 48% of the votes. Sen. Bernie Sanders finished a distant second with 20%, and Tom Steyer finished third at 11%.

It all comes down to South Carolina.

For 50 years, American centrists had an established way of looking at the world. And for 50 years, Joe Biden has been a standard bearer for that bipartisan way of life.

Now, after dismal showings in the first two contests and a stronger effort last weekend in Nevada, the former vice president and his brand of politics have one last chance to make a stand in this critical Southern state.

Swooping into Charleston after a second-place finish in Nevada, Mr. Biden is demonstrating there’s some fight in him yet – an “edge,” as one voter said after a campaign event on Monday. This week, influential South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed his longtime friend, after a feisty debate performance brought praise from pundits and over $1 million in donations in a single day. South Carolina polls show him with a growing lead, and his crowds have swelled to sizes not seen since he first launched his campaign.

Still, those facts belie a tough truth: A three-time presidential candidate, Mr. Biden has never won a single primary or caucus. And even if he wins on Saturday, he faces a difficult road ahead, with little in the way of campaign infrastructure or money for TV advertising in the 14 states that will vote on Super Tuesday. More broadly, it remains unclear whether he – or any Democrat today – can successfully revive the coalition of voters that put President Barack Obama in the White House for eight years, and which the party will likely need to defeat President Donald Trump.

“When you come off three consecutive losses, it leads people to wonder, ‘Is this somebody who can deliver the general election to the Democrats?’” says Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She adds: “This is an opportunity for him to really turn things around. He seems more invested in making a case for himself.”

It has been done before, in this very place.

South Carolina Democrats decisively threw their weight behind newcomer Barack Obama in 2008, giving him a critical boost on his path to the nomination. Looking for an experienced and affable partner to help him govern, Mr. Obama tapped Mr. Biden for the ticket. The pair won reelection in 2012.

Mr. Biden’s ties to the Democratic electorate here, which is two-thirds African American, are personal and abiding.

“He is definitely one of us, he knows us, he belongs here,” says Pleshette Grant, who came to hear Mr. Biden speak at the College of Charleston on Monday.

A bond forged in faith

As vice president, Mr. Biden prayed with families after a white supremacist killed nine black parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in 2015.

That connection led to a remarkable moment at a CNN town hall on Monday, when a pastor who lost his wife in that shooting asked Mr. Biden how his faith would inform his decision-making as president.

“Well, Reverend, I kind of know what it’s like to lose family, and my heart goes out to you,” responded the former vice president, who lost his wife and infant daughter in a car crash on the eve of his first Senate term, and more recently lost his son Beau to cancer. “I don’t know how you’ve dealt with it, Reverend. But ... I’ve only been able to deal with it by realizing they’re part of my being. My son Beau is my soul,” he said, fighting tears.

Referencing his Roman Catholic faith, Mr. Biden said, “For me, it’s important because it gives me some reason to have hope and purpose.” He added: “It took a long time for me to get to the point to realize that that purpose is the thing that would save me. And it has.”

The emotional exchange underscored what may be one of Mr. Biden’s most powerful assets as a candidate – not his decades of governing experience or his connection to Mr. Obama, but his humanity. The tragedies he’s endured in the public eye, and his ability to wrest meaning from them, connects him to many voters in a way that transcends politics.

“It is the president who has the responsibility to demonstrate not only empathy and compassion but also a vision for moving forward,” says Professor Lawless. “Biden’s life story embodies that.”

Randall Hill/Reuters
Supporters of Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden listen to him speak at a campaign rally on the night of the New Hampshire primary in Columbia, South Carolina, Feb. 11, 2020.

Still, it’s unclear whether that sense of personal connection, and a campaign centered around decency and restoration, will be enough. Throughout much of this cycle, the party’s energy has seemed to be with the fiery left-wing candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose passionate call to overhaul a system he says is rigged against average Americans has inspired many young people and newcomers to get involved.

“Joe Biden is a decent, inherently good person who does respect America, its laws, its morals, and its mores,” says Dalhi Myers, a young Richland County Council member who switched her endorsement from Mr. Biden to Mr. Sanders in January. “But I did not think [the Biden campaign] was well placed to bring people into the fold.”

Many younger Democrats see Mr. Biden as “basically a mainstream Republican,” says J. Miles Coleman, a political analyst at “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Perhaps even more problematic are concerns about his skills as a candidate. Many of Mr. Biden’s debate performances and campaign events have been lackluster, to put it kindly, with a frequent tendency to go off-script and lose the thread.

“The idea of Biden is much better than the reality of Biden on the campaign trail,” says Allan Lichtman, a political scientist at American University in Washington.

Still, most head-to-head polls to date show Mr. Biden defeating President Trump by a wider margin in key swing states than any other Democrat. And the Trump campaign has seemed more worried about his candidacy than any other – as seen in President Trump’s effort to get Ukraine to investigate the former vice president and his son.

On Wednesday, former President Obama asked South Carolina TV stations to yank ads by a pro-Trump PAC featuring a clip of him using the term “plantation politics” in a way that misleadingly implied he was talking about Mr. Biden.

The comeback candidate?

The other thing Mr. Biden may have going for him is Americans’ love of a comeback.

“When his back is against the wall, Biden does come out swinging and fighting,” says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia. In some ways, she adds, “it is amazing that Biden has overcome these horrible tragedies to the point where he can still be out on the public stage fighting for the American people.”

Tall and straight as a two-by-four, with a reedy punch to his at times scattershot delivery, Mr. Biden strides the stage at an event at the College of Charleston, vigorously stabbing at the air with his finger.

In response to Mr. Sanders’ calls for free college education, Mr. Biden offers what he calls a more “reality-based” proposal on college debt, including forgiveness of 10% of loan balances per year of service to the country.

He also talks about gun violence – an issue of particular importance to the African American community, and one where Mr. Sanders, who in the past voted against the Brady Bill and in support of a bill shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits, may be vulnerable.

“I defeated the NRA twice,” Mr. Biden says.

Indignantly referring to the president as “that fella,” he calls the Trump administration “more George Orwell than George Washington.”

Then, the veteran politician who first came to Washington when Richard Nixon was president, grew thoughtful.

“We have to remember that it’s an idea that holds our country together – an idea,” he says. “This is really about the soul of America. This is where we can turn it around. It is all within your power. You can win this election right here.” 

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