There has been much speculation on how the CNN/Facebook Democratic debate in Las Vegas affects the potential Joe Biden campaign. David Axelrod published an article on CNN entitled “The man who wasn’t there: How debate affects Joe Biden“. Axelrod argues that Clinton “did what she needed to do” to secure her place and make a Biden campaign less likely. He went so far as to declare, “maybe the biggest loser was the man who wasn’t there”. I don’t like to make a habit of disagreeing with Axelrod, but I do. Strongly. I think the Democratic debate shows Biden where his path to the nomination and the presidency is.
Joe cannot win the nomination without taking support from both Bernie Sanders and Clinton. Let’s look at each opponent separately, starting with Clinton. Hillary has three major weaknesses, only one of which the debate helped her with: the emails, Black Lives Matter, and the perception of her as unprincipled. As far as the email scandal, Bernie Sanders gave her a huge assist by claiming the American people are tired of hearing about her “damn emails”. Additionally, the GOP is starting to hurt itself here with the Benghazi committee falling apart. Even if the email scandal mountain becomes a molehill, the damage is already done. People see Hillary as an opportunist with no spine, and the email scandal only fuels that narrative. Hillary didn’t help herself on that at the debate with the TPP flip-flop response being below the standard needed to handle a major policy change. Axelrod notes that Hillary majorly flubbed that question, but I believe he underestimates how that feeds the narrative of Hillary as a spineless politician. Even if it’s not true, perception becomes reality in politics, and the flip-flop label devastated Mitt Romney in 2012. Additionally, Hillary still is weak on race issues. Even after getting a bailout from Anderson Cooper, who rephrased the question for her, Hillary’s answer was still underwhelming, talking about “these children” and “communities of color” instead of Black Lives Matter. For Joe, the path is to present himself as a trustworthy alternative to Hillary. Joe Biden, for all of his gaffes, is perceived as a trustworthy, honest person. He needs to capitalize on that and present himself as a tell-it-as-it-is alternative to Hillary. He can steal away some of the people who reluctantly have bought into the Clinton campaign because they see Sanders as unelectable. However, he must explain how and why he has changed from his 1994 support and advocacy for a major anti-crime bill that made parole harder to come by and ended Pell Grants for inmates. He has begun that with his April piece on community policing for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. If Joe can successfully show support for Black Lives Matter, he can further cut into Hillary’s support.
As for Joe versus Bernie Sanders, the case is very different. There are two viable attacks on Sanders that Joe has. First is the electability question. There is a legitimate concern as to whether Bernie can win the general election if the GOP nominates a candidate like Rubio or Bush. Bernie’s “democratic socialism”, noble and smart as it might be, does not help the average undecided voter, who only hears “socialism”. As Anderson Cooper said in the debate, the ad writes itself. Once again, perception is reality here, and Sanders’ insistence on using the word “socialism”, even in the intelligent and nuanced way he does, is going to make it hard for him to win over older undecided voters who remember the Cold War and associate “socialism” with the Soviets and a grand ideological war for the soul of society. Joe can advocate many of the same positions without the “socialist” label. Secondly, Bernie has a major problem with the issue of gun control. Bernie gave a less-than-convincing answer in the debate about his vote to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits, opening the door to a Clinton attack. Biden can easily steal a solid number of progressive supporters from Bernie by making gun violence a core issue in this election and positioning himself as the candidate that will finish the work there. He is already in charge of the issue for the White House, and he could argue (with good reason) that Sanders will weaken the work he has already started there.
Biden has one obvious card up his sleeve that neither Clinton nor Sanders has: Joe has the bully pulpit of the White House. In addition to chairing the gun violence reduction effort, Biden has begun to increase his national profile by being a major part of the Papal visit, hosing a luncheon for Chinese president Xi Jinping during the latter’s recent state visit to Washington, and his recent UN visit that included covering for President Obama in chairing a panel on ISIS and meeting with global leaders that included the leaders of Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Japan. Obama has seemed willing to hand over duties and opportunities for Biden to show that he can handle the Oval Office as his own, and Biden has been ready and able to do so.
With both Sanders and Clinton showing weaknesses that Biden can take advantage of, along with having access to the Holy Grail of Democratic data (the Obama/Biden campaign lists), there is a clear opening for a Biden campaign. The debate highlighted those openings, leaving one thing for Biden supporters to be.
Fired up, Ready for Joe.
*Note that this is not an endorsement of Biden in the primary, should he run. I want to see what Joe’s campaign looks like and does before I make a primary decision (not that it matters much who I support).