Former Vice President Joe Biden has about a 14-point lead over his nearest rival in the now-quickening Democratic primary contest to select a candidate for the 2020 presidential election. This is according to established polling organizations like Real Clear Politics, Quinnipiac University and Monmouth University.
While there were variations, recent polls showed Biden with 30% to 33% support among respondents. Polling varied as to whether the runner-up was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In either case, their numbers came in at between 15% and 19%.
Similarly, Biden has about a 13-point lead over the president, Donald Trump. Biden scores in the low 50s and Trump at, or on either side of, 40%.
But Joe Biden will not be our next president, and he won’t even be his party’s nominee in 2020. That represents a major fall from grace for a candidate with so commanding a lead, and contentions like this should be accompanied by statements of respect — not for a political career without missteps, for Biden has made his share, but with appreciation for someone whose political service was well-motivated, who sought to represent his constituents’ interests as one is supposed to do, and whose celebrated “common touch” was not just a cynical ruse.
Simply stated, though, Biden, as a presidential candidate, is not a man of these times. Clearly, he lives in these times and has watched his party move in response to the realities they present. But he is not burning with the ardor of these times. He was lackadaisical about entering the race, apparently assured by his poll numbers that he didn’t need to actually get going in order to be the leading contender; he has not hit the campaign trail hard as his fellow septuagenarian, Sanders, has done; and he’s not putting great effort into preparing, as his encounters with other candidates revealed during the primary debate last Thursday night.
His staff surely knows what the issues are in his long political career that will be problematic today: busing for racial integration in schools (he opposed it), his support for the Iraq war when political courage was needed to condemn the transparent deceptions used by the Bush-Cheney administration to justify it; his handling of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court in 1991, and particularly the unsavory spectacle of a panel of privileged white male politicians largely dismissing Professor Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment by Thomas. He couldn’t have changed the demographics of those hearings, but as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he could have ameliorated the tenor.
All politicians — all people — have pasts, and it’s not entirely fair to judge them outside the contexts of their pasts. But a candidate’s wisdom and humanity are revealed when he or she describes the earlier context and candidly analyzes the differences and similarities to today. Biden shows no interest in doing that work, and in fact, according to (unnamed, of course) sources on his election staff, persisted in describing his collegiality with former Mississippi senator James Eastland even though advisors warned him that the segregationist, racist senator’s name was particularly toxic. It was a bad idea.
Biden is passionate about getting rid of Trump. He has said that he promised his son, Beau, as he was dying, that he would steadfastly continue his public service, and conceivably he finds the highest calling in that regard to be deposing a president whose conduct threatens the country’s morality and allegiance to its Constitution.
But the other primary candidates are equally passionate about expelling Trump from the White House. And they, in contrast to Biden, are burning, invigorated by the challenges of climate change, of social justice in its many complexities from a livable wage to assuring health care for everyone to making higher education widely accessible — so that the nation benefits from their skills (it’s not just a giveaway to the students, as conservatives allege) — to creating greater equity among the citizens and taxpayers of this country before it’s too late.
Like Biden, not all the voters in next year’s Democratic primaries will be “of these times” either. He may seem a safe port in a storm. But Biden is not going to hold up well in the glare and the constant comparisons to his rivals over the next 12 months. Somehow, eventually, he will be sidelined.
And frankly, the candidates teeming with ideas (there are several) could advance that productive and creative dialogue better if they didn’t have to work their way around Joe Biden.