Published:Wednesday, 29 Jul 2020 02:07
My early take on Joe Biden was that the weaknesses that made it harder for him to secure the Democratic presidential nomination would ultimately make it easier for him to win the presidency.
At a time when the Democratic Party was lurching leftwards, his pragmatic centrism would be advantageous because hard-hat voters in the Rust Belt and Starbucks moms in the swing state suburbs would find it unthreatening. Nor was his inability to rouse a crowd necessarily a drawback.
Many Americans, after all, were yearning for a presidency they could have on in the background: soothing soft jazz after the round-the-clock heavy metal of the Trump years.
Biden’s geniality was the key, his smile almost his philosophy. In a politics often driven by negative partisanship – odium for your opponent more so than fervour for your own party’s nominee – Biden would be hard to turn into a hate figure. Certainly, he was nowhere near as polarising as Hillary Clinton, whose negatives helped Trump pull off his unexpected victory in 2016.
Then I went to Iowa and New Hampshire and was shocked to see how the 77-year-old could barely hold a tune. Speeches became rambling soliloquies, a reminiscence from his Senate career here, a name drop from his vice-presidential tenure there. Looping and meandering, his train of thought regularly careered off the rails.
Anecdotes did not seem to make any political point; and while he spoke in vague generalities about redeeming the soul of America, he never thrashed out what precisely that meant. Still he could flash his mega-wattage grin, but he appeared before us as an ambient presence who struggled to light up a room.
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The early primaries did not go well
In 30 years of covering US politics, he was the most lacklustre front-runner I had seen, worse even than Jeb Bush in 2016. The former Florida governor could at least complete a cogent sentence, even if nobody applauded when it came to an end. After Biden’s fourth place finish in the Iowa caucus and his fifth place showing in New Hampshire, many of us thought the time had come for him to don his trademark Aviator shades and ride off westward into the sunset.
Instead, of course, he headed to South Carolina, where the endorsement of the influential black Democratic congressman Jim Clyburn and the support of African Americans produced a Lazarus-like return from the dead. Moderate rivals, such as Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, left the race, coalescing around the establishment candidate deemed to stand the best chance of fending off the insurgent challenge from Bernie Sanders. Faced with the alarming prospect of a one-time socialist emerging as the party’s nominee, they smashed the emergency glass in the hope that amiable Joe could put out the firebrand.
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Days later, following his cascade of victories on Super Tuesday, some pundits marvelled at how Biden had triumphed in states where he had not even campaigned. But the opposite may well have been true. Biden might have performed well in places precisely because of his absence. The lesson from Iowa and New Hampshire, after all, was that the more voters saw of him, the less they were likely to vote for him. His stealth candidacy ahead of Super Tuesday helped him wrap up the nomination.
The Covid lockdown, then, has been a boon to his candidacy. The months sequestered in the basement of his Delaware residence has provided a useful cloak of invisibility. Social distancing has even helped neutralise an issue that once imperiled his campaign: that he was inappropriately tactile with women, creepily touchy-feely.