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The first time Joe Biden ran for president was in 1988. Sort of.
Biden officially withdrew from that contest in September 1987, after just three and a half months as a declared candidate. Despite building what The New York Times called “a formidable corps of fund-raisers,” Biden spent his brief time on the campaign trail bumbling from unforced error to unforced error. He insulted voters face to face, telling one, “I think I probably have a much higher I.Q. than you.” He lied about his academic record, lied about marching in the civil rights movement and plagiarized Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and the British politician Neil Kinnock.
Biden’s first presidential flameout was shocking. He was a 14-year Senate veteran, chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, and the favorite candidate of a deep bench of deep-pocketed donors.
Two decades later, Biden tried again, now with 34 years of experience in the Senate. He opened his campaign with an unintentionally racist gaffe, complimenting then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as “articulate” and “clean.” The second time around, he made it to the actual year of the election but withdrew after failing to win a single percentage point of the vote in the Iowa caucuses.
In 2019, it is no longer a surprise that Biden is running yet another bad presidential campaign. What’s stunning is the insistence from the Democratic Party’s leadership that Biden is their best bet for defeating Donald Trump.
His latest dreadful week on the campaign trail is a case in point: At a fundraiser on Tuesday night, Biden wistfully recalled his working relationships with segregationist Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. Other 2020 candidates, including Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called on Biden to apologize, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) found herself defending Biden’s rhetoric as part of his “authentic” persona.
But the story has continued to dominate the news cycle because Biden has been authentically agreeing with segregationists on a host of racial justice issues over the course of his career in Washington.
In September of 1986, Biden boasted of his relationship with segregationist Strom Thurmond from the Senate floor, saying the two men had worked tirelessly together to reform the criminal justice system: “We agreed upon 90% of the changes that had to take place, probably 95%,” Biden said. “And they were striking changes, striking changes in the sentencing law, striking changes in parole, striking changes in terms of how we define certain crimes, striking changes in terms of certain penalties.”
Those changes included many policies that fueled the mass incarceration of black men in the United States, including wildly disparate sentencing for powder versus crack cocaine. Biden’s cooperation with segregationists included work with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in the 1970s as part of an effort to halt the racial integration of public schools.
Biden did not bring up the good old days with the good ol’ boys in response to tough questioning from his lefty critics. He presented it all by himself, apropos of nothing.
Presidential campaigns make mistakes, but Biden’s campaign doesn’t seem to do anything else. Community leaders in Charlottesville, Virginia, were angered that Biden used their town as a “prop” in his campaign launch video. When Biden’s advisers told reporters he would pursue a “middle ground” on climate change policy, his campaign attacked the publication that accurately reported their remarks, then rushed to release a climate change policy platform plagiarized from activists and think tanks. The campaign then said its failure to cite outside organizations was an accident.
Biden skips major Democratic Party events, appears to be hiding from the press and is doing very little actual campaigning ― his rivals for the Democratic nomination are holding double to quadruple the number of public events.
Not all of these missteps mean much to voters, but something clearly isn’t sitting right. After debuting at 41 percent in the wake of his April 25 announcement, Biden’s share of the primary electorate has slipped a full 10% in just six weeks. And that was before the segregationist debacle.
Most of Biden’s critics attack him for ideological reasons. They don’t agree with his ideas about economic policy, social justice or foreign policy. They want to see the party nominate a candidate who fits the liberal inclinations of the modern Democratic electorate, not a guy who longs for the lost golden age of the 1980s.
But there’s another much simpler problem with his candidacy: Biden just isn’t very good at politics.
The Democratic donor class doesn’t need Biden. There are plenty of establishment Democrats out there capable of maintaining the present balance of power within the party in which progressives get to complain and self-described moderates actually exercise power. Many of them are even running for president. But for some reason, Democratic Party leadership continues to insist that Biden must be their man.
Trump is a uniquely unpopular candidate. He lost the popular vote by 3 million in 2016 and presided over a disastrous midterm election for Republicans. It will take a very special brand of incompetence to lose to him again in 2020. But if anyone is capable of orchestrating another Democratic defeat, it’s the leaders of today’s Democratic Party.