Once again, former vice president Joe Biden is very, very sorry. Since he declared his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year, Biden has spent the majority of his time on the campaign trail apologizing.
He has tried to make amends for his habit of touching women in ways that made many uncomfortable. He’s done countless mea culpas for his role in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, in which Anita Hill blamed Biden for what she considered rough treatment.
He’s apologized for his role in shepherding the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act to passage because most liberals and African-Americans believe mass incarceration of criminals devastated their communities. And lately he’s been making the rounds among African-American leaders accounting for his comments in which he noted that some Senate segregationists were not only civil but people with whom more enlightened creatures like himself could do business.
The question is, why haven’t these issues dented his still considerable lead in the polls over the other 25 members of the Democratic primary field? If not, does this prove either that these issues are not as important as many on the left—and on the right who fear that Biden would be a more difficult Democrat for President Donald Trump to defeat in November 2020—think?
Will Biden Sink or Swim, and Does Apologizing Help?
Are his various apologies—some of which seemed to be based in genuine regret about past decisions and others that he clearly believes are responses to charges that are unfair or completely unfounded—going to be enough to secure the Democratic nomination? Or will the accumulated weight of accusations, all of which seem to buttress the conviction that Biden is a man of the past, ultimately sink him in a race in which more ideologically left voters will presumably predominate?
The early indications seem favorable for Biden. Despite the heavy fire directed at him by rivals like Cory Booker, who sought to make a meal out of Biden’s confession that he had a decent working relationship with open racists like Sens. James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, the frontrunner’s lead in the polls is undiminished.
Although this latest story gave liberals one more reason not to vote for Biden, he still holds an impressive double-digit lead on the field. His 32.1 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls is nearly double that of his nearest competitor, Bernie Sanders, who registers only 16.5 percent support among Democrats polled. Just as important, Biden is maintaining strong support among African-American voters. That’s particularly true in South Carolina, an early primary state where the black community will largely decide victory.
Biden is benefiting from African-Americans’ abiding affection for his former boss, President Barack Obama. Being Obama’s vice president seems to have given Biden a pass for the sort of statements that might sink other Democrats. Moreover, Biden’s mainstream appeal—a product of the same sort of behavior that causes left-wingers to view him with disdain—has fueled the perception that he is the sort of Democrat needed to beat Trump.
Biden Needs More Than to Avoid Disaster
This is very good news for a Biden campaign that is rolling in money, 100 percent name recognition, and the sense that all he has to do is to avoid disaster to sail through the first stages of the campaign before beginning to roll up the sort of pluralities that will cause most of the two dozen Democrats running for president to drop out.
Indeed, the willingness of a candidate like Booker to attack Biden about being soft on segregationists was the idea that unless the former vice president is substantially discredited before the votes start being counted next year, it will be too late to stop him. That Booker was forced to back down to some extent within days of his demand that Biden apologize for what he said about working with segregationists illustrates that the issue gained him little traction.
But Biden faces two problems that cast a shadow on the optimism his supporters feel.
The first is that although nothing Biden has done in the past nor said recently has affected his standing in the polls, with several months left to go until the first primaries, Biden has yet to go more than a week or two without some negative story or gaffe putting him on his heels. Biden’s history as a national candidate in the past was largely characterized by mistakes and an inability to avoid mistakes. The pattern has repeated in his latest try for the presidency.
Just because none of the problems he has encountered so far have proved serious, let alone fatal, doesn’t mean that the accumulated negativity hasn’t chipped away at the notion that he can’t be stopped. Should Biden stumble in any of the upcoming Democratic debates, the damage may be substantial if for no other reason than voters are already anticipating that Biden’s penchant for ill-considered statements will finally provide his opponents the ammunition they need to erase his lead in the polls.
Biden’s Primary Problems
The other big problem facing Biden are the rules the Democrats have set for the primaries.
The inordinately large field of contenders—many of whom have no real chance of winning the nomination—would seem to give the frontrunner a tremendous advantage. Particularly on the left, as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren compete for the same activist constituency, or among the minority candidates like Booker and Kamala Harris, many are making it easy for Biden because their numbers preclude any one of them from gaining enough support to catch him.
But provided that enough of them stay on their feet by the time the primaries actually begin, the rules that apportion delegates proportionately will preclude Biden from rolling up delegate totals that could end the contest before it really begins, much as Donald Trump did among Republicans in 2016 without winning a majority in any of the early states.
That is why the steady drumbeat of negative stories in the liberal media about Biden and his past—such as The New York Times’ feature published on Wednesday, which sought to prove that the former vice president had a lot in common with segregationists when opposing forced busing plans or sponsoring law and order crime bills during his time in the Senate—could be a huge problem.
Unless Biden can wrap up the nomination early, he is eventually going to have to face off against whichever of his more liberal competitors can survive the first primaries. While Biden may be the choice of the same party establishment that imposed Hillary Clinton on the Democrats in 2016, the same polls that are so encouraging for him also reveal that the total strength of the more liberal candidates eclipses his numbers.
The resentment of the activist wing of the party that looks to figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for inspiration against Biden should not be underestimated. And the more the liberal press concentrates on Biden’s record, the harder it will be for him to sweep aside left-wing competitors once the field is winnowed down.
For now, Biden’s apologies and the memory of his loyalty to Obama have sufficed to build and maintain an impressive lead. But unless the mistakes stop, especially in the upcoming debates, the easy path to the nomination he is envisioning may prove far steeper than it appears to be today.