When I was a kid in Philly, the mayor was Frank Rizzo. Those who are not of my advanced age may not remember Rizzo, who was in equal parts loved and despised. He was tough as nails on crime, a former police commissioner, and a political boss famous for wearing a tux with a billy club tucked in the waistband. But he was also the best retail politician I ever saw.
At the annual Fourth of July celebration at the Rec Center or some such thing, Rizzo would make face with everyone, and somehow he knew them all. “Hey, Nancy, how’s the new job at the nursing home?” “Joe, you still trying to sell that car?” The man’s brain was a Rolodex of the citizenry of Philadelphia. Sometimes he’d get criticized, and then he could throw words with the best of them.
Joe Biden is a politician very much in this pugnacious Northeast mold. Over the last two weeks, arguably the best of his long political career, Fighting Joe has been on full display. On Tuesday in Michigan, just hours before his big win there, he had a telling interaction with a voter who accused him, fairly accurately, of promising to grab Americans’ guns.
Biden said the man was “full of sh-t,” stuck his finger in the guy’s face, seemed to threaten to take it outside, shushed his female aide who tried to stop the exchange, and in general just kind of acted like a bully. It’s not the first time Biden has insulted a voter one on one. He’s called them out and joked about understanding why a guy’s wife left him, and there will be more.
There is a flip side to this Chris Christie-esque desire to fight voters. In a different, less viral video, we can see Biden giving his American flag pin to a young child as his mother beams and explains who Biden is and how special the moment is. Whatever one thinks about Biden or his politics, this is a very real moment, just as real as his blowups.
It’s hard to say just how well Biden’s style will play outside of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. Biden is now racking up big wins against Bernie Sanders across the country, but his rise was fueled not just by his improvement as a candidate in recent weeks, but also by a national Democratic Party machine galvanizing behind him out of fear of socialist Sanders.
Now that we seem to have arrived at a Donald Trump versus Joe Biden general election, there are also questions about whether Biden has the stamina to keep up. There have been times when he almost seems in hiding, as if the campaign is doling out his energies carefully.
In a race against Trump, Biden will need to be dynamic, and that is not something he’s very good at. One on one retail politics can only take one so far in a national general election. And Trump will be ready and willing to poke at the inevitable gaffes that come when Biden chats with the everyman.
But Trump has some reason to worry. Biden’s huge win Michigan came in a state where Sanders squeaked out a victory in 2016. This might well show that, as many people believed then, the problem for Democrats’ presidential hopes in that year was that Hillary Clinton was a very weak candidate, as she was against Trump.
An early dispatching of Sanders by Biden, which for all intents and purposes could come as early as next week, would also make it easier for Democrats to bring Sanders supporters on board. Four years ago, the Sandernistas were still licking their wounds as they protested the Democratic National Convention. This year, they will have more time to get used to the idea of Biden.
He fights! That was the sometimes-serious, sometimes-mocking mantra about the Trump primary campaign in 2016. In that case, it meant that he fights for voters, not with voters, but in some sense the spirit is the same. Biden is not going to change. It’s a bit late for that, and after all he’s winning with a little help from his friends.
Insulting and threatening voters is a strange way to pursue the presidency, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t work.