Joe Biden is a mediocre presidential candidate, and every Democrat knows it. He never would have won the nomination if a stronger, younger opponent had emerged from the selection process. And as his recent disastrous appearance on a popular black radio show demonstrates, he might be better off returning to his basement in Delaware and letting Donald Trump run against himself.
Biden told the radio host, who goes by Charlamagne tha God, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or you’re for Trump, then you ain’t black.” True, 89% of African Americans preferred Hillary Clinton to Trump in 2016, but in the radio interview, Biden came off as wildly insensitive. He later apologized, saying, “Perhaps I was much too cavalier.”
Being “much too cavalier” is a core Biden trait. It helped sink his two previous runs for the White House, and at 77, there’s no reason to believe he’s going to change now. Still, Biden could well beat Trump in November for one simple reason: When it comes to character, there’s no contest between the two. The president is far more erratic, impulsive and devious. If Trump was merely “cavalier” in his public statements, that would rank as a vast improvement over his mean-spirited mendacity.
Of course, November is a long way off, and how the country recovers from this pernicious pandemic will have a major impact on the election. But the basic outline of the fall contest is starting to crystallize, and the pivotal word is “trust.”
The best description of Biden compares him to an “old shoe” — comfortable, broken in, familiar. He’s solid, steady, sensible. He’s no JFK, representing a new generation of leaders who fought and won World War II. He’s no Bill Clinton, the first Baby Boomer president. And he’s no Barack Obama, the first president of color. The energy fueling the Biden campaign is largely negative, not positive: The passion comes from loathing Trump, not loving Joe.
But all elections are shaped by context — by real-world choices, not idealized abstractions — and there is one historic parallel that strikes me as useful: 1976. The country had long been sickened by countless falsehoods about Vietnam and Watergate emanating from Washington leaders, and voters hungered for what they heard from Jimmy Carter: “I will never lie to you.”
It was a brilliant slogan for that year, those times. And Biden is offering a similar theme: End the chaos. Enough of the craziness. Let’s get back to normal. And at this moment in history, that message could be widely appealing.
In the latest Quinnipiac survey, only 34% describe Trump as honest, as opposed to 62% who don’t trust him. What’s so stunning is that those results mirror the exit polls for the 2016 election almost exactly. And yet 1 in 5 of those 2016 Trump skeptics voted for him despite their concerns, and arguably handed him the election.
Team Trump insists this will happen again. Tim Murtagh, the president’s campaign spokesman, compared Biden to Hillary Clinton and told The Washington Post: “They are about to nominate another candidate who, lo and behold, has almost the exact same problems. He happens to have the same vulnerabilities. It’s not our fault the Democrats nominated another swamp creature.”
To Trump’s loyal supporters, that’s undoubtedly true, but two factors make this year quite different from 2016 — starting with Trump’s opponent. Biden, for all his flaws, does not generate anything like the fierce animosity many voters felt for Hillary. Four years ago, voters who despised both candidates broke heavily for Trump, but this year, those who feel that way tell pollsters they strongly favor Biden.
Moreover, many of those anti-Hillary voters never thought Trump would win, and had no real conception of how he would perform as president. Now they know.
“What we’re seeing in polls is that Trump’s personal ratings have gone down even more than his job approval ratings,” Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster, told The New York Times. “And what that tells me is that all of Trump’s antics are taking a toll on his vote, because now more than ever, people see his lack of judgment and lack of temperament as being consequential.”
Base voters in both parties will vote predictably next November. The key to the outcome is held by that sliver of Americans who felt uneasy about Trump the first time around and backed him anyway. Will they trust him again?