Turn on the TV or open any newspaper in the last week and you’ll hear a story: former Vice President Joe Biden has revived his flailing campaign, regained his frontrunner status, and pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in electoral history.
After poor showings in the first three primary contests – all of which were won by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – Biden’s political obituary had been all but written. Then, following the endorsement of influential Congressman Jim Clyburn, Biden ran away with the South Carolina primary. That was Saturday. By Monday evening, both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar had dropped out. Along with Beto O’Rourke, they joined Biden at a rally in Dallas. Their endorsements propelled Biden to victory in ten Super Tuesday contests.
But Biden himself seemingly had little to do with this remarkable turnaround. He did almost no campaigning in Super Tuesday states, didn’t spend much money or employ much staff, and hadn’t done many public appearances. His comeback was completely manufactured. A cheering media and high-profile endorsements carried to the finish line a candidate who does little campaigning, who’s plagued with personal and political scandal, and whose worsening physical and mental frailties are on display every time he appears in public.
Democrats are taking a big gamble on Biden. So far, their gamble is paying off. Voters choose candidates for any number of reasons: who aligns best with their beliefs, who has the best personality, who is the most electable, and who already seems to be winning. Biden won overwhelmingly amongst voters who made their decisions late. By coalescing around Biden, establishment Democrats and the media built a comeback story that won over voters and handed Biden a huge night on Super Tuesday.
In the Democratic primary, where voters often exist in certain social and media bubbles, the strategy may well work. But in a general election, Biden’s numerous vulnerabilities will be a much larger part of the story.
Biden’s cognitive decline was evident at his Super Tuesday celebration when he introduced his wife and sister to the crowd and got them mixed up. In recent weeks he forgot the Declaration of Independence, told voters to vote on “Super Thursday,” announced himself as a candidate for Senate, and lied about being arrested in South Africa. He called one voter a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” and told another to vote for Trump. He often looks tired, confused, and irritable.
So far, Biden’s handlers have kept his campaign schedule light and booked him in few media appearances. But the more exposed he is to the public, the worse he fares. At the start of the primary season, Biden had the rest of the Democratic field crushed. He tanked after a series of bad debate performances, where his cognitive decline could not be hidden, and his record came under closer scrutiny.
Famously, Senator Kamala Harris attacked Biden over his friendliness with segregationists and the work he’d done in the Senate to prevent school desegregation. But Biden’s record is filled with problematic positions. He cowrote the draconian 1994 crime bill that contributed to mass incarceration. He was a cheerleader for the Iraq War. He has been willing to bargain away Social Security and Medicare benefits. He supported a bill that helped make student loans a lifelong burden. He supported trade deals like NAFTA, which outsourced American jobs.
Biden boasts that he can work across the aisle with Republicans, but that isn’t much to celebrate if their work makes life harder for Americans.
Just as he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Donald Trump will run to Biden’s left on important issues like trade, war, and criminal justice. Also like Clinton, Biden leaves Trump no shortage of personal baggage to exploit. Trump has already promised to hammer Biden over his son’s $50,000-a-month position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. And Biden has a long, publicly documented record of making unwanted physical contact with visibly uncomfortable women and girls.
Of course, the Trump family’s own corruption is beyond compare, and Trump has been an even bigger pig toward women than Biden. But Trump’s supporters and the right-wing propaganda they consume don’t care about his wrongdoings. Biden may have to own up to his allegations of corruption and harassment.
With 32 states still to vote in the Democratic primary, there is time for Biden to stumble again and for Sanders to make a comeback of his own. Sanders has a persuasive case to make: a much better record, policy proposals that are broadly popular, no notable personal scandals, and an obviously sharper mind. But the Democratic establishment is betting America’s future on a frail, vulnerable candidate like Biden. Either they learned nothing from 2016 or they’d prefer a Trump presidency to a Sanders one.
It’s not all bad for news for Biden. He isn’t nearly as disliked as Hillary Clinton was. He’s picked up ground with some voters she lost in 2016 and polls still show him likely to defeat Trump. But Clinton led the polls, too, and there’s a long way to go between now and the election on November 3. Trump is the dirtiest player in politics. As more of Biden’s record is dug up and his cognitive decline creates more televised embarrassments, Trump could coast to reelection.
Biden once said he’d “take [Trump] behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” That kind of macho gravitas endears a lot of voters to Biden. Whether it’s enough to win a general election that is only going to get more intense, particularly as Biden already shows visible signs of struggling to keep up, is far too risky a gamble.