A lot of people love the idea of Joe Biden — but is the real Joe Biden "electable"?

Joe Biden is likely to run for president in 2020. In theory, he's a strong candidate. Reality may be different

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 10, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden (AP/Nati Harnik)
Joe Biden (AP/Nati Harnik)

Reports are everywhere that former Vice President Joe Biden is about to make his decision about whether to run for president in 2020.

Like most people who cover politics, I strive to base my analysis on the right mix of research and anecdotal experience. Without a deep dive into polls and studies, current trends and historical precedent, any conclusion about American's political future is bound to be nothing more than ill-informed guesswork. On the other hand, if you don't listen to the political opinions of the men and women encountered in day-to-day life, then the analysis becomes bloodless and sterile — and equally unmoored from any kind of deeper truth.

With this observation in mind, I write about the Uber drivers who love Joe Biden. As someone who can't drive for medical reasons, I rely heavily on Uber for my transportation needs, so I have had many conversations with Uber drivers. While those chats don't always involve politics, I don't shy away from the topic either, and recently began a little experiment: I started asking random Uber drivers what they think of the 2020 presidential election. Most, quite frankly, don't seem to care, and more than a few were die-hard supporters of President  Trump.

Among those who either identified as Democrats or as nonpartisan concerned citizens, however, an interesting trend emerged: When I asked who they wanted to see win the Democratic nomination, driver after driver after driver mentioned the name Joe Biden before I ever brought it up.

This could be a geographic phenomenon (I live in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, not far from Scranton, where Biden was born), or the result of pure name recognition. My notes are full of phrases like "he's a good guy," "he seems real" and "he's not full of shit." The general impression is that Biden is authentic and therefore likable, a Trumpian figure in that he speaks his mind and un-Trumpian in that he seems compassionate and trustworthy (and, also unlike Trump, can genuinely claim to be self-made).

Do these observations indicate that Biden would be the strongest Democratic candidate in 2020? Or that he's likely to be the next president of the United States?

Hard data suggests that could be so. Biden has been at or near the top of nearly every reliable poll taken of potential 2020 candidates since the end of the 2016 election cycle. His bromance with former Barack Obama, a beloved icon among Democrats, has undoubtedly endeared him to many within the party. His blue-collar background and unvarnished rhetorical style give him a potential Rust Belt appeal that Hillary Clinton sorely lacked when she ran for president in 2016.

At the same time, the idea of Biden and the reality of Biden are two very different things. While the idea of Biden is no doubt quite electable both in the primaries and general, the reality of Biden may prove to be a very different story.

For one thing, there is the problem of Biden's political past. As the Democratic Party moves farther to the left, Biden has a legislative record from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that he needs to account for if he hopes to win over progressives in the primaries. This is including but not limited to: his support of Bill Clinton's now-vilified 1993 crime bill, which he justified by railing about "predators on our streets"; siding with Ronald Reagan on reducing the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent; supporting a freeze on Social Security spending; opposing antitrust legislation; backing former  Bill Clinton's controversial financial deregulatory policies, which contributed to the Wall Street crash; denouncing the Roe v. Wade decision as having gone "too far"; and opposing school busing as a means of desegregation.

It is important to note that, on all of these issues, Biden took those controversial positions decades ago, when the Democratic Party believed it had drifted too far to the left after George McGovern's disastrous 1972 presidential campaign. The practical political considerations that motivated Biden's thinking had long evaporated by the time he agreed to serve as second-in-command to America's first black president. Like all human beings, Biden has the right to grow and evolve; there is nothing shameful about saying that he held certain views in the past that he no longer holds today.

At the very least, though, Biden will have to reckon with this record in order to win over liberal voters, even as he must avoid moving so far to the left that he won't alienate the moderates who seem to be flocking behind him. That won't be an easy task.

Then there are the scandals that his supporters seem to overlook. I'm not talking about his regular verbal gaffes; it is fair to say that, in a country that can elect Trump, Biden's penchant for faux pas is unlikely to prove too damning. No, the problem is that in a post-#MeToo era, Biden has a longstanding habit of getting handsy with women, often on camera, including a 13-year-old on at least one occasion. Indeed, while Biden had his arm wrapped around the teenage daughter of Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst while she was being sworn into office, the then-veep joked, "I hope mom has a big fence around your house."

The most generous interpretation of that behavior is that Biden fails to respect the boundaries of young women in ways that are grossly inappropriate. Another view would be that there's a real threat that details about Biden's past could emerge that would make it difficult or impossible to claim the moral high ground against Donald Trump.

Then there was the plagiarism scandal that derailed Biden's 1988 presidential campaign, one that involved him quoting other politicians without attribution and being caught in a plagiarism scandal all the way back when he was in law school. That scandal ultimately forced him to end his 1988 campaign, even though he had initially been considered one of the frontrunners.

Does this mean that my Uber drivers are wrong about Biden? Yes, but they aren't wrong about what they liked in Biden. Once Joe Biden the man has to explain the less savory aspects of his past, my Uber drivers may well re-evaluate their opinions about him. But the things that they saw in him are qualities the next nominee must have: Authenticity, compassion, the capacity to speak to blue-collar and Rust Belt voters. Biden the idea, circa 2019, is a potent one, even if Biden the man is unlikely to live up to it. Democrats should pay attention.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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