Against the Grain

Joe Biden’s Tone-Deaf Apology Tour

The former vice president underestimates his own broad appeal with Democratic party voters. He’s panicking by desperately trying to shore up his progressive bona fides.

Vice President Joe Biden at the Biden Courage Awards on Tuesday in New York
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
March 31, 2019, 6 a.m.

If I could get the answer to any question about the 2020 presidential primary, it would be this: Will African-American voters throw their support behind Vice President Joe Biden because they view him as an extension of the Obama era? Or will they vote for candidates who look more like them and are running on issues of specific interest to the African-American community?

A new Quinnipiac poll offers some compellingly counterintuitive findings on the subject. While drawing any sweeping conclusions at this early stage of the race is premature, the survey’s results went against every bit of conventional wisdom when it comes to the Democratic presidential primary.

The poll found Biden in the lead, with 29 percent of the vote, boosted by his high profile as the former vice president. But it also shows that his support is bolstered by black voters, who overwhelmingly support his expected candidacy. Among African-Americans, the former vice president dominates with 44 percent of the vote, more than doubling the support of second-place finisher Bernie Sanders (17 percent).

What’s also striking is that the two African-American candidates running—Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker—aren’t winning more support from black voters than among white voters. Booker barely registers with African-Americans, with just 1 percent claiming him as their candidate. Harris polls at 8 percent, the same total she holds with white voters.

The three front-running white candidates—Biden, Sanders, and Beto O’Rourke—all are running better with African-American voters than among white voters. O’Rourke, with 16 percent of the black vote, isn’t losing support for being a white guy with an awfully thin resume of professional accomplishments.

To be sure, dwelling on small differences in one poll’s crosstabs—with a limited subsample of voters—is often foolhardy. These results also largely reflect which candidates are being hyped in the early months of the campaign. But the findings of African-American support generally match other early polls and reporting in the early states. Even as certain candidates try to woo African-American voters by supporting forms of reparations to descendants of slaves or by pledging to fight institutional racism, the community is still squarely behind a longtime loyal ally without the newfound wokeness.

In the age of identity politics, it’s all too convenient to assume that voters will be most comfortable supporting someone who looks like them. In 2008, President Obama was able to rely on that goodwill once he proved his political viability with the broader electorate. But in a crowded, historically diverse field of little-known Democratic candidates, there’s a good chance Biden’s long track record will prevail over a slew of lesser-known challengers with relatively thin resumes.

But Biden’s stature as the experienced hand, uniquely capable of unifying a broad Democratic coalition, will be threatened if he decides he needs to go on an apology tour for his past sins against progressive orthodoxy. Already, his long-ago opposition to busing, nuanced views on abortion rights, support for Bill Clinton’s bipartisan crime bill, and treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings are being unearthed to raise questions about his standing in a fast-evolving Democratic Party.

If Biden can’t defend his record over age-old subjects, which took place before many millennials were even born, he’s badly misreading his moment. Biden needs to run a campaign focused on his vision for the future, and can’t afford to apologize for every moment he ran afoul of the most uncompromising voices in the party. Democratic voters want to hear more about his agenda than they care about his recent condemnation of English jurisprudential culture as “a white man’s culture” that needs to be changed. That’s playing to a narrow slice of the electorate that he’ll never win over, regardless of the pandering.

He’d be a lot more successful recounting his close relationship with Obama—using the former president as a “shield,” in the words of Democratic sherpa Paul Begala—rather than making unconvincing explanations that he’s becoming a born-again true believer at age 76.

Even naming former Georgia Minority Leader Stacey Abrams as a running mate—also smacking a bit of desperation this early on—would make more political sense than wildly flip-flopping on past positions.

As much as the numbers will change, the Quinnipiac poll showed the contours for a future Biden victory: dominate with moderates (37 percent), voters over 50 (37 percent), win over enough “somewhat liberal” voters (26 percent) while holding his healthy support with African-Americans (even if some of that support inevitably dissipates). That would allow him to sustain already-weak showings with the most-liberal primary voters (14 percent) and younger Democrats (22 percent). It’s not complicated.

But if Biden continues to pander to the Left over their demands, he’ll lose his greatest asset: authenticity. Those activists will never support him anyways, given that they have other ideologically pure candidates to choose from. And if he starts to look like an older version of the many other progressives in the field, what’s the point of his candidacy?

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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