Biden is in, but Bernie reignsNiall Ferguson
The preacher asked that there be silence, please.
“If any objections to this wedding,
Yvonne Fair’s It Should Have Been Me is one of the great 1970s soul hits. It was also my introduction to counterfactual history. To this day, I’m haunted by the thought of Yvonne leaping from her pew to present the startled congregation with a classic “what if?” argument: but for that woman, I’d be the one walking down the aisle.
I wonder if Joe Biden finds himself humming It Should Have Been Me when he looks back on the events of 2016. More than a year before the US election, I argued Biden stood the best chance of beating Donald Trump when it came to winning the votes of “white, male, ageing Americans”. It was not to be. Barack Obama, who had picked Biden as his running mate in 2008, took the fateful decision to back Hillary Clinton.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe had the job of breaking the bad news. “Mr Vice-President,” Plouffe told Biden, “you’ve had a great career . . . Do you really want it to end in a hotel room in Des Moines, coming in third to Bernie Sanders?”
As the votes were tallied on the night of November 8, 2016 — as Democrats grappled with the realisation that Clinton had lost to Trump — Biden had every right to jump out of his seat and scream: “It should have been me! . . . Somebody call the police / That woman down there is a doggone thief!”
Last week — despite still lacking an endorsement from Obama — Biden decided to launch his third bid for the Democratic nomination. He has opted to position himself, from the outset, as the candidate who can beat Trump. The opening salvo of Biden 2020 was a three-minutes-plus video revolving round events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when clashes between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protesters culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer.
According to Biden, Trump’s statement at that time — that there were “some very fine people on both sides” — had “assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
Now Biden was born in 1942, so we’re being asked to believe that Trump is a bigger threat to the United States of America than either the Axis powers in the Second World War or the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But the implausibility of that claim is not the reason Biden will struggle to be the Democratic candidate next year.
Nor, for that matter, is he going to be thwarted by the efforts of his foes to “#MeToo” him (yes, it’s now a transitive verb) with complaints of overfamiliar physical contact by seven women. Sure, Biden is a touchy-feely politician. But anyone who knows his biography — the deaths of his wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972, just weeks after his election to the Senate; the death from brain cancer of his son Beau in 2015 — must surely cut the man some slack. He’s no predator.
Biden’s real problem is that he finds himself on the right wing of a party that has lurched leftwards in the past 2½ years. A new generation of radicals in the House of Representatives — exemplified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar — has created an atmosphere in which nominating Biden would seem a betrayal. Despite the failure of their female candidate in 2016, many activists yearn to nominate another in 2020, ideally a “woman of colour” (which is why Senator Kamala Harris is a real contender).
There has also been a marked shift to the left on policy. The key issues in this contest will be healthcare, student debt, climate change and taxing the rich. On this terrain, Biden looks conservative. His past support for the tough 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act and his failure to back the lawyer Anita Hill when she accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings — these are the things today’s progressives really hold against him.
Is all this just a roundabout way of saying that Biden is too old and too male to be president? No, because the person most likely to beat him to the nomination is an even older guy. Step forward, Vermont senator and democratic socialist Sanders (born in 1941). He may be six to eight points behind Biden in polls, but at this early stage that isn’t significant.
I can think of three reasons Sanders is more likely than Biden to win. First, unlike Biden, Sanders ran a campaign in 2016 and his machine is still in pretty good shape. Take fundraising. Not only did Sanders lead the field in total donations in the first quarter of this year; he also has the most donations from the most people (per 1,000 residents) in the most states (20), while others are still heavily reliant on their home states. Biden has some big donors, no doubt; Sanders has an army of smaller ones.
Second, there’s the new Democratic primary calendar. As early as March 10 next year, about half the convention delegates will have been awarded, compared with just a third at the same stage in 2016, because six states have brought their primaries forward. As delegates aren’t allocated on a winner-takes-all basis, no candidate is likely to have a majority by the time of the Democrats’ Milwaukee convention in July. But Sanders could be so far ahead of everyone else that it would be hard to deny him.
Finally, the so-called superdelegates, who were a key reason Clinton beat Sanders in 2016, may be less powerful in 2020.
Yes, I know. It’s much too early to be speculating about who’ll be running against Trump next year. The media favourite Beto O’Rourke may yet turn out to be the white Obama. Pete Buttigieg, the multilingual mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is also worth watching.
Yet one thing does seem pretty clear: whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be taking on a man who, for all his character flaws, is presiding over full employment and 3% growth; who took on China long before the policy elite realised that American primacy was under threat; whose inflammatory stances on immigration and political correctness play very well with older voters; and whose mastery of social media is unrivalled in global politics.
Biden was not the only man singing It Should Have Been Me on election night 2016. Even more than Biden, Sanders had been robbed of the Democratic nomination by the party establishment. He won’t be so easily robbed this time.
If Bernie ends up singing the same old song on election night, it will simply be because Trump confounds his many critics by winning re-election.