After 32 Years of Running for President, Biden Clinches It

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Former Vice President Joe Biden has gone from what political scientist Josh Putnam has called the presumptive presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to being the just plain presumptive Democratic nominee.

Bernie Sanders finally saw that there was no realistic chance of winning the nomination, and that dropping out now was the way to maximize his influence. Surely his decision to suspend his campaign was due in part to the coronavirus lockdown, and the halt to normal campaigning.

Still, the Vermont senator probably lost the Wisconsin primary this week (although the results won’t be in until next week), and he might well have lost mail-in primaries in Alaska, Wyoming and Ohio later this month and another few states with primaries scheduled in May. It’s probably better to get out now and be perceived as a team player than to demonstrate the limits of his appeal in state after state over the next two months. 

Whether Sanders stuck around until June was going to be irrelevant to Biden and the fall campaign; if anything, a steady stream of big wins might have helped the former vice president’s image, but the nomination has been his for some time now. What is more relevant is whether Sanders will succeed in persuading his strongest supporters to back the Democratic ticket. We won’t know that for a while.

Think about it. Joe Biden, who has been more or less running for president at least since the 1988 cycle, has at long last won a Democratic presidential nomination. His triumph relied quite a bit on Barack Obama’s selection of him as his running mate in 2008, and he did a solid job as vice president. Biden also benefited from quite a bit of luck.

I do think, however, that he demonstrated three qualities that could help him in the White House, should he win in November.

Coalition building: Biden had enough supporters early on that he was the plurality leader in endorsements throughout the campaign. His real strength, however, was that a whole lot of Democratic Party actors who had different first choices — and in many cases different second, third, fourth and fifth and more choices — seemed to find him acceptable.

Biden may never have had wild enthusiasm from a lot of the party, but there never seemed to be a Stop Biden movement at any point. Part of the reason for that was his knack of positioning himself right in the center of the Democratic Party. His long-term success in personal appeals to party actors also played a role. Coalition-building skills are highly useful to presidents.

Perseverance: Biden made two choices that risked his reputation. The first was to run at all, given his long-term failure in presidential politics. He could easily have retired as a successful senator and vice president, and his presidential campaigns would have been a minor footnote in his political biography. Another late-career flop would have turned him into a joke. And then he chose to carry on after miserable finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, risking further humiliation if he couldn’t turn things around. 

Long-term thinking: One of Barack Obama’s biggest strengths as a candidate and as president was worrying very little about winning every news cycle; one of Donald Trump's weaknesses as president is his focus on winning news cycles.  Biden seems to have learned from Obama. When things were going badly for his campaign, he mostly didn’t panic. He did shake up his campaign a little after Iowa, but for the most part over the length of the process he was slow and steady, even though in the past steadiness was never really one of Biden’s defining characteristics. If he’s added that to his skill set over the years, it will serve him well if he becomes president. 

The balance of the findings from political scientists is that the out-party candidates just don’t make much of a difference if there’s an incumbent president on the ballot. The election is a referendum on the incumbent. That's likely more true with Trump in particular, and the circumstances of the pandemic and the pandemic-caused recession. So while I do think Biden enters the general election somewhat underrated as a candidate, it probably just doesn’t matter much.

Still, winning a presidential nomination is always an impressive accomplishment, and Biden has shown some signs he will be an OK candidate this fall and will have pretty good skills to use as president if he wins.

That's especially obvious during the pandemic. One example: Trump tried to get states to keep new unemployment filing data quiet at one point early on, even though the same numbers are released nationally every Thursday -- so he was only putting off inevitable bad news. Of course, more broadly, there's evidence that Trump's slow response to the pandemic in February may have been a case of trying to win news cycles then, even at the cost of seeing larger damage later on (although whether it made a difference is less clear).

The best portrait of mid-career Biden remains Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes," the masterpiece of reporting on six of the candidates from the 1988 cycle.

Some, in fact, badly underrate him. A lot of people have seen selective and even doctored clips too many times and concluded that Biden is barely functional. He has aged, and I for one think parties should avoid selecting presidential candidates as old as Biden -- or Trump. But beyond that? His lifetime stutter is less controlled than it was 30 years ago, but otherwise? I've watched him in every debate through this cycle, in numerous town-hall-type appearances and in plenty of interviews, and he's perfectly coherent. Everyone sometimes reaches for a word, gets some basic fact wrong, or otherwise looks silly, and so it's easy to use even perfectly in-context clips to make anyone who is in the news constantly look incoherent. Democrats have done that to Trump; Republicans did it to Obama.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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