By Colin Reed
Published June 21, 2019
Joe Biden’s self-inflicted wound praising segregationists led to the sharpest criticism from his fellow Democrats in this still-young campaign season. For the former vice president, the blunder was the equivalent of an own goal in soccer. Comments at closed-door fundraisers should never drive news cycles. They are entirely avoidable. For his opponents, it was an easy lay-up in their quest to bring the frontrunner down to earth.
In a road this long and winding, the brouhaha could soon be overwhelmed by events. The situation with Iran appears to be worsening, and next week will be dominated by the two-night presidential debate fireworks. But there are longer-term implications from Biden’s head-scratcher, the biggest of which being the undeniable comparisons between Biden’s bid and the last failed Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Both Clinton and Biden sought to be the standard bearer of a party that had moved past their brand of politics. The 1990s era culture of triangulation and a pro-business Democratic Party that Biden and Clinton thrived in have been replaced by a 2019 edition more focused on ideological purity and identity politics.
Biden bemoaning the good old days when people who disagreed could nonetheless work together is not what his voters want to hear right now. Anger and grievance populism are in, compromise is out.
Just as Clinton was forced to renounce her former position on trade under political pressure, so has Biden buckled the debate on taxpayer-funded abortion. Backtracks driven by political expediency don’t sell well. Like Clinton, Biden has a long paper trail of votes and quotes for his opponents – on all sides – to sift through for contradictions and dish out to political reporters eager to make news.
Even Biden’s obstinance and refusal to apologize was reminiscent of Clinton’s unwillingness to admit wrong-doing when faced with nettlesome queries about her private email server. Biden has yet to engage in the free-wheeling and unscripted high wire that is today’s political arena. No longer can candidates expect to hide behind emailed statements issued through spokespeople. Scripted speeches far from the prying questions of the traveling press corps no longer pass muster.
Biden’s candidacy is grounded in a return to the days of yore. He embodies a prior era and political climate.
Tellingly, the most notable names rushing to his defense this week were the 79-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the 78-year old House Whip Jim Clyburn – both respected figures with party bosses, but hardly representatives of the future.
Ironically, the furor around Biden’s segregation comments distracted from a potentially more damaging storyline that also emerged this week. ABC News did a deep dive into the conflicts of interest between Joe Biden’s diplomacy in Ukraine with his son Hunter’s business interests in the same country. The storyline has been festering for some time, and the ABC expose was the latest drip of unflattering news coverage.
Four years ago, using the levers of government to enrich the family foundation proved to be the scandal Hillary Clinton couldn’t shake. The stench of corruption was too much for voters to stomach, particularly in a climate where Donald Trump was railing against the swamp. Her answers were vague and defensive and never passed the smell test. It’s what led her to create a private email server and the impetus for a never-ending political headache.
Now, Biden faces a similar predicament. You can bet his fellow Democrats are strategizing about the best way to weaponize the attack. Biden will not be able to dismiss the allegations as a figment of the right-wing attack machine. Even progressive watchdog groups – and fierce critics of President Trump – told ABC that Hunter Biden’s work represented a “huge appearance of conflict.”
There is one important distinction between Biden this year and Clinton last time. Biden is running in a deep and talented field of nearly two dozen contenders. Clinton had only a self-avowed socialist to compete with, and she still had more trouble than anyone ever expected.
Biden’s support is soft and getting softer, and all this comes before he faces his first big test: surviving the treacherous open waters of a nationally-watched debate stage.