Warning Signs

Yes it’s early, but the Biden campaign is on a troublesome trajectory for reasons that stretch beyond how Kamala Harris dominated Biden in the first debate. I wrote recently that Biden’s debate performance undermined his carefully constructed aura of inevitability and damaged his claim that he is the best Democrat to take on Donald Trump. But his troubles run deeper than one poor debate performance. Candidates can recover from a poor performance and even use it to their advantage to lower expectations for the next debate. But it’s never a good thing when aides anonymously undercut the candidate by saying that  he isn’t listening to his staff and he’s too set in his ways. It’s really not good when the campaign has to deny a leaked story that they’re freaking out. And it’s especially not good when you start losing financial supporters

These are disturbing signs for the one-time frontrunner. It’s disturbing that, at least for the time being, he has fallen back to the pack of candidates, still in the first tier but no longer in a dominating position. It is disturbing that he at times looked defensive, lost and unprepared on the debate stage. Perhaps the most disturbing sign is how out of phase Biden appeared with respect to some of the powerhouse candidates who are threatening to overtake him. 

The word that keeps coming to mind is energy. The intellectual energy driving the campaign to date has come from bold ideas offered by candidates of the progressive left. This has been one of the most policy-oriented and civil primary campaigns I’ve ever seen, where the early hallmark has been honest debate and discussion about important issues and substantive proposals to address them. This discussion hints of an appetite among engaged primary voters for a new direction on economic and social policy rather than a return to the Obama administration.

Against this backdrop, Biden has come across as discordant and lackluster. His folksiness feels practiced and artificial compared to his more straight-talking competitors. He seems out of place promising a return to a lost era of bipartisanship when the competition’s biggest applause lines are about fighting for values and ideas in a political environment where for years — including the Obama years — compromise with Republicans has been impossible. Mostly — and I say this not in reference to his age but to his sensibilities — he feels old. He has been running a twentieth-century insider campaign that lacks the sensitivity necessary to appreciate and engage a contemporary audience or the agility to adjust to a moment when big-name endorsements and big-dollar fundraisers are being seriously challenged by viral messaging and grassroots organizing. 

It makes perfect sense that Biden would run a campaign that plays to his strengths and reflects who he is. But that is the problem; he is a candidate from another era who either doesn’t realize he needs to rise to this huge moment or doesn’t know how. His strategy of running above the fray, positioning himself as the inevitable nominee by wrapping himself in the memory of his former boss, has encountered serious headwinds as a growing majority of engaged Democrats, though divided in their loyalties, support someone else.

Without question, there is a significant market for what Joe Biden is selling. But he has squandered his early lead and will need to recalibrate his strategy to avoid being pulled down further by candidates who intuitively grasp the moment. Right now, he looks like just another guy on the stage.

Biden ended his flailing, defensive debate response to Kamala Harris by saying, “My time’s up. I’m sorry.” Unless he significantly rethinks his approach to 2020, his words may be prophetic.