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Joe Biden Needs to Read the Room

The former vice president remains a front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary, but is he miscalculating the mood of the party’s voters?

On Sunday, Joe Biden addressed the persistent concerns about his poor standing among younger voters in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary in a 60 Minutes interview. Norah O’Donnell asked Biden to assess the success of his two main challengers, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, in “igniting the Democratic base that turns out in the primaries,” especially “younger voters.” The 60 Minutes segment showed Sanders, 78, commanding a youthful rally in Queens, New York, before showing Biden, 76, meeting with smaller groups of older voters. It was a striking contrast meant to illustrate Sanders’s appeal to younger voters. Biden addressed O’Donnell’s question by saying, “It’s overwhelmingly people over the age of 50 who vote in these primaries.”

In his disclaimer, Biden defies his former political partner and presidential running mate, Barack Obama, who was elected president at 47 years old in 2008 and upset the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, in the party’s primary with his youthful insurgency. “I want more young people voting, I want them engaged,” Biden continued, “but … .” He trailed into a tangent about “Medicare for All,” the left-wing health care proposal popularized by Sanders and co-opted by Warren, which supposedly represents a young voter’s naivety.

Biden doesn’t seem too concerned about young voter turnout or youthful appeals. He knows his old-fashioned qualities—and his appeal to older voters—are crucial components of his broader appeal. Even as he struggles against Warren and Sanders in key statewide contests like Iowa (where Warren leads), and New Hampshire (where Sanders leads), Biden proves more consistently popular than his critics will admit; he’s still the national front-runner.

His weak fundraising aside, Biden enjoys similar advantages as Clinton did in the previous presidential election. Clinton won the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries on the strength of her support from older voters, even as she lagged in support among younger voters, who favored Sanders. In the general election, Clinton beat Donald Trump by more than 10 percentage points among voters age 44 and younger, and won the popular vote, despite losing the electoral college. Ultimately, Clinton won younger voters by double-digit margins in the general election despite her relatively weak standing in the primary. Her support from those younger voters increased by running against Trump, a Republican presidential nominee who primarily appealed to white voters age 45 and older. Biden may follow a similar path to the party’s nomination, and he’s positioned himself as a stronger bet against Trump than any of the other Democratic candidates.

Like Clinton in 2016, Biden struggles against the fierce antiestablishment currents that Trump and Sanders command. Biden’s approval rating trends higher than Clinton’s did for all the controversial reasons: He’s a man, he’s folksy, and his opponents haven’t spent the past quarter-century cultivating conspiracy theories about him and his family. Trump appears to be making up for lost time with his recent rants about Biden’s son Hunter and his business interests in Ukraine. Biden has handled the ensuing intrigue somewhat more effectively than Clinton handled the Republican Party’s conspiracy-mongering about her State Department emails. Trump may have harassed Hunter Biden to weaken a political opponent only to ensure his own impeachment. But Biden’s candidacy defies so many warnings embedded in Clinton’s failure. This election and the last one—defined by Sanders’s prescience and Trump’s success in 2016, and Warren’s insurgency this year—have revealed the nation’s broad and terminal distrust in national institutions, political parties, and the ruling class.

It’s hard to imagine a more enthusiastic cheerleader for the political establishment than Joe Biden. In June, he reminisced about his partnership with the late Mississippi Senator Jim Eastland, a Democrat who opposed integration and voting rights for black people. In recalling Eastland, Biden meant to underscore the open-mindedness required of members of Congress to pass laws such as the Voting Rights Act in a deliberative, two-party legislative body. “We got things done,” Biden said. “You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.” Later, Biden reaffirmed his outlook on progressivism and its opponents. “You beat them,” Biden said, “and you beat them without changing the system.” The remark read as the 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner campaigning in some parallel universe where everyone—hell, anyone—loves “the system” that so many contemporary political leaders humiliate at every turn.

The controversy surrounding Biden’s comments about Eastland highlighted Biden’s definitive instincts: In reminiscing about old colleagues, however repugnant their agenda, he reveals his romantic regard for “the system,” or the status quo, the old ways. Frequently, Biden gestures toward the previous century when legislators played a more glorious role in the political imagination: as servants, as leaders, as ideological titans (if also, sometimes, as segregationists). There was Ted Kennedy, who died 10 years ago; John McCain, who died last summer; and McCain’s longtime friend, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who has turned into a rabid Trump defender.

The ideal of senatorial collegiality that Biden clings to doesn’t exist in Trump’s presidency. Now, there are only so many disgraced pretenders carrying that mantle. Jeff Flake, Claire McCaskill, Susan Collins, and Joe Manchin, current and former senators in the Trump era, possessed bipartisan bona fides that should have afforded them some classic gravitas, but instead reduced them to crumpled, pathetic figures in the polarized Congress. (Flake and McCaskill, both ejected from the Senate last year, now work for CBS News and MSNBC, respectively, as contributors.) The Senate confirmation hearings for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, further revealed the deterioration of that collegiality. “Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it,” Graham snapped at Democrats during the hearing. “God, I hate to say it because these have been my friends.” In 2019, would Senator Joe Biden, preaching reams of bipartisan mythology at raucous confirmation hearings, strike viewers as some transcendent statesman? Or would he simply sound like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker?

Clinton knew better than anyone else the ease with which politicians, even the most conventional figures, can be recast by their opponents in extreme terms, as murderers, pedophiles, and, worse yet, email hoarders. Trump exploited these dark impulses to win the presidency. On the contrary, Biden hopes voters have become exhausted by these tactics and that they will prioritize their objections to Trump above their reservations about “the system.” In his 60 Minutes interview with O’Donnell, Biden recited the most urgent trope in his stump speech, which bypasses his many Democratic rivals and looks at the 2020 general election. “Four years of Donald Trump will be very hard to overcome, but we can,” Biden said. “Eight years of Donald Trump will fundamentally change the nature of who we are as a country. It’ll take a generation or more for us to get back on track.”

If Clinton promised modest tweaks and incremental improvements to Obama’s legacy—a small gesture toward a small future—then Biden promises to restore the mythical bonhomie which, at this late stage in the nation’s polarization, predates everyone but the good old senators from Jim Eastland’s time. If Biden loses to Trump, then the nation’s soul is truly lost. The establishment will crumble. That’s Biden’s dismal pitch; the 20th-century statesman’s undying appeal.