Hillary Clinton and former vice president Joe Biden have a shared experience when it comes to their forays into presidential politics. The once and future front-runners have both been confronted with left-wing rebellions in their own party while also struggling to overcome their own, inglorious records in the previous century.
For four years, Clinton served as secretary of state under President Obama. Strangely, Clinton’s role in his administration added remarkably little to her presidential appeal. On the campaign trail, Clinton bragged about traveling abroad more frequently, and widely, than any of her predecessors, while conservatives agonized over the secretary’s email etiquette and advanced conspiracy theories about her handling of the 2012 Benghazi attack. There was very little substantive evaluation of Clinton’s performance as secretary of state. When she became the Democratic nominee in 2016, her tenure as an Obama Cabinet member mattered very little to most voters with strong opinions about her, favorable or unfavorable. As a presidential candidate, whether in 2008 or 2016, she may as well have been the Hillary Clinton from her lowest decade, the 1990s.
In the years before her presidential runs, Clinton did little to improve upon the 1990s caricature of her as a politician. Her vote to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq rendered her Senate term in the 2000s an inconvenience to her presidential ambitions, and her State Department term was still more troublesome to discuss. She was never able to fully rid the stench of 1990s politics that clung to her candidacy. In 2016, she became the second-least-popular U.S. presidential nominee from a major party in modern history, losing to Donald Trump.
In the current campaign, Joe Biden faces a variation of Clinton’s challenges—though he enjoys the added benefit of being a white man from the establishment. After decades of false starts, regrettable accomplishments, terminal gaffes, and marginal polling, Biden was rejuvenated while serving as Obama’s vice president, enjoying two terms as the administration’s folk hero. It’s very recent history and, for many Democrats, and many centrists, a happy time: Biden spent eight years at Obama’s side, preaching compassion, bipartisanship, and good humor through a shockingly divisive decade. In January 2007, while vying for the Democratic nomination himself, Biden described Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” a characterization as insulting to Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson as it was to Obama. By picking Biden as his running mate, Obama wrote a new chapter for Biden’s political career and agreed, with everyone else, to let it go.
Biden leads the early 2020 primary polls, and he leads Trump by the largest margin among the many Democrats running for president. For once, Biden is leading a presidential race, his considerable advantage owing to the Obama years. Democrats aren’t necessarily responding favorably to Biden as a candidate in 2020. They are voting for 2010s feel-good Biden, whom even Republican Senator Lindsey Graham will defend as a “friend.” Trumps spends many news cycles attacking Biden these days; he can only imagine his administration polling as high as when Biden served in the White House.
But the 1990s haunt Biden, too. In fact, he confronts more problematic decades than any other front-runner in recent memory. There’s 1970s Biden, the young Delaware senator who courted segregationists while advancing anti-busing legislation in the Senate. On Thursday, Biden withdrew his support for the Hyde amendment, the 1976 provision that bans the application of federal funding toward most abortion services, citing recent abortion bans in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri as cause for concern. He has irritated modern Democratic activists nonetheless. There’s 1980s Biden, the upstart who flamed out of his first Democratic primary, doomed by personal embellishments and a plagiarism scandal. There’s 1990s Biden, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, who failed Anita Hill in 1991 and who supported the 1994 crime bill, which promoted harsher sentencing guidelines for federal drug offenses and violent crimes. There’s 2000s Biden, the gaffe artist who, in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, challenged Obama and Clinton from the center. There’s 2010s Biden, whom the Obama administration simply recast as an adorable figurehead—an antidote to Dick Cheney’s legacy as a shadow president intent on increasing executive power. Now, there’s 2020 Biden, 76, who, if elected, would be the oldest president in history, a party elder addressing a great rift between generations.
Biden has put forth an ambiguous political platform in a crowded Democratic field that has so far been defined by big ideas and a socialist bent. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, 77, voted for the 1994 crime bill, too—but Sanders now advances a bold and distinct political project that largely obscures his past blemishes. Sanders is a socialist, and he’s leading a left-wing class rebellion into the 2020s. It is easy to summarize what Sanders represents, even for critics who will then go on to dispute the senator’s wisdom and fitness for the highest office. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, once a Republican, advances a meticulously progressive agenda, allowing some distinction between herself and Sanders, but no confusion about her current policy commitments.
Biden hasn’t conclusively foreclosed the previous decades of his political career. For now, Biden coasts on Obama nostalgia, marketing himself as “an Obama-Biden Democrat,” resisting the many critical efforts to bring the four previous decades of Biden’s political profile into the Biden canon. In the last week of June, the Democratic presidential primary debates will begin, and Biden’s desperate rivals may well force him to relive the 20th century and a few other low moments, including the Iraq invasion, the Patriot Act, and bankruptcy reform in the 2000s. The 2020 Democratic presidential primary will force Biden’s earlier decades into contrast with his “Obama-Biden Democrat” bona fides. He cannot coast on the good feelings which are, themselves, growing old. Uncle Joe now polls at 32 percent—well ahead of the couple dozen rivals to the left and right of him. But Biden’s previous incarnations all polled much lower.