It might seem obvious that former Vice President Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign with a searing attack on the incumbent — over President Trump’s ambivalence toward bigotry — but it actually sets him apart in the Democratic field.
It’s not a case being made by everyone else. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, come to think of it) have distinguishing policies to set them apart. There’s a tier of less ideological candidates, like Sen. Kamala Harris, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who are trying to appeal to voters through a combination of charisma and intelligence.
Longer than a Damian Lillard buzzer beater, the Democratic field is too large to go into the merits of each and every candidate here. But the unique quality of the longtime senator and former vice president is the ability to go head to head with Trump — and the perception that Biden can successfully make a case to those who are ambivalent toward the current president.
The anti-Trump case is not straightforward in the heartland. The economy might not be the best ever, as Trump says, but it’s pretty good, and certainly hasn’t been hurt by the tax cuts he’s championed. Maybe Trump hasn’t won the trade war, but the economy hasn’t gone off the rails the way the chattering class warned, and he took action to limit the damage to the farmers most at risk. There’s no hot war overseas. To someone who doesn’t see Trump’s personal behavior as disqualifying, what’s the argument against him?
Biden is there to make that case. He argues, whether you agree or not, that four more years of Trump would forever tarnish the American character, or, in Biden’s phrasing, the soul of the nation.
And it’s no accident that Biden is launching his campaign in Pennsylvania, with early rallies set up in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Of course, that’s where the Scranton native was born and where Biden has remained popular, but it drives home the message that he’s the guy to appeal to Middle America and its pivotal electoral votes.
Even Trump’s tweet early Thursday is in some ways a recognition of that appeal, arguing Biden will be facing Democratic rivals “who truly have some very sick & demented ideas.” Notice the president did not say Biden shares those ideas. Trump stands no chance of portraying Biden as some whack-a-doodle socialist.
Now, Biden has a long track record that will be picked apart both by his fellow Democrats and Trump. From supporting the Iraq war to working on behalf of the credit-card industry (based in Delaware, which he represented in the Senate for 3½ decades), Biden’s campaign could collapse in the face of an avalanche of attacks.
It’s also worth noting that Democrats successfully retook the House by concentrating on health care, not Trump. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean says his party’s presidential candidates shouldn’t make Trump the issue.
That’s, for the most part, advice that every other Democrat has taken. And not doing so is Biden’s big, and possibly winning, gamble.
Maybe, in this presidential race, voters want to hear the case against Trump made directly and not implicitly. And maybe they want it made not by someone who resides in a left-wing echo chamber but instead one with standing across a broad swath of America.
Want this type of analysis sent to your inbox? Subscribe to MarketWatch’s free MarketWatch First Takes newsletter. Sign up here.