Former Vice President Joe Biden announced Thursday morning that he would take up his third bid for president in the 2020 elections, more than 30 years after his first.
This election is considerably different than his prior two, with Biden entering the race as the top contender, constantly polling at the top of the field. And Having served as vice president, he has some of the highest name recognition out there.
But what went wrong in his quickly extinguished previous two campaigns and how will Biden avoid the same pitfalls? Biden ran for and lost the Democratic nomination in 1988 and 2008, and he considered running again in 2016 but decided against it after his son, Beau, died of brain cancer just one year before the election.
The Republican Party quickly jumped on Biden’s history of losing. “Joe Biden has been running for president and losing since the ’80s, 2020 won’t be any different,” wrote Republican National Committee Communications Director Michael Ahrens in a statement.
Plagiarism Sinks ’88 Bid
In 1988, Biden was a well-respected 45-year-old senator from Delaware, often compared to Senator Ted Kennedy. He had considered running for president four years earlier, as Ronald Reagan completed his first term in the White House, but decided to bide his time before making his first entrance into the presidential fray. By 1987, Biden had gained a reputation as a candidate with seeming widespread moderate appeal—he was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and he was also able to appeal to baby boomers and raise money. He decided to run.
“For too long in this society, we have celebrated unrestrained individualism over common community,” he said in his announcement speech. “For too long as a nation, we have been lulled by the anthem of self-interest. For a decade, led by Ronald Reagan, self-aggrandizement has been the full-throated cry of this society: ‘I’ve got mine so why don’t you get yours’ and ‘What’s in it for me?’ … We must rekindle the fire of idealism in our society, for nothing suffocates the promise of America more than unbounded cynicism and indifference.”
But Biden’s campaign quickly fell apart. Despite having more funding than any candidate bar Michael Dukakis, his poll numbers began to lag.
That summer, Biden was accused of and later admitted to plagiarizing parts of a speech from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, putting an effective end to his candidacy. It was later discovered that he had exaggerated about how well he had done in law school.
He dropped out of the race in September of 1987, before the primaries and just four months after he announced his candidacy.
But it wasn’t just the plagiarism that sunk him. In a September 1987 Washington Post post-mortem of his campaign, Rowl Evans and Robert Novak wrote that Biden’s staff, “blame their own candidate, because of his managerial deficiencies and, more important, because they began to believe that he was at heart a synthetic candidate with nothing to say.”
Biden’s fate, they said, was “sealed by an inability to reconcile demands of liberal special-interest groups with the necessity of appealing to a broader base.”
2008, Iraq and Gaffes
It was another 20 years before the senator, then in his sixties, decided to run once more. Much like in 1988, Biden took years to weigh his decision to enter the race, first publicly considering it in 2004 on the Don Imus show. Also like in 1988, Biden intended to run as a moderate Democrat, right in the center of the field.
This time, Biden made sure to focus on substance, particularly on strategy in the Iraq War, which he had controversially supported in 2003.
“I’m running for president because I think that, with a lot of help, I can stem the tide of this slide and restore America’s leadership in the world and change our priorities,” Biden said in a conference call on the day of his launch. “I will argue that my experience and my track record—both on the foreign and domestic side—put me in a position to be able to do that.”
But Biden lacked the name recognition of candidates like Hillary Clinton and rising-star Barack Obama. His decision to over-correct for a lack of policy in 1988 put too much focus on Iraq strategy in 2008 and made him appear as a one-issue candidate. Biden wanted to “federalize” Iraq and give the warring factions of Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis “breathing room.”
His campaign was also filled with a number of gaffes. Biden called Barack Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
In the summer of 2008, Biden touted his relationship with Indian-Americans on C-SPAN. “I’ve had a great relationship. In Delaware, the largest growth in population is Indian Americans—moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking,” he said.
By January of 2008, Biden’s poll numbers were low, many people still didn’t know who he was, and he had placed fifth in the Iowa Caucus, gaining only one percent of the vote. He left the race.
Will 2020 Be Different?
In 2020, Biden will not struggle with name recognition: He’s starting the race as the front-runner which will help him bring in large donations. He’s also the candidate polling best against President Donald Trump, which brings him credibility. At a time when the chief motivation for many is simply to defeat Trump at all costs, electability is an important factor to voters.
Biden will likely appeal to those same voters who elected Donald Trump in 2016. He’s expected to officially begin his campaign this Monday with a rally at a union hall in Pittsburgh, and has worked to play up his ties to organized labor.
“There were three reasons Barack Obama chose Biden as a running mate: his foreign policy chops, his debating skills and the third was his appeal to working class voters, particularly in the Midwest,” said Larry Rasky, a consultant who worked on both of Biden’s previous presidential campaigns, to Politico. “He delivered on all three of those accounts. Those ethnic, blue-collar voters, what we refer to as ‘Reagan Democrats,’ they are the people we need to turn the Electoral College on Trump.”
Nowhere in his announcement video did Biden mention other candidates, policy ideas, or anything about his own biography. Instead, he has decided to run his race against the president.
“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” Biden said in a video message that marked the official launch of his campaign Thursday morning. “But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”
But in order to get to Trump, Biden will have to win the Democratic primary and beat out what has become a very crowded and very diverse field. His centrist appeal might work in a general election, but it has failed him in his two previous attempts to make it that far.
Still, about half of voters in the Democratic Party self-identify as moderate or conservative, and in a field where the majority of candidates are playing to progressives with proposed policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for all, Biden could stick out as the clear alternative. Vice presidents, historically, also tend to win their party’s nominations if they decide to run for president.
But Biden comes with some liabilities. The man who is known for his inability to hold back his tongue could struggle in a race where he is likely to be asked to account for previous insensitive comments. He will also have to continuously address his handling of the Anita Hill hearings.
Biden has been accused by multiple women of touching them inappropriately and making them feel uncomfortable. While a number of other female coworkers have come to Biden’s defense over the issue, he could find it difficult to appeal to female voters in the era of #MeToo.
There’s also the question of substance, something Biden struggled with in previous elections. He may be appealing and he may be electable. But what is he fighting for? This was one of the main criticisms of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential elections.
“Energetic, smart Joe Biden kickoff video,” wrote David Axelrod, former adviser to President Barack Obama. “Essentially bypasses the primaries and goes right to the main event, assailing Donald Trump, putting Charlottesville front and center; framing the fight as a titanic struggle for American values.”
But Biden’s past failures should make him more aware than most that he can’t just bypass the primaries, he has a long year of campaigning in order to best at least 19 fellow Democrats before he can face Trump.
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