Joe Biden, the Cipher Presidential Candidate

By Rich Lowry

What William McKinley was to the front porch campaign, Joe Biden is to the basement campaign.

Sidelined and confined to his house by the dictates of coronavirus social distancing, the former vice president has been limited to intermittent appearances from a makeshift studio in his basement. They have been awkward and low energy, but that doesn’t really set them apart from most other Biden appearances.

If there’s any candidate who could thrive by having very limited public exposure and existing mostly as a line on a ballot, it’s the longtime presidential aspirant who hadn’t won a primary until a couple of weeks ago.

Biden is winning the Democratic nomination on the basis of not being Bernie Sanders and wants to get elected president on the basis of not being Donald Trump. He’s as purely a negative candidate as we’ve seen in a very long time, running largely on who he isn’t and what he won’t do.

He’s the presidential candidate as cipher.

Prior to his recent media mini-tour, did anyone seriously miss Biden? Wonder what he had to say? Expect him to come up with a bold, captivating coronavirus plan, or an arresting formulation?

There is no Biden movement. For much of the primary campaign, he couldn’t build a crowd to save his life. He had no organization or money.

There is no Biden charisma. He’s not young, handsome, eloquent, or interesting.

There is no Biden catchphrase. He doesn’t have “hope and change,” or “make America great again.”

For decades, he’s stayed reliably within the mainstream of the Democratic Party at any given time — hence, his recent turn further left — and his views have largely reflected center-left conventional wisdom.

If the party had decided to order up a generic representative, with nothing original to say and a campaign utterly untouched by new thinking or methods, it couldn’t have done any better than Biden.

He’s led on everything across the past four decades, at least according to his own account, and yet has done nothing particularly memorable.

He’s the opposite of a fresh face on the scene without an extensive record to defend — think George W. Bush or Barack Obama. But he’s proving that a very old slate can be almost as invulnerable to attack as a blank slate.

The length of his career means that most of his past controversial positions lost their political salience long ago. They are such artifacts of another era that they can’t be used against him any more.

Kamala Harris learned this when she executed an exquisitely planned ambush on Biden on the issue of busing, which was an intense controversy … 40 years ago. President Donald Trump will want to hit Biden on the crime bill, which passed more than a quarter of a century ago, and his vote for the second Iraq War, Biden’s most contemporary legislative vulnerability since he took the vote less than two decades ago.

Biden’s candidacy holds interest only to the extent he is gaffe prone. His misfires aren’t Hillary Clinton-style gaffes, laced with arrogance and an insulting dismissiveness that makes them a rallying cry for the other side — her question at a contentious Benghazi hearing, “What difference at this point does it make?”; her labeling of some Trump supporters as “deplorables.”

Instead, Biden’s gaffes — the verbal tangles, incomplete sentences, weird mixups — are amusing and concerning. They will be used to make the case that he isn’t up to the job, but they don’t make anyone hate Biden. He can’t even generate strong feelings in his partisan opposition.

All that said, Biden deserves credit for his insight from the beginning that the Democratic Party wasn’t defined by woke Twitter and that Obama-Biden Democrats, as he calls them, still constituted the party’s center of gravity. He correctly believed — or hoped — that African American voters would see him through.

On top of this, he demonstrated the remarkable perseverance of a politician knocked down and humiliated, who got up every day and kept going. His greatest strength is obviously his ability to connect with others who have suffered personal loss.

His victories on Super Tuesday and afterward showed that Democrats were willing to turn out en masse for an uninspired candidacy, and it may be that the same dynamic will hold in November.

If so, Biden could do worse than stay in his basement for the duration.