Former vice president Joe Biden is not a lock for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The party might want a younger, more progressive face, or at least a fresher one. That said, the past few weeks illustrate why Democrats need Biden in the race.
Unlike the GOP, which has fallen wholly under the spell of President Trump and his brand of know-nothing right-wing populism, the Democratic Party is not yet the captive of a lunatic fringe. Sure, Republicans would be delighted if Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) were the face of the party — hence, Fox News portrays them as such — and if self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) becomes the party’s presidential nominee. That’s not the situation, not yet. The Democratic Party is still a normal, center-left party — with a problem.
In case you think the Democratic Party is made up of left-wing kooks (i.e. the counterpart to the GOP’s right-wing populist kooks), look at the facts. A recent Harvard-Harris poll (see Table 95) finds that the percentage of Democrats who think of themselves as “Obama Democrats” (49 percent) or “moderate Democrats” (38 percent) vastly exceeds those who think of themselves as “progressive Democrats" (22 percent) or “Democratic socialist” (13 percent). For now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), two center-left Democrats, run the party at the congressional level, not Ocasio-Cortez, Omar or Sanders. Moderate Democrats, not Sanders-endorsed candidates, flipped enough seats to win the House. Moderates, not uber-progressive Democrats, won gubernatorial races in Maine, Kansas and Michigan. All of that, however, is no guarantee that the party won’t take a leap into the abyss the way Republicans did.
While Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) together get less than 30 percent of the vote in the RealClearPolitics polling average, one of them could break out or simply consistently win a plurality of votes in a highly fractured field. The 2020 race would then be the only sort of race Trump could win, one about “socialism," instead of a race he could never win, one about him.
This is where Biden comes in. Even if he is not the ultimate winner, he has the stature, the money, the name ID and the popularity to seize the party by the scruff of the neck and pull it back from the brink. He can say, “You know Bernie never accomplished a damn thing in the Senate” or "the Green New Deal that Warren supports has about 10 votes in the Senate” or “We figured out how to provide tens of millions of people with health-care coverage; Medicare-for-all proponents haven’t covered a single person.”
Biden has the reputation for being the eccentric uncle in the room, but in this case, he must play the role of the wise patriarch, there to remind Democrats that they win when they stick to the center-left candidates and that they achieve progressive aims when they win elections. If they pick scary socialists or rank novices incapable of governing (such as Trump!), they will never achieve aims such as checking climate change, expanding health-care coverage, reducing income inequality and keeping the United States safe and respected.
Frankly, that’s a message that many, if not most, Democrats already understand. However, they need someone with credibility to say it. Maybe there is someone else in the race or available to run who could do the same, but I’ve not spotted such a person. That’s the rationale for Biden to run.
Finally, those independents and disaffected ex-Republicans whose midterm votes flipped the House to Democratic control have a very big stake in this. If the Republicans, as I suspect, are unable to rid themselves of Trump, the country will need one major party that hasn’t lost its marbles, one capable of winning and governing. If Trump is the GOP nominee, voters regardless of past affiliation who fear for the country’s future need to work strenuously for a competent and electable Democratic nominee. Otherwise, we’re in deep trouble.