“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” goes the political adage. In that respect, former vice president Joe Biden wasn’t helping himself in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo that aired Friday by rehashing a Democratic presidential-debate exchange with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) about federally mandated busing for school integration. Worse, Biden’s admission that he was unprepared for Harris’s attack on his opposition to the policy in the 1970s isn’t going to help him get back on track. (He might have done better simply to chide the questioner for asking about a politically ancient issue.)
However, Biden’s interview was overall a success, in part because he was doing it in the first place. He has been cloistered from network interviews and inclined to keep the press at bay during his campaign appearances. That turned out to be a poor idea, both because it left him rusty and because his opponents, by and large, are eager to appear whenever and wherever they can. If the CNN interview is the beginning of a new Biden press strategy, it couldn’t come fast enough.
Even better, Biden is affirmatively defending his policy stance — which just so happens to be popular with most voters, even Democratic primary voters. “Look, it’s center left, that’s where I am. Where it’s not is way left,” he said, emphatically distancing himself from his three closest rivals, who have embraced proposals such as Medicare-for-all. Biden defended the public health-care option (“I believe there should be health care for everyone. That’s rational and will cost a hell of a lot less and will work”) and reminded voters that “if they like their employer-based insurance, which a lot of unions broke their neck to get, a lot of people like theirs, they shouldn’t have to give it up.” Perhaps in a preview of what he’ll deliver at the next debate, Biden went on offense to point out the logistical nightmare of moving everyone to Medicare. (“How long is that going to take? What’s it going to do?”)
He went down the list, dinging the items his opponents eagerly embraced. Decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States? Nope. “I think people should have to get in line, but if people are coming because they’re actually seeking asylum, they should have a chance to make their case.” Giving illegal immigrants health insurance? Not happening. “I think undocumented people need to have a means by which they can be covered when they’re sick,” Biden said. “That’s what I think we should be doing, by building more clinics around the country, not just for undocumented but for other people. When they’re ill, when they’re sick, it’s just common decency.” These are perfectly mainstream, sensible positions — which his team should hope he sticks up for in the next debate.
Biden showed some feistiness toward President Trump. “The idea that I’d be intimidated by Donald Trump — he’s the bully that I knew my whole life,” Biden told Cuomo. “He’s the bully that I’ve always stood up to. He’s the bully that used to make fun when I was a kid that I stutter, and I’d smack him in the mouth.” That’s not an approach that is going to work for female candidates or for the cool, cerebral Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind. It might, however, serve Biden well.
Democrats may find themselves with an uncomfortable choice next year — pick the mainstream Democrats with ideas that cannot be characterized as “socialism,” or go with younger, more dynamic candidates whose ideas veer left off the political cliff. If they are fortunate, Biden will become a more effective messenger and/or the gaggle of top-tier competitors will use their considerable political skills to tack back to the center left. (Buttigieg might have already begun on the latter, but his problem with African American voters still looms large.) And let’s remember, a good share of the Democratic primary electorate isn’t paying attention and the rest won’t recall where candidates stood today when they start voting in seven months. There is time for candidates to refine their views, and there is time for Biden to get back in fighting form.