Nevertheless, Biden has continued to lead in polls, though that lead has been slowly shrinking for the past few months. The first ad his campaign began airing in Iowa touted his electability, a concept that is finally coming under the scrutiny it deserves. In his just-released second ad, which you can watch above, Biden gets much more personal.
As much as Biden is known for his enthusiastic glad-handing, most voters probably aren’t aware of the personal tragedies he has endured, which he describes in this ad: the 1972 car accident that killed his wife and daughter and injured his two sons, after Biden had been elected to the Senate but before he took office, and the death of his son Beau from brain cancer in 2015.
It’s obviously impossible to fully understand Biden without knowing about the losses he suffered, but it inevitably raises the question: What, as voters, should we do with that knowledge? How does it help us judge him and predict what kind of president he’d be?
Biden’s ad attempts to provide one concrete answer, by framing it in terms of health insurance. Here’s what he says:
I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if [his sons] didn’t have the health care they needed immediately. Forty years later, one of those little boys, my son Beau, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and given only months to live. I can’t fathom what would have happened if the insurance companies had said, ‘For the last six months of your life you’re on your own.’ The fact of the matter is, health care is personal to me. Obamacare is personal to me. When I see the president try to tear it down, and others propose to replace it and start over, that’s personal to me, too.
It’s more than a little disingenuous to conflate what other Democrats propose with the effort by President Trump and Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, remove its protections and take insurance away from tens of millions who now have it. Even if you think it’s a worse idea to “replace it and start over” than to do what Biden wants (add a Medicare-like public option that automatically covers newborns and the uninsured, along with anyone else who wants it), there is not a single plan from any other presidential candidate that leaves any American without insurance even for a day.
There are important differences among the plans, and reasons you might criticize all of them, but saying that anyone won’t have insurance under any of those plans — especially the single-payer plans Biden is most opposed to — is simply false.
But what Biden is trying to communicate here is that, when it comes to health insurance, we should trust him. Because of what he suffered, he would never let anyone else face something similar without at least knowing that they have health coverage so they won’t be financially devastated by an accident or illness. When he says “It’s personal to me,” we’re meant to conclude that more than other candidates, his life history tells us that we can rely on him to do what we want, in this case make sure that no one goes without health insurance.
Voters may not think about it that way — they may just experience it as a feeling of warmth and sympathy — but that’s what almost all candidates do with at least some portion of their biographies. When Elizabeth Warren tells the story of her father having a heart attack, after which her mother vowed “We will not lose this house” and went out to get a minimum-wage job at Sears that kept the family afloat, she is trying to convince us that she understands the struggles ordinary people face and will be motivated to ease those struggles in the decisions she makes.
When Kamala D. Harris talks about being bused to a neighboring school as a child, she’s trying to convince us that she has a deep understanding of America’s struggles with racism and segregation, and can guide the country toward a more just future.
Not every candidate does it in the same way or as much; Warren constantly connects her own life experience to her policy positions, while Bernie Sanders almost never does.
If you wanted to be extremely rational about it, you could argue that none of this should matter much to us as voters. Biden may be no more likely to get every American insurance — which is a matter of building a good policy, crafting an effective legislative strategy and implementing it once it passes — than any other Democrat running for president. They all say it’s one of their top priorities, and there’s no way any of them would set it aside after becoming president. A deep feeling for the importance of health coverage born of personal medical challenges won’t ensure success.
Nevertheless, as voters we do need to know what motivates these candidates, where their worldviews come from and what they won’t compromise on. You can decide what the story of Joe Biden’s family tragedies tells you about that.