But despite the still-unsettled outcome, the results are already shaping former vice president Joe Biden’s approach. He seems to be sharpening his rhetoric in response to his poor showing in Iowa.
To his credit, he isn’t trying to spin the results, which seem to show him coming in fourth. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We took a gut punch in Iowa,” he said in New Hampshire Wednesday. “But look, this isn’t the first time in my life I’ve been knocked down.”
But, having ridden to the top of national polls in large part because of his supposed electability, Biden drew particular attention to the question of whether some other candidates are electable:
“If Sen. Sanders is the nominee for the party, every Democrat in America up and down the ballot, in blue states, red states, purple states and easy districts and competitive ones, every Democrat will have to carry the label Sen. Sanders has chose for himself,” the former vice president said during a campaign event in New Hampshire, where voters will go to the polls next Tuesday. “He calls himself a democratic socialist. Well, we’re already seeing what Donald Trump is going to do with that.”Biden said he had “great respect” for Buttigieg but didn’t think the Democrats’ standard-bearer against President Donald Trump should be someone who hasn’t been elected to a higher office than mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city of about 100,000.“It’s a risk, to be just straight up with you,” he said.
Biden is raising legitimate points, but for the wrong reason.
As much as every Democrat wants to defeat Trump, trying to figure out electability — i.e., not whom you like, but whom you think other people might like — is an ultimately fruitless endeavor, not least because your judgments about what makes someone electable are almost certainly wrong. And the candidate himself is the last person who should be arguing in those terms.
Biden has an ideological disagreement with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and he should go ahead and make the case that his center-left views are more practical, or better able to be translated into successful policy, or more morally defensible than Sanders’ version of democratic socialism.
But the idea that Sanders is vulnerable because Trump will criticize him is a little unpersuasive coming from a guy who has already been targeted by the president over his son’s business dealings, and into whom Republicans are preparing to mount Benghazi-esque investigations.
Maybe that will wound Biden terribly and maybe it won’t, but we just don’t know, any more than we know whether the cries of “socialism!” will destroy Sanders.
And about Pete Buttigieg, I don’t disagree that it’s a problem that he’s 38 years old and his highest position before this was as mayor of America’s 306th-largest city. But it’s not a problem because it might turn voters against him (after all, Trump proved the voters aren’t all that concerned about experience); it’s a problem because that’s an inadequate preparation for the presidency.
Nobody ought to be able to make that case better than Biden, who knows as well as anyone what’s required to do the job effectively. He’s also the one best suited to counter Buttigieg’s recent emphasis on “Washington” as the problem America faces, a problem that can only be solved by electing someone from the “heartland.”
I suppose in the current atmosphere it’s hard for candidates to avoid focusing less on what they want to do once they get into the Oval Office and more on how they might get there. Once the voting starts, the race takes on a kind of manic urgency that makes differences over health care reform or climate policy seem secondary, especially since we tend to exaggerate how important those differences are anyway.
But how about if the candidates put aside the arguments for why their opponents aren’t electable? We hear enough about that from everyone else already.