The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Joe Biden’s greatest asset? Timing.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 12. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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If Joe Biden should win the election in November, he’ll be only the second president in American history to finally make it to the White House on his third attempt (after Ronald Reagan). Not only that, he’d do it 32 years after his first try in 1988, an extraordinarily long stretch of presidential ambition.

No one who has watched Biden over the years thinks his success this year is because he has become more skilled or charismatic than he was in 1988 or 2008, when his first two runs were so weak and flamed out so quickly. Indeed, through 2019 it looked like his third campaign would turn out just as poorly, as he ran a lethargic campaign that seemed to generate little interest.

The fact that he’s now about to be nominated to lead the Democratic Party at long last, and that polls show him ahead of President Trump by around 8 or 9 points on average, both prove something that we often don’t pay enough attention to: the importance of timing.

All of us are attracted to stories with compelling characters, and that’s how we think about politics. While impersonal forces and unforeseeable events make a great deal of difference, at the center of it all lie individual people bending history to their will, people we think have the strengths and weaknesses that determine the outcome of events. But Biden is the best demonstration you could imagine that timing is everything.

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I’ll admit that for most of the primary campaign, I dismissed Biden’s chances because I focused too much on him and not enough on the forces that might lift him up. His previous runs had been so bad that it seemed impossible for him to defeat a large field of talented candidates.

But the nightmare of the Trump presidency changed everything for Democratic voters. They didn’t want the most charismatic person, or the one offering the most comprehensive program for change, or the one who embodied their party’s future. They wanted the candidate who would be least offensive to other voters — in other words, an older white man with plenty of experience and a reputation as a moderate.

The jockeying for the post-Trump future of the Republican Party has started, says Post columnist Max Boot. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Johnathan Newton/Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

And while many of us watched Biden’s quick ascension after the South Carolina primary with more than a little dismay, today it looks like those voters made the right judgment call. When the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis hit, the case for someone with Biden’s profile — experienced, calm, reassuring — became even stronger.

You might have preferred a different candidate, but it’s almost impossible to see how Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg would be in a better position for November than Biden is right now. They might be doing as well — maybe — but they certainly wouldn’t be doing any better.

When we look back on previous successful presidential campaigns, we see a similar situation: In case after case, the eventual winner was not necessarily the person who was the biggest talent (though sometimes that was true as well); instead, they were the person who was right for the moment.

Just look at the current president. At first everyone considered him a joke. But in 2016, a loudmouth bigot was exactly what Republican primary voters were ready for. Eight years of a Black president, a steady diet of race-baiting from conservative media, and the widespread feeling that Republican leaders were feckless and weak created the opening for Trump to barge through.

Then he had the good fortune to run against Hillary Clinton, who inspired more loathing among Republicans than anyone in existence — just what a candidate who might have otherwise lost a healthy number of Republican votes needed. Toss in some help from the Kremlin and a last-minute intervention by the FBI director, and it was just enough for Trump to snag an electoral college victory despite getting 3 million fewer votes.

Other presidents may not have needed quite that spectacular confluence of circumstances, but they all had good timing. Barack Obama may have been the greatest political talent in decades, but he also was smart enough to realize that in 2008 the timing was perfect for someone who embodied change when the country was fed up with two long wars and a government that couldn’t seem to do anything right. Then an economic cataclysm hit just a couple of months before the election, which didn’t hurt either.

You can keep going down the list. George W. Bush seemed friendly and nonpartisan after the venomous arguments of the Clinton years (I know it sounds weird in retrospect, but that’s how people saw him); had Clinton not had an affair and been impeached, it might have been impossible for Republicans to beat Al Gore given the roaring economy. Clinton himself was helped enormously by the fact that the country had just suffered a recession when he ran against George H.W. Bush in 1992.

It’s not that all these politicians didn’t do clever things, or have parts of their personalities and histories that gave them the tools to succeed. But in so many cases, when we look back it’s clear that they might only have been able to succeed at that moment.

Over the course of the Democratic convention, we’ll hear a lot of rhetoric meant to convince us that Biden is a unique individual, possessed of experience and skills and empathy and vision no living American could match. It won’t be quite false, but it will certainly be puffed up, gilded, even exaggerated.

The truth, however, is that Biden looks like the right candidate right now, even if he wasn’t before and wouldn’t be again. But that has usually been enough.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump is trying to corrupt the election. Here’s how Biden will respond.

Jonathan Capehart: Why Biden’s elevation of Kamala Harris puts a lump in my throat

The Post’s View: Trump stokes fear. Biden and Harris can raise hope.

Henry Olsen: Are Trump’s prospects better than the experts think? Washington state might hold a clue.

William H. McRaven: Trump is actively working to undermine the Postal Service — and every major U.S. institution