One of the first rules of Pundit Club is to identify a theme that unifies how one can describe a presidential candidate and the policies that the candidate espouses. President Trump is crass, immature and uninformed; hey, so are most of his policies. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is earnest and wonky — hey, so are her policy platforms!
This game is easy and fun but can sometimes lead to sloppy intellectual shortcuts. And this is where we arrive at Joe Biden. There are ways to characterize Biden’s campaign to date that strike me as completely fair. Those characterizations are a poor fit for his policy ideas, however.
Watching Biden’s performance in the first 2020 Democratic debate, it was tough not to compare him to a retired baseball player returning for one last season and looking rusty. Biden seemed off his game for most of the debate. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) caught him flat-footed, and his responses to other questions were not great. To be clear, he wasn’t abysmal; he just looked . . . slow. This fits with the notion of Biden as an old politician trying to play a young man’s game.
Biden might very well recover from that first debate performance. Ballplayers can look awful in the first weeks of spring training as they try to get their timing back. Still, there is a natural temptation to link the idea that Biden is past his prime with the notion that the policies he is pushing are also past their prime. This is problematic, for two reasons. First, Democratic activists sure aren’t making that link with Bernie Sanders, even though the senator from Vermont (a) is older than Biden and (b) has some policies that seem creaky.
The second reason is that some of Biden’s ideas are pretty gosh-darn popular. Take, for example, the foreign policy speech that he delivered last week. Biden took a healthy number of swipes at Trump’s foreign policy record, and used the 45th president’s record as an example of what not to do as a foreign policy president: “As president, I will remind the world who we are. The United States of America does not coddle dictators. The United States of America gives hate no safe harbor. There will be no more Charlottesvilles. No more Helsinkis.” He added, “A Biden administration would immediately end the horrific practice of separating families at our border and holding children in for-profit detention centers.”
Biden also tied his foreign policy ideas to those of President Barack Obama. The theme for his speech was “a foreign policy for the middle class.” He said: “I will start by putting our own house in order,” which sounds awfully similar to Obama’s “nation-building here at home” rhetoric. Biden sounded a bit tougher on China than he has in the past, but he also took care to vivisect Trump’s trade war with China as a lose-lose gambit.
The overarching theme of Biden’s speech was restorationism, which makes him sound out of step with current grand-strategy debates among the foreign policy cognoscenti. For many, there is no going back after Trump. A lot of foreign policy thinkers on the left and right are trying to devise new doctrines of restraint or grand strategies rooted in progressive ideas.
In the minds of these writers, Biden probably seems like Tommy Lee Jones’s character in “Men in Black.” Old and busted? A return to liberal internationalism. New hotness? A progressive foreign policy!
Again, this metaphor is seductive. But it is worth remembering the ways in which it does not work. In that speech, Biden sounded more forward-leaning than one might suspect at first glance. Biden acknowledges that a different approach on trade will be necessary; what that means will not be clear until he delivers a foreign economic policy speech sometime soon.
Biden’s speech also emphasized the most fundamental and most popular advantage of liberal internationalism: the need for allies and partners. Biden said: “America’s security, prosperity and way of life require the strongest possible network of partners and allies working alongside us. . . . The Biden foreign policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners — to mobilize global action on global threats, especially those unique to our century.”
I recently got a sneak peek at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ 2019 survey data, and let me tell you something: An emphasis on alliances, agreements and institutions will play extremely well with the American public — particularly Democrats. There is no enthusiasm for more trade wars, alliance-bashing or retreating from the rest of the world. There is a great deal of support, however, for reinvigorating those structures. And far more than Warren; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; or Sanders, Biden stressed this staple of liberal internationalism in his speech.
It is possible that Biden’s presidential campaign will peter out — right now, I’d bet the field against him. If that happens, however, do not confuse his decline with the unpopularity of his foreign policy ideas. Because more than any other candidate in the 2020 race, Biden has tapped into how most Americans want the U.S. government to pursue its national interest.