Fourth- and fifth-place finishes do not in any way constitute being in front. Yes: To run on electability, one should demonstrate the ability to be elected. And that’s shown by — stick with me here — winning elections. Perhaps a guy who ran for president two previous times but never placed better than fourth was an odd choice to make the case for electability in the first place.
Things could change after South Carolina, of course. That’s the spin coming out of Biden’s headquarters, and it’s certainly true that Iowa and New Hampshire are lousy proxies for the rest of the country. But it looks like Biden is worse than unelectable — he’s also been a huge spoiler.
Biden has distorted the whole 2020 primary cycle: He sat on top of the polls as the default front-runner for months, and in the process he sucked up endorsements (five senators, more than two dozen House members, state-level elected officials all over the place) and cash (though perhaps not enough of it) that could have gone to other candidates who, instead, had to drop out for lack of money and establishment support. And then he lost the first two elections. It’s only since his front-runner status started to slip that other centrist candidates have had much of a chance. The promise of Biden’s electability kept former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg from entering the race until November and, as New York magazine put it, “almost single-handedly stunted the growth of every other center-left alternative.” Well before Bernie Sanders set off a panic among party insiders by winning the early contests, Biden took up the space that could have been occupied by an Amy Klobuchar or a Pete Buttigieg or a Cory Booker or a Kamala D. Harris.
It did, in fairness, almost seem like it could work. For a while, it looked as if being chosen by Barack Obama might be enough for Biden to squeak by while Sanders and Elizabeth Warren engaged in mutual progressive destruction. He could coast on his eight years of being a completely fine vice president, an almost-incumbent.
But he wasn’t doing what needed to be done in a modern campaign. He didn’t go on Rachel Maddow, and he didn’t do selfie lines or Periscope or any of the other stuff that all the other modern candidates did. Biden is not, to put it mildly, a digital native. And even when the pundit class believed that he would win the hearts of white working-class men in diners, even then, Biden had trouble raising money because he just isn’t that good at this, and old clips show he has never been very good at this.
He pulled a Hillary Clinton-not-going-to-Wisconsin-esque move by disappearing in New Hampshire. He told bizarre stories such as one about meeting a black gang member called Corn Pop, a tale that took place in 1962, beguiled all who heard it and, shockingly, actually happened. He called a female student “a lying dog-faced pony soldier” at a rally. I’m not entirely sure what “a lying dog-faced pony soldier” is, but I know what it’s not — it’s not a good thing to call a woman in front of lots of cameras. But anyone who knows Biden knows gaffes are kind of his thing. And they have been for years, which is part of the reason he hasn’t already been president.
So now we’re just over two weeks from Super Tuesday, and finally Biden has proved what many of us suspected all along: that to be electable, one must win elections. And suddenly the Democratic Party is scrambling to find a centrist front-runner who can occupy what has been called, up until the past few weeks, the Joe Biden lane.
It may be too late for centrists anyway; with Warren fading and Sanders consolidating the left, the moderates may have squandered their chance at the nomination as the Sanders wave washes over them. But still. The best thing Biden could do for the party is to drop out before the absolute only way for people to stop Sanders, if they want to, is to call the superdelegates in Milwaukee and have them vote for a billionaire ex-Republican.
“I’ve never paid attention to all the front-runner talk from the time I entered the race,” Biden said in New Hampshire. If only no one else had, either, then perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess.