The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The specific nostalgia Biden wants to evoke? Nov. 7, 2016.

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum on Aug. 10 in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

You may be familiar with something known as a “Kinsley gaffe.” Named for journalist Michael Kinsley, it’s a verbal mistake made by someone in politics that inadvertently reveals the truth.

In practice, it looks like this.

Jill Biden, wife of former vice president Joe Biden, said on Aug. 19 that voters need “to look at who’s going to win this election” against President Trump. (Video: MSNBC/NBC News)

That, of course, is Jill Biden, wife of former vice president Joe Biden.

“Yes,” she says, “your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election. And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘Okay, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

This is an unusual pitch. A more typical exhortation on behalf of a presidential candidate delineates a broad political ideology or specific policy proposals, encouraging voters to see the person embodying those proposals as the best choice to sit in the Oval Office. Biden’s pitch, instead, is that the best person to sit in the Oval Office is anyone-except-President-Trump and that the person most likely to be anyone-except-Trump is Joe Biden.

Jill Biden’s comments were both clumsy and a bit dismissive. But it’s not her making a mistake. It’s just an awkward presentation of the pitch coming from the campaign more broadly. Here, for example, is Joe Biden’s first campaign ad.

It begins with a declaration that the 2020 election is vitally important, because of President Trump. It then notes polling showing Biden beating Trump. An overview of the administration of Barack Obama including lots of shots of Obama and Biden side by side. A pastiche of broadly stated policy goals — and then more Trump.

On Tuesday morning, CNN released new polling showing that the beat-Trump prioritization resonates with Democratic voters. More than half of those surveyed said that defeating the president is more important to them than voting for a candidate who shares their positions.

Hence the Biden campaign leaning into it. The only thing that matters is beating Trump, and I’m the best guy to beat Trump, so let’s get on with it.

What’s worth noting here is how this harks back to a very specific moment in time: the day before the 2016 election. Nov. 7, 2016, was the last time the political world really made sense to Democrats. Trump, in their estimation, was unacceptable, and although polling showed that Hillary Clinton was in an uncomfortably close race, she should be able to win.

Then she didn’t. In the time since, a lot of energy has been poured into understanding why and a range of factors identified as culprits. Some are obvious, such as the last-minute resuscitation of the email-server issue. Some are iffy, such as voter-suppression advertising undertaken by the Trump campaign. Some are unfounded, such as Russian manipulation of votes. But that sense that something went wrong is pervasive. Something went wrong and, if the Democrats could just have a do-over, it wouldn’t go wrong again.

Enter Joe Biden and his implicit campaign slogan: “I'm the do-over."

Consider that campaign ad. It echoes Clinton’s 2016 campaign: Trump is dangerous, the country needs to continue the work of Obama, there’s a better vision for America and, again, Trump has to lose. It’s the Clinton campaign playbook — but with a new, more popular quarterback.

The problem with Biden’s pitch is the same problem that has shadowed it since the beginning: Electability is not a static proposition. Biden leads Trump handily in the polls at the moment, but in late August 2015, Clinton led Trump by an even wider margin. Over the course of the campaign, that lead narrowed and expanded like a sine wave, but Clinton led on nearly every day and in nearly every poll.

She just didn’t lead on one particular day in enough places. She was eminently electable — until she didn’t get elected.

Biden’s argument focuses on that day, Nov. 8, 2016, and his pitch focuses on winning in those places. But observers don’t agree on why Clinton didn’t win the states that flipped from blue to red, particularly Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Was it blue-collar voters moving from Obama to Trump? Or was it lower turnout from people who were skeptical of Clinton or who thought her election was a sure thing?

You can see the challenge here. If Clinton lost because blue-collar voters rejected her but would embrace Biden, his electability case is solid. If Clinton lost because Democrats didn't feel motivated to vote for her, things get trickier. Especially if the pitch is “give up on your priorities and vote Biden.” If Biden is up by a modest margin on Election Day 2020 and polling suggests he'll win, how urgently will people who were meh on his candidacy get to the polls?

Mind you, this is not a bad strategy for Biden. Democrats have spent almost three years re-litigating 2016 and arguing about how Trump managed to get elected. Biden is saying, almost explicitly, that he will do what Clinton didn’t, just four years later.

There’s just one question: Can he?