Joe Biden has so far managed to run for president in 2020 almost by stealth. On June 5, with little fanfare, he picked up enough pledged delegates to win the Democratic nomination on the first ballot. With Trump seeming to lose ground with independent and unaffiliated voters, Biden looks like the presumptive next president – if he can get people to vote for him in the fall.
It is a far cry from the first time he ran, 30-plus years ago, when Democrats were torn between wanting attention and wanting it on their terms. There is a clip of Biden at a 1987 campaign stop in New Hampshire that illustrates this. “What law school did you attend and where did you place in that class?” a reporter asks him.
“I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do,” Biden answers, jabbing his finger at the man. “I went to law school on a full academic scholarship ... the only one in my class to have a full academic scholarship” – and, he says, he graduated in the top half of his class, at the Syracuse College of Law.
But he had graduated 76th in a class of 85, with only a half scholarship based on need. “I exaggerate when I’m angry,” he explained to The New York Times.
Biden is still committing unforced errors, but he gets less scrutiny, because Trump, the pandemic and civil unrest take up so much air. The night before he secured the delegates, in an online event with black supporters, Biden said most Americans think the nation can be improved, but “there are probably anywhere from 10 to 15% of the people out there that are just not very good people.”
If he had stopped with the first half of his proposition, it would have been unobjectionable. Had he just said there are some bad people, this too would have raised no concern. But to assign a ballpark percentage, and say between 33 million and 49 million Americans are just bad, is the sort of mistake rookies instinctively avoid.
Earlier in the week, in an address to black community leaders in Delaware, after five straight days of protest following the death of George Floyd, Biden said he had a solution for police brutality: “Instead of standing there and teaching a cop, when there’s an unarmed person coming at ’em with a knife or something – shoot ’em in the leg instead of in the heart.” As calls for defunding police spread, he expanded on his thinking. “I’ve long been a firm believer in the power of community policing,” he wrote in an op-ed last week. “That’s why I’m proposing an additional $300 million to reinvigorate community policing in our country.”
That may sound fine on its face, so accustomed are we to believe the solution to every problem is a funded program. But a bold politician and an attentive one might hear in the protests a call to imagine a safer America. As Barry Friedman, a law professor and the director of the Policing Project at New York University, recently observed, there’s very little evidence you get better policing by spending more money.
The 2020 election is not a referendum. In that sense, it will be just like every other presidential election. People will vote for a candidate, but generally not show up to vote against one, for practical and irreducible reasons. If Biden and the Democrats can figure out why, despite the danger, it is easier and more attractive to take to the streets in protest than to vote, they might be on to something.