The Unspectacular Excellence of Joe Biden’s Slow and Steady CampaignOctober 24, 2020
It was a frigid night in mid-Michigan on November 2, 2018, when Joe Biden jogged onto the stage inside an overheated gymnasium at Lansing Community College, a rowdy audience of several thousand people chanting his name. The former vice president wasn’t yet a declared candidate for president, and this occasion wasn’t about him. Biden had come to Michigan to headline a unity rally four days before the midterm election. After rousing remarks from the Democratic candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and Congress, Biden bounded into the spotlight, outstretching his arms as if to gather in every decibel bouncing around the arena.
And then, he delivered the worst campaign speech I’d ever heard.
For nearly an hour—although it felt much longer—Biden strayed from subject to subject, alternating between exasperated observations of President Donald Trump and insider anecdotes of how things used to function in Washington. Suffering from laryngitis after stumping for dozens of other candidates, Biden’s delivery was scratchy and off-key, which made his meandering only that much harder to follow. Some 30 minutes into his remarks, with the keynote speaker no closer to finding an organizing theme, people began to get up to leave. First a few, then a larger trickle, and before long, streams of them, young and old, black and white, heading for the exits. Of those who felt obliged to stay, there were exchanged looks of bewilderment and wristwatches checked and cellphones fiddled with.
It was an uncomfortable scene in every respect. I remember standing in the back of that gymnasium, taking it all in, comparing notes with a very sharp colleague, Dave Weigel of the Washington Post. Neither of us could recall such a pitiful sight: The deserters kept pouring past us while Biden grasped for a compelling scrap of oratory to keep them in the bleachers. It was like watching an old athlete whose body had betrayed him. Biden, once an engaging and quick-witted pol, was on his last legs. One thing seemed certain to me that November night: If he ran for president in 2020, Biden was going to get embarrassed.
Needless to say, I was dead wrong.
The reasons I expected Biden to get mauled by the likes of Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg are exactly the reasons he outlasted them all.
The reasons I wondered how he would fare against Donald Trump are exactly the reasons he outperformed the president in each of their two debates.
Biden is slow. He is steady. He is unspectacular. In other words, he is what much of the electorate seems to want.
On Thursday night, two years after he stepped to that lectern in Lansing, Biden climbed down tiredly from the stage in Nashville. Over the previous 90 minutes, he had put the finishing touches on a campaign that was crafted in defiance of every expectation placed upon him and his party since Trump took office. I would call Biden’s performance in the final debate an exclamation mark—except there is nothing exclamatory about his candidacy. He has run, objectively speaking, one of the most monotonous and predictable and uneventful campaigns for president in recent memory. And it has been nothing short of superb. Now, with Biden on the brink of a historic victory, it’s worth understanding what has been right about his campaign—not simply what has been wrong with Trump’s.
The Democratic nominee was at it again Thursday night, plodding along at a comfortable pace, reciting methodically rehearsed responses, never losing his composure or abandoning his message. It was telling that the lone error Biden supposedly committed—pledging to transition the country away from reliance on oil—is something he has discussed regularly over the past 18 months. Could he have polished his point a bit more? Sure. But there was no controversy. There was no campaign-imploding misstep. This was not Hillary Clinton promising to put coal miners out of work or Mitt Romney calling 47 percent of the country indolent. The former vice president’s loyalists who have spent two years holding their breath, certain that he could say something disqualifying at any moment, are exhaling today with equal parts relief and amazement. The truth is, for all Biden’s history of veering outside the lines and putting his foot in his mouth, he has navigated the most hyperexposed and instantly scrutinized political climate in history without ever putting himself in real jeopardy.
Some of this, of course, owes to a sheltering strategy that has kept the Democratic nominee out of sight for long stretches of the race. The basement that Trump mocked on Thursday night actually has been a protective lair from which Biden has run a textbook referendum campaign, keeping the focus on the incumbent, not on himself.
But much of Biden’s success owes to his opponent’s willingness to embrace that referendum. The president is a man who cannot bear to cede the spotlight, whose penchant for chaos unwittingly shields his political adversaries from sustained examination. Trump has also created an atmosphere that is badly imbalanced, one in which the extremism that once composed society’s outer rings now features at its nucleus. Biden has a stated goal of restoring the soul of America. That’s an inflated campaign promise if ever there was one. What he might be able to do—what many voters are praying he can do—is restore some balance to American politics. No more reality show at the White House. No more living on a knife’s edge with every presidential tweet. No more conspiracy theories from the commander in chief.
In one sense, Biden isn’t a natural fit for these times. He’s always been edgy and provocative in his own right, an old school scrapper who kept a quip in his pocket and a chip on his shoulder. Sometimes it went too far—even at points in this 2020 campaign. When he challenged a mouthy Iowan to a push-up contest or went nose-to-nose with a Michigan autoworker, or questioned the Blackness of any African American who wouldn’t vote for him, Biden showed flashes of his primal self. He stirred echoes of the very president he was vowing to defeat.
And yet, that’s all it amounted to—flashes and echoes. Over the past two years, Biden has executed a campaign that is all the more brilliant because it suppresses his own core instincts. The wise guy who loved to instigate is now the wise man who wants to mediate.
It was on display Thursday night as Biden repeatedly and rightly accused Trump of governing only for his base and promised to be a president for red states and blue states alike. It was on display throughout his primary campaign, when he refused to be swept away by the whims of the left and consolidated a majority of Democrats around a theory of defeating Trump with a fire extinguisher instead of a flame thrower. It was on display two years ago, on that chilly night in Michigan, when he told yarns of a conciliatory yesteryear and wondered aloud what it might take to get back to that place again.
I remember thinking back then that Biden was little more than a glorified grandfather, tucking Americans in with a pacifying bedtime story. He was a glass of warm milk to put us to sleep. As it turns out, that’s exactly what he is—and after four years of being overcaffeinated, it’s exactly what a majority of America wants.
Presidential politics has always been about meeting the moment. In 2008, the electorate wanted someone to inspire them; Americans elected Barack Obama. In 2016, the electorate wanted someone to rock the boat; Americans elected Donald Trump.
In 2020, more than anything else, it seems the electorate wants a break from the Trump Show. Joe Biden is meeting that moment. If Thursday’s debate was a final audition, he aced it. Not because he dazzled the American people, but because he invited them to change the channel.