Joe Biden has been the leading candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination since before he announced he was running for it, but he has had an unusual kind of success. Biden has staged few events relative to the other candidates in the race, and has mostly drawn unimpressive crowds. When the candidates come together in Iowa or New Hampshire, usually, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders draw the biggest cheers. The millions of Biden supporters are detectable only when they are phoned at home by pollsters. The general view is that Biden voters are older, a little less educated, and less engaged in politics—and therefore less likely to show up—but even so, their general absence from the campaign has been striking. Biden’s policy ideas have not cohered into any distinctive theme. Since early in his campaign, Biden has spoken often about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville—Donald Trump’s insistence that there were “fine people on both sides” obviously revulsed Biden, and helped persuade him to run. But even that line seems to be more about the President than about Biden. As Kamala Harris has effectively put the question, if this really is an election about white nationalism, then why should Biden, with his history of opposition to busing and praise for segregationists, be the Democrats’ choice?
The case for Biden always had less to do with his campaign than with who he was before he decided to run—he had served as Obama’s Vice-President, and he also possessed a distinct public role of his own, which, at the end of the Obama Administration and the beginning of Trump’s, seemed increasingly situated outside of partisan politics. Forty years earlier, Biden’s wife and infant daughter had been killed in a car crash. After his son, Beau, who had survived the accident, died of brain cancer, in May, 2015, Biden decided not to run for President, and made his public mission a “moonshot” to fund and direct research that would cure the disease. After Beau’s death, when Biden spoke in public, it was often about Beau. He made two memorable appearances at Stephen Colbert’s desk, in 2015 and 2017—Colbert, as a child, lost his father and two brothers in an airplane crash, and one of his favorite songs is about Anne Frank. “I wanted to give people hope that through purpose, you can find a way through grief,” Biden told Colbert, on his second visit. Colbert responded by practically begging him to run for President. “The country’s never been more divided—we need a unifier,” Colbert said. “I think one of the reasons that people—you know, two years ago, when we had you on the show—would have been very happy if you ran for President, is they want someone who shares their humanity and can unite people about common values.” There was loud applause. Biden was over seventy years old, but still he seemed to be adding emotional dimensions: the expressive grief of the widower, the bluff hope of the early Obama years, the weight of ordinary life. Earlier this month, when Biden returned to Colbert’s set, in part to explain away his campaign gaffes, he got a standing ovation. There was still an attachment there.
This spring, a historian named George Blaustein published a moving essay in The New Republic about Biden, which began with the observation that Biden had occasionally, in public, tried to enumerate the number of Americans who are actively grieving. Biden had by then published “Promise Me, Dad,” which was ostensibly a campaign book but is largely about his experience of Beau’s illness and the effects of loss. “By my estimation, at any given moment, one in ten people in our country is suffering some serious degree of torment because of a recent loss,” Biden wrote. “I see them at the rope lines at any political event I do, standing there, with something behind their eyes that is almost pleading.” In the essay, Blaustein made clear his own political differences with Biden, but he also said that Biden’s experience of grief gave the former Vice-President “a manner of communion, a pre-political or supra-political language.” In a sense, this was what Colbert had been hinting at, too: the hope that there might in Biden’s centrism be something other than triangulation, and that he had access to a more universal experience that wasn’t bound by partisan lines. The hope that—in matters of economic insecurity, or the opioid epidemic, or cultural enmity—Biden might offer not just policy solutions but something like a new American fellowship.
Six months in, nothing about Biden’s Presidential campaign has seemed bigger than partisan politics. His advisers are in a running squabble with the media over the coverage the candidate has received. The campaign is forever trying to explain away his exaggerations and misstatements, and he has spent so much time trying to account for his political choices in the twentieth century that he has found little time to talk about the twenty-first. The line on Biden right now is that he’s past it—too old, too distracted, too out of touch. When he tries to sound convivial, it often plays as boorish. When I’ve seen him on the trail this year, I’ve thought that assessment was a little harsh. Biden can still give a sharp, expressive ten-minute speech that maps his party’s areas of consensus—he did so just last week, before the New Hampshire Democratic Party. But even then his tone was almost insistently upbeat—that of a life coach, or a personal trainer. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to get the hell up!” Biden said, after ticking off some remaining sources of American strength (economic size, research universities, workplace productivity). “It’s time to stop walking around with our heads down. This is the United States of America.” Obama had talked up America, and Trump had talked it down, and Biden knew which side he was on. But the more buoyant Biden sounded, the more generic he became: the toothy smile, the pin-striped suit, the cheery boosterism, the use of economic statistics as a retort to an emotional condition—a politician, through and through. The country, like him, has been grieving. Where was the sensitivity to loss?
On Thursday night, the third Democratic debate will be held, in Houston. It is the first time that Biden will share the stage with Warren and Sanders, and the contrast between the progressive left and the centrists will inevitably sharpen. The word is that Biden is prepared to challenge his rivals over their preference for abolishing private health insurance. That was the same essential division that defined the 2016 race, one which the centrist (Hillary Clinton) won. The progressive faction hopes that the Party has moved in its direction. The centrists’ hope has been that, in Biden, they have a more widely liked candidate this time, one whose public image is not trapped in partisan enmities, as Clinton’s was, but instead offers some hope of transcending them. That hope has grown weaker. Biden may still win the nomination as a more conventional ideologic figure, but, if so, he will leave the most elemental hopes for his candidacy unrealized: that Biden might transcend partisan politics by describing a “pre-political” emotional consensus in the country, one in which Trump is rejected, and in which centrism reflected something beyond nostalgia. But, of course, that’s part of the difficulty with grief: it makes it hard to imagine a future that is different from the past.