ROCK HILL, S.C. — The crowd waiting to see former vice president Joe Biden speak at Clinton College, a historically black, Christian school just outside Charlotte, N.C., is not the crowd you might expect to find on a college campus. In other words, it's exactly the sort of crowd you'd expect to see at a Joe Biden campaign event.
According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, only 10 percent of Democratic voters below the age of 34 are backing Biden, putting him in a distant third behind Bernie Sanders's 31 percent and Elizabeth Warren's 25 percent. The former vice president has maintained his frontrunner status thanks to the strength of his support among older voters like the ones in this Rock Hill audience. He dominates the over-65 demographic, for example, with 48 percent support compared with Warren's 20 percent. No other candidate reached double digits among the AARP crowd.
One thing is certain: Joe Biden is running for president against Donald Trump. He opens his remarks by attacking the Trump administration's recent decision to end deferments for undocumented immigrants who seek to remain in the United States to receive medical treatment. He calls it "sinful." He rips Trump's reaction to the Charlottesville, Va., protests, and accuses the president of aiding and abetting "the deepest, darkest forces in this nation."
Biden is particularly aghast because "I come out of the civil rights movement." It's something he has claimed repeatedly, despite its inaccuracy. If Biden is talking, he's probably embellishing. For all his quirks and occasional incoherence, Biden is still effective on the campaign stump. He pauses to reassure a young couple with a wailing infant. He poses for a selfie with the father. The mother asks for a hug. Biden resists, for obvious reasons. "I wish I could," he says. She hugs him anyway. The crowd goes wild.
It's easy to forget that he still has to win the Democratic Party's nomination. It's almost as if he isn't even running in the same election as Sanders and Warren, his top two challengers. He is uninterested in or perhaps constitutionally incapable of being "woke." He cites Woodrow Wilson, approvingly. He meanders into an anecdote about meeting with a foreign leader whose name he can't remember, describing him, also approvingly, as the "Henry Kissinger of Asia." If young voters aren't packing the rafters at Biden campaign events, can you really blame them? Barack Obama he is not.
The first audience question is about "fiscal sanity," and the importance of balancing the federal budget. The question alone is a jarring reminder of how far left the Democratic Party has drifted since Obama and Biden left office. He attempts a coherent response about the need to raise taxes and "close loopholes" before he starts rambling. By the end of his answer he is wondering why the government isn't sending more social workers into poor households to teach them how to raise their kids.
Biden uses a question about health care as an opportunity to ding his Democratic opponents on the fiscal insanity of their Medicare for All proposals. At the next primary debate in Houston, Biden will be one of the few qualifying candidates promoting a more moderate approach on health care and a host of other divisive issues within the party, such as immigration and "fiscal sanity."
Biden is not the first Democratic candidate to visit Clinton College. Bernie Sanders packed the gymnasium in June for a campaign event, one day before unveiling his plan to eliminate student loan debt. Biden's approach to reducing college costs is, by comparison, less ambitious: two years of free community college. It might be the superior plan in terms of fiscal sanity, but it's unlikely to rally young voters to Biden's cause.
Not that he seems to care. Biden's message to kids these days is fairly straightforward: Stop whining. "The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break," he said in 2018. "I have no empathy for it."
The evening prior to his appearance in Rock Hill, Biden attended a fundraiser at the Charlotte home of Erskine Bowles, who served as Bill Clinton's chief of staff and was appointed by Obama in 2010 to co-chair the bipartisan commission to reduce the deficit. The commission's recommendations, which included significant tax increases and reforms to entitlement programs, proved too controversial for either party to accept. The activist base driving the Democratic Party's leftward lurch certainly would not approve, yet another example of how much of President Obama's legacy has suddenly become problematic.
It probably won't matter. Obama is still the most popular Democrat in the country, and Biden was the guy who stood next to him and whispered sweet profanities into his ear. Sleepy Joe probably will not inspire many college students to show up to his events or turn out for him in the primary. As long as their parents and grandparents show up at the polls, the party might be stuck with him.