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Joe Biden: The Comeback Gramps

Column: How a flight to safety helped the former vice president

Joe Biden
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On the day before the South Carolina primary, the stock market finished its worst week since the global financial crisis of 2008. Fear of Bernie Sanders and of coronavirus had investors panicked. They wanted safe returns. Bond yields fell to record lows.

The flight to safety was not just economic. It was also political. When the future looks grim, you turn to the familiar. And there aren't many politicians more recognizable than a man first elected to the Senate when Richard Nixon was president.

South Carolina was Joe Biden's last defense. It held. Credit congressman Jim Clyburn with the assist. His February 26 endorsement was powerful—and more decisive than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's backing of Sanders last October. Biden trounced the field in the Palmetto State, winning 48 percent to Sanders's 20 percent.

The first signs of a Biden coalition of black voters, suburban women, and moderates became visible. These are the same people who returned the speaker's gavel to Nancy Pelosi in 2018. After South Carolina, the non-Sanders vote consolidated behind Biden. And on Super Tuesday he pulled ahead in the delegate count.

Biden is too old to be called "the comeback kid." He needs another moniker. Let's call him "the comeback gramps."

His achievement is something to behold. Not since 1992 has a candidate vaulted into frontrunner status after losing the first contests by such stunning margins. And circumstances were different 28 years ago. Back then, Iowa went to local hero Senator Tom Harkin. New Hampshire chose neighboring Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. Both men enjoyed homefield advantage.

Bill Clinton didn't have a victory until Georgia and South Carolina. Whereupon his spin room went into action, persuading the media that the Arkansas governor was the "comeback kid." Clinton was 45 years old at the time.

The bloom of youth left Biden long ago. And, for a while it seemed, so did any chance of becoming president. He placed fourth in Iowa. He came in fifth in New Hampshire. He finished a distant—light-years distant—second in Nevada.

Bernie Sanders and his red brigades threatened to sweep all before them. What saved Biden and the Democratic Party was panic. Worries over socialism, over handing the election to President Trump, but also over the invisible contagion whose global spread appears to be unstoppable.

Biden is not unstoppable. He's had a great week. But it is not a straight line from here to the White House. For one thing, Sanders is still in the race. The slim possibility remains that he could deny Biden a majority of the 1,991 delegates necessary to win on the first ballot of the convention. That would complicate matters. And widen the Democratic divide.

Biden's resuscitation was contingent on discrete events. Who knows what the situation would look like today absent Bernie's striking momentum, Bloomberg's flameout, Clyburn's endorsement, South Carolina's place on the electoral calendar, and the appearance of coronavirus? There is plenty of time for further developments. Not all of them will play to his advantage.

Biden is not a strong candidate. His brain and his mouth never seem to be in the same place at the same time. He hasn't given a satisfactory answer to the question of what his son Hunter was doing on the board of a Ukrainian gas giant. He suffers from the brand confusion of a septuagenarian Washington insider calling for change. He has a habit of making bizarre and rude comments—to his own supporters. His agenda is vague at best and regressive at worst.

He promises a return to the status quo ante Trump. For many people, that's enough. For how many? In which states? Biden is the secure choice, the comforting presence, the genial (if slightly out of it) grandpa you like to have around. You turn to him in threatening times not because of what he has done, but because of who he is. That is why Barack Obama put him on the ticket after Russia invaded Georgia. It is why so many Democrats chose him on Tuesday.

Threats recede. Panic fades. Good times return. And you are left with grinning, affable, ordinary, unexciting, flawed Joe Biden. Who might not be a safe bet after all.