Joe Biden branded himself a boy from the heartland, a hometown Midwesterner, willing to fight Donald Trump “behind the barn” just like he might have one of his enemies when he was just a “scrappy kid from Scranton.” This is a very deliberately created brand, but it is one that has been incredibly successful for Joe Biden. However, this brand is paper thin and the policy Biden has pushed his entire career has proved disastrous for working Americans.
There is a case to be made Biden’s brand is exactly what landed him in the White House, as the Obama campaign needed someone to ease potential racial tension among working class white voters in the midwest. Many of whom were susceptible to many of the anti-Obama narratives which flowed from Fox News. Who better for that job then the “scrappy kid from Scranton” who is known for his opposition to “forced bussing” (read school integration), his role as one of the lead architects of the 1994 crime bill, and making news for foot in mouth old white guy racism. There was a lot there to help humanize Obama, which helped people overlook some hugely problematic policy positions which will likely come to haunt Biden soon.
Joe Biden proved the perfect foil to Barack Obama, a perfect opposite to him on so many issues. It wasn’t just Biden’s racist appeal to white voters, on issue after issue Biden served to temper an agenda the Obama camp felt could too easily be painted as a far too radical departure from the status quo and sink their entire effort. And Biden was a great pick to accomplish that goal, but the things that made him a good pick as Obama’s moderate VP in 2008, make him an awful pick for president in 2020.
For a certain segment of the electorate (the fabled “Obama-Trump voter”) Joe Biden was exactly the racially insensitive white guy needed to overcome the guilt that comes with voting for a black guy named “Barack Hussein Obama.” Biden also provided an out for Democrats who supported the War in Iraq and didn’t view it as the largest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam. Afterall, Joe Biden was one of those Democrats, so if you supported the war, you got what you needed from Biden as well. When it came to Wall Street, again, Biden was there to temper the populsit flare of Obama’s 2008 campaign. Another issue where this dynamic is at play was trade, and trade in particular could spell trouble for Joe in the 2020 primary.
All of the issues above will be problematic for Biden, his racism, his pro-Iraq and pro-Wall Street views, but none of these positions are necessarily antithetical to his “tough guy from the Midwest” stchick. Which seems to be a much broader strategy to take back “the blue wall” of the upper Midwest. Meaning this sort of “tough wise guy who will fight you behind the barn” routine might actually play well. As might the racism, general anti-wokeness, and pro-war past. Wall Street is a little more problematic, but vague enough that it pales in comparison to the guy in the White House who literally lived in a gilded tower with his name on it.
Trade though, trade is an issue where Biden’s past will come to haunt him, either in 2016, or in 2020 if he makes it through the primary, but either way, his role in the various trade agreements of the last 20 years undermines his entire brand on a fundamental level. Because the entire appeal of that brand is the “straight shooter” persona that comes with it, which when tied to pro-worker is a great asset (see Bernie Sanders) when attached to trade policies which have become a central focus for voters (especially in the upper Midwest) which many voters see as a disaster, well then that brand becomes ripe for calls of hypocrisy.
Which is exactly what we will see in 2020, both in the Democratic Primary and the general election if Joe Biden makes it. The Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton trade debates of 2016 are informative. There, Clinton didn’t even vote for NAFTA, she supported normalized trade relations with China (CAFTA), and at least in the beginning was de facto attached to the TPP as Obama’s former Secretary of State. All of this left her with baggage that was impossible to shake, especially in the Midwest. But again, she didn’t even vote for any of these policies directly, minus CAFTA. The NAFTA and TPP baggage was simply by association, but it was still almost impossible to shake.
Joe Biden on the other hand, voted for NAFTA, voted for CAFTA, and continued to support the TPP long after the political winds have changed. So Biden can either undergo a pretty big flip flop on a massive issue with big 2020 potential, or try and ignore it. Clinton did the former, but everything about Biden points to the latter.
Joe Biden himself will make this dynamic a lot worse than it needs to be by simply refusing to own up to the real downside of the policy he helped push. Early campaign statements like “I don’t have anything to apologize for” or “I’m the most progressive candidate” clearly indicate Biden is either 1. delusional and genuinely believes those things, in which case, his trade policies are probably the best and most progressive possible as well, or 2. Biden’s camp views deny, deny, deny as the most politically expedient strategy. Either way, when Biden is hit with trade critiques, they will stick, because he genuinely helped orchestrate the trade policies people despise. Especially the people his entire political brand is meant to persuade.
When Biden’s response to those criticisms is basically, “no, you’re wrong, these policies didn’t destroy your community” it will go over about as well as Hillary Clinton telling West Virginia coal miners to suck it up, lose their jobs, and move on. Meaning it won’t go well, at all, which is why candidates like Bernie Sanders (and others no doubt) in the primary and Trump in the general, will use this issue to their advantage. Probably to great effect.
Again, the 2016 race is informative, both the primary and the general. In the primary, though Clinton tried to distance herself from the trade policies of the decades previous, she never quite could. And again, she only had a tenuous connection to any of them, at best. In stump speech after stump speech Bernie Sanders detailed the decades of job loss and the impact that had when it met up with the financial crisis and it showed when voters showed up to the polls in the Midwest. Bernie reversed the momentum the South gave the Clinton campaign and started a string of 10+ victories that brought his campaign within striking distance up until his defeat in the New York primary.
Had Bernie Sanders pulled it off, his message on trade and its impact on the Midwest would have been a key ingredient in that success. It continues to be a key ingredient today against Biden. And like 2016 it might not be enough. But Americans are so dissatisfied with the state of America’s trade relationships, the debate will likely do enough damage and allow Trump to finish the job, just like he did in 2016. Despite being a trade hypocrite who uses offshore labor and bank accounts himself, Trump realizes the political power trade provides. Which is why there is a flare up of the on again off again trade war with China headed into 2020. Trump knows he wins on trade, he knows he can look tough on trade, and he knows he can beat basically any politician of note who served in the last few decades on the issue, Joe Biden #1 on that list.
Bernie Sanders on the other hand, is not on that list. And the solution isn’t to get Bernie Sanders to dull his criticism in the primary. People genuinely want and need new trade policy. The solution is to try something new, and to go with the guy who Trump can’t beat with the trade stick.