Joe Biden and the Electability Trap

Lisa Van Dusen/For The Hill Times

First rule of campaigning No. 347 should be “Never speak publicly about your own electability.”

One thing that has always been true about Joe Biden is that he’s not cynical. Not just not cynical about life, America or the world but not cynical about politics and his own place in it.

In recent weeks, his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has taken the odd tack of toying with that inherent strength, which is such an obvious one to leverage against the hourly intelligence-insulting performative nihilism of the incumbent.

Electability, like inevitability, is a political asset that can be ephemeral, especially in this era of narrative warfare, which is why it’s best left for surrogates to tout. Electability isn’t always entirely relative — some candidates are just more inherently attractive to a broader swath of the electorate than others — but it’s relative enough to unbiddable variables that it shouldn’t be the principal rationale for a candidacy, publicly or privately.

Electability is represented by a narrative input that — unless a candidate is misrepresented by corrupted or hacked poll results — is beyond a candidate’s control. Pitching electability as an overriding ballot question can be interpreted as a tacit admission that voters will be holding their noses when they vote for you, which is a strange approach to take, especially for a likeable frontrunner.

Jill Biden’s recent exhortation to voters in New Hampshire  to “swallow a little bit” and vote for her husband based on his electability despite their preference for another candidate’s positions was ill-advised on so many levels that it looked like a leaked role-play exercise in what not to say, delivered by the candidate’s wife. It was the most authoritative proxy in the campaign implying that that principles are secondary to winnability, and that the obviously urgent task of replacing America’s destabilizing president is a math problem as opposed to the moral imperative Biden has so effectively articulated, with hourly assists from Trump himself.

It was so uncharacteristic of someone who has never come across as anything other than entirely guileless and wholly confident in her husband’s strengths and such a bizarre departure from Joe Biden’s brand, built not over one campaign but over decades, that  it sounded like the product of a strategy session scripted by Steve Bannon based on poll numbers from Paul Manafort.

In a time of hypertactical politics, the best way to degrade Biden’s overwhelming electability advantage is to demystify it by having the candidate himself (or his wife) dissect it publicly the way it gets deconstructed privately or by pundits.

Notwithstanding the ubiquitous assertions of inevitability propagated explicitly, implicitly, subliminally, osmotically and through eyebrow semaphore and tactical topiary by Hillary Clinton’s surrogates in 2016, even she never had a t-shirt printed with the tag line: “Hillary! Resistance is Futile!” And yet, voters evidently resented even the less overt forms of inevitability signalling sufficiently to want to prove them wrong. Voters don’t like to be taken for granted, or treated like a means to an end.

Biden has successfully and convincingly presented himself as the candidate who can beat Trump based on experience, worldview, character, temperament (gaffes notwithstanding — one of the many areas in which he benefits from the right kind of relativity), empathy and competence. Arguing that you’re the right candidate to beat Donald Trump based on polls — especially in a political moment when polls, like so many other elements of democracy, are unpredictable at best and incriminating of collective lucidity at worst — raises a question not so much of character as of why Joe Biden is getting such incredibly bad advice (cue stories about how Biden refuses to take good advice).

Joe Biden, as everyone knows, is Irish. He shouldn’t allow anyone to let him forget it, especially when it comes to superstition.


Lisa Van Dusen is deputy publisher and associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, a writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.