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Joe Biden Is the Democrats’ Safety School

A dispatch from New Hampshire, where there's an undeniable wave of affection for the former vice president

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

At an outdoor table at a bagel shop a few blocks from the state capitol building in Concord, New Hampshire, two Democratic state representatives were gently sparring over Joe Biden.

“A lot has come up about Biden’s role during the Anita Hill hearings,” said Richard Komi, first elected from Manchester in 2008. “Biden said that he wished he had done more at the time. Well, Biden did do more. He sponsored the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.”

That was too much for Ryan Buchanan, a bearded freshman representative from Concord. “Biden could have summoned more witnesses to support Anita Hill,” Buchanan argued. “The only person who can say we can move on is Anita Hill. And she hasn’t done it.”

This conversation was part of an impromptu Thursday morning focus group that I convened to discuss Biden following the former vice president’s first 2019 swing through the state. What made the conversation edgier than usual was the makeup of the group: all seven participants were part of the Progressive Caucus in New Hampshire’s 400-member lower house.

Komi was the only one at the table poised to endorse Biden (“Sooner or later, I think I will”). But he was not the vice president’s lone fan in the group. “I have loved Joe Biden because of my background from a working-class family and being a big Obama lover,” said Kris Schultz from Concord, who chairs the 70-person caucus.* “I also remember Biden as a progressive force in the Obama White House.”

A common theory on the left is to portray the 2020 Democratic nomination fight as a titanic struggle for ideological supremacy, with Biden holding aloft the pale and ragged banners of centrist caution.

But my strong belief—as I cover my eleventh New Hampshire primary dating back to 1980—is that this proposition is exaggerated. Judging from my conversations with Democratic activists, the dynamics of the 2020 race refuse to conform to a neatly constructed Bernie-on-the-left, Biden-on-the-right grid. In particular, my Concord coffee klatch buttressed the notion that views of Biden are far more nuanced than commonly assumed.

“When Joe Biden came out and announced he was running, it felt so comfortable to me because I know he’s a real middle-class-supporting guy,” said Peg Higgins, a retired elementary school teacher from Rochester, the lone Baby Boomer in the Concord group. But there’s a catch: Higgins won’t be supporting the 76-year-old former vice president because, “It’s his age. The millennials won’t vote for him.”

Rebecca McWilliams, an attorney and architect from Concord, who was bouncing her nearly two-year-old twins (George and Becca) on her lap, gave strong voice to this strain of millennial suspicion. “I’m really disappointed with Biden trying to meet in the middle on the climate change emergency,” said the first-term legislator, who is supporting Elizabeth Warren. “Biden’s on thin ice with me. And I’m an exceedingly concerned millennial.”

Will Pearson from Keene, who just graduated from law school, is another common New Hampshire political type—the searcher, gazing over the horizon in hopes of something new. “I’ve been inspired by Biden in the past,” he conceded. “But right now, I don’t know the name of the candidate I support yet. A lot of me wants to see a new candidate.”

David Morrill, another legislator from Keene, offered the scathing view of Biden from the left. Describing himself as “a ranked-choice voting nerd,” Morrill said, “I’ve ranked all 24 Democratic candidates. And Joe Biden is ranked 23rd.” That provoked the obvious question: who’s in the 24th spot? “Marianne Williamson,” Morrill replied, referring to the spiritual guru and vanity candidate.

These conversations in Concord illustrate the messiness of everyone’s decision-making nine months before the February 11 primary. Even in orderly presidential cycles, New Hampshire primary voters are notoriously volatile. In the closing hours before the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton gained more than 10 points on Barack Obama to eke out a narrow win. And in 2004 (a race somewhat analogous to 2020 with an unpopular GOP president and a multi-candidate Democratic field without an obvious favorite), Howard Dean’s candidacy collapsed here, despite a hefty lead in the New Hampshire polls prior to the Iowa caucuses.

This time around, New Hampshire boasts nearly as many intently browsing shoppers as on Amazon. That’s why I believe it is a mistake to slap the label “frontrunner” on Biden—or anyone else—this early in the fray. The Democratic field is too clotted, the polling too unreliable, and the 2020 campaign against Trump too unprecedented for anyone to make firm predictions, especially before the first round of debates.

So to borrow a simile from what many American colleges are celebrating as graduation weekend: Joe Biden is the Democrats’ safety school. Other candidates may be aspirational reaches, but with Biden (to steal a turn of phrase from a local guy, Robert Frost) “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Judging from Biden’s initial swing through New Hampshire earlier this week, no one is rushing to touch the hem of his garment, burbling about his mastery of Norwegian, or hailing him as a voice of a new generation. The two Biden events that I attended (an evening speech in Manchester and an outdoor rainy house party in Nashua) lacked the crisp efficiency (including sober-faced aides wearing ear pieces) of a Kamala Harris morning appearance the next day.

But there is also an undeniable wave of affection for Biden, whose two earlier presidential campaigns in 1987 and 2008 never lasted long enough to get to the New Hampshire primary.

After Harris spoke to 400 people (about the size of Biden’s largest crowd) in Nashua on Wednesday, I chatted with Gail Warner, a retired public school cook who had driven down from Manchester to see the first-term California senator. In our conversation, Warner stressed that Biden remains high on her shopping list. “Biden’s integrity is so strong,” she said. “But I want to hear more meat and potatoes from him. I don’t want him to ride on Obama’s coattails.”

Although the candidacy of a former veep can seem routine, the Democrats have never had a current or former vice president propelled forward by his unstinting loyalty to the president he had served. Al Gore in 2000 cringed with embarrassment at every reference to Bill Clinton’s personal conduct and in 1984, when Walter Mondale ran, Jimmy Carter had been unfairly consigned to oblivion as a failed president.

In his speeches, Biden says “my friend Barack” almost as often as he uses the word “folks,” which he deploys with the old-time country fervor of a nineteenth-century preacher presiding over a shotgun wedding.

Speaking off a Teleprompter (not a normal Biden tradition) at a rally at Manchester Community College on Monday night, the candidate said about his roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, “My friend Barack would make you think that I was a coal miner coming out of the mine with a lunch bucket in my hand. But I’m not. My dad was a white-collar salesman.”

That quote contains multitudes—many of the strengths and minuses of the Biden candidacy.

Begin with the Obama connection, along with the reminder of Biden’s appeal to the kind of blue-collar Democrats who defected to Donald Trump in 2016. But there was also a hint of Biden’s new-found caution as he stressed that his father actually wore a tie to work. No other politician telling a similar story would have felt compelled to, in effect, raise his right hand and solemnly swear, “I am not now, nor have I ever been, a coal miner.”

But Biden, in every speech, hears echoes of the past—and political mistakes that he made. The plagiarism scandal that drove Biden from his 1987 race began with the candidate adapting autobiographical words from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock: “My ancestors who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come after 12 hours and play football for four hours.”

During his 2000 campaign, the over-programmed Gore complained about “all these voices in my head telling me what to do.” Gore likened his curse of too many consultants to the cult movie, Being John Malkovich, in which a group of people find a secret passage into the actor’s brain.

Biden is unlikely to use a Spike Jonze movie as his cultural touchstone, but he probably feels the same way as his vice-presidential predecessor. Major Biden supporters in New Hampshire all offered advice for their candidate—sometimes conflicting advice. “Biden must comes across as stronger,” one told me privately, while another suggested, “Voters think they know Biden from his long career. But they really don’t know him as a person. He’s got to show that.”

Biden’s initial dreams of the White House were all premised on the power of his oratory. In Richard Ben Cramer’s epic account of Biden’s short-lived 1987 candidacy in What It Takes, the author channels the candidate’s thoughts after a speech in Sacramento:

“He could feel the whole hall sit up and listen...And when he got to the end, when he did the dream and the dreamers...with conviction and something like joy, ringing in his voice: ‘Just because our heroes were murdered...does not mean the dream does not live.’

That Biden—the Delaware senator who tried to be Kennedy-esque, the orator who wanted to make his audiences feel something—has vanished into the mists of time. In New Hampshire, Biden was mournful (invoking during the first minute of Manchester stump speech both the 1972 car accident that killed his wife and daughter and his own near-fatal brain aneurism). He was garrulous (answering an immigration question in Nashua, he began to veer off topic, “When I was in ... No, I won’t get into it”), and apologetic about speaking too long.

Sure, there were still rousing applause lines about Trump: “Folks, my job is to take him on and defeat him.” But it is easy to excoriate the president (whom Biden in Nashua implied was “illegitimate”) before Democratic audiences.

It will be harder for Biden to distinguish himself on a crowded debate stage if he continues to abide by his loyal-opposition version of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” In Manchester, Biden expressed his own above-the-fray pledge in these words: “We have a great group of candidates running. I respect them all. You will never hear me say a negative thing about a Democrat running for president.”

Biden is more than twice the age of one of his serious competitors—37-year-old Pete Buttigieg—which is certainly an unprecedented gap in modern American political history.

Unable to erase the calendar, Biden is looking for new ways to spin it. During a New Hampshire drop-by at the Somersworth Historical Society, Biden invoked the spirit of Satchel Paige, perhaps the greatest pitcher in Negro League Baseball, who only made it to the majors at the advanced age of 42. Biden quoted one of Satchel’s famous lines about staying young: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”

Biden, who is trying to make it to the White House 32 years after he first declared his candidacy at the Wilmington train station, might heed another of Paige’s aphorisms: “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.”

* A previous version of this story misspelled Kris Schultz’s last name.