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A Sister Souljah Moment to Rule Them All

In the most important election of our lifetime, Joe Biden will have to risk everything.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a major speech in Pittsburgh on Monday, Joe Biden condemned President Trump for fueling the last few months of unrest in cities across the country, including the murder of two protesters last week in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “This president long ago forfeited any moral leadership in this country,” he said. “He can’t stop the violence because for years he has fomented it. He may believe mouthing the words law and order makes him strong, but his failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows you how weak he is.” For the umpteenth time, Biden also condemned looting and property destruction by demonstrators. “I want to be clear about this,” he said. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting—it’s lawlessness—plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”

It goes without saying that President Trump and his allies will continue insisting that Biden supports riots anyway. A more interesting question is whether the speech will satisfy the moderate and conservative voices who spent the last week urging Biden to speak out against radical demonstrators. On Friday, The Atlantic’s George Packer speculated that the unrest in Kenosha could doom Biden in November. “In the crude terms of a presidential campaign, voters know that the Democrat means it when he denounces police brutality, but less so when he denounces riots,” he wrote. “To reach the public and convince it otherwise, Biden has to go beyond boilerplate and make it personal, memorable.”

The same day, USA Today’s Chris Truax mused that Biden could use a “Sister Souljah moment,” a reference to then-candidate Bill Clinton’s denunciation of decontextualized, misinterpreted, and thus controversial remarks made by the rapper and activist Sister Souljah in 1992. “In one stroke, he liberated himself from the extremes of his party and silenced claims that he couldn’t stand up to the far left,” Truax wrote. “As the situation in the streets appears to be degenerating once again, Biden has been handed his own Sister Souljah moment, if he’s willing to take it.” Over at The Washington Post, George Will dedicated a whole column to the idea. “Candidate Bill Clinton’s criticism, not of extremism in general, but of her explicitly, reassured temperate voters that he was not intimidated by inhabitants of the wilder shores of American politics,” he argued. “Today, even more than 28 years ago, the Democratic nominee needs to display similar independence.”

None of this talk has been well supported by data⁠: Biden’s standing in the polls just hasn’t been affected in any obvious way yet by a backlash to protests. Instead, the polling averages suggest that Biden’s lead against Trump widened once the demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd took off. Even in Wisconsin, where widely circulated polling from Civiqs taken before the shooting of Jacob Blake showed support for Black Lives Matter had declined from its June peak, Biden’s lead has held steady. Still, the basic idea pundits have been thinking through is a valid one. Like Bill Clinton in 1992, Biden really should consider showily denouncing divisive figures within Democratic politics to shore up his remaining vulnerabilities as a candidate. In fact, Biden should denounce Bill Clinton.

The case is straightforward. To begin with, Clinton isn’t especially popular with the general public, and the decline in his standing can be attributed partially to his political reemergence during the 2016 election. By December 2017, Gallup had him pegged at 52 percent disapproval among American adults; the most recent numbers from YouGov have him, a bit more respectably, at just two points above water—40 percent of Americans approve and 38 percent disapprove. For reference, Civiqs places support for Black Lives Matter nationally at 49 percent of registered voters, with 38 percent opposing the movement—a net approval rating of 11 points.

Of course, the national figures matter far less than how a public repudiation of Clinton might boost Biden with the key constituencies commentators have been worried about this election. While Clinton has generally been popular among older black voters, welfare reform and the 1994 crime bill have become live issues in the Black community over the last several years, and the Trump campaign has been reaching out to younger Black men who might be disillusioned with Democratic politics. If Biden decides to formally address his past support for both policies again before November, a bold condemnation of the president who signed and championed them could help convince those voters that he’s serious, genuinely remorseful, and committed to changing the Democratic Party. The same general pitch might be made to however many Obama-Trump voters were genuinely driven right by the Clintons’ support for Nafta; policy entirely aside, rebuking Bill might at least capture the attention of persuadable Trump voters who simply loathe the Clintons as people. In the suburbs, Biden could potentially build on the impressive gains he appears to be making with moderate women by speaking out about Clinton’s assault allegations, potentially neutering a persistent talking point from Trump in the process.

Two remaining constituencies suggest two divergent approaches. On the one hand, Biden could choose a critique of Clintonian triangulation and centrism aimed at convincing more young progressives that he intends to continue moving in a more progressive direction. On the other, Biden could deepen his outreach to Never Trumpers and moderate Republicans by framing a denunciation of Clinton in anti-partisan terms—as a brave stroke, someone at The Atlantic will say, against political tribalism.

Whichever angle he chooses, it’s likely that the vast majority of Democrats—fully focused on beating Trump—wouldn’t mind the criticism at all; as wild political gambits go, it’s fairly low risk. Any way one slices it, Bill Clinton is practically begging to be thrown under the bus or onto the tracks of an express train from Wilmington to Washington.

The skeptical reader might disagree: The pandemic and the state of the economy will matter much more to voters, one might argue, than any unrelated dramatic gesture Biden is likely to make. And the case for denouncing Clinton is rooted more in suppositions than sound numbers.

But the skeptical reader should put a sock in it. We are, after all, about two months out from the election. Vague suppositions, the laundering of ideological grudges into watery analysis, the anxious magnification of minute or imagined fluctuations in the polls—these are the building blocks of general election commentary. We might not have an ordinary vote in November, but the ordinary nonsense and chatter we’ve come to expect in the final stretch of every race are already all around us—a testament either to our indomitable spirit or our irrepressible neuroses.