I finally recognized the model for Joe Biden’s unusual campaign, the former president whose pitch Biden’s most resembles: George W. Bush.
I’m referring to Bush’s first presidential bid, in 2000, which is remembered mostly for its surreal climax. To the limited extent that political junkies recall his slogans and stump speeches, the phrase “compassionate conservative” comes quickest to mind.
But Bush’s success hinged less on selling himself as a new kind of Republican than on being seen as a tested, trusted, traditional brand. His surname did much of that work, and he augmented it with an emphasis on propriety. He pledged to “restore honor and integrity” to the White House in the wake of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment. He would end the melodrama of the Clinton years and have the nation pick up where it had left off – with a Bush at the helm.
Biden’s promise is to end the much greater melodrama and expunge the darker shame of Donald Trump’s presidency, also by returning to what preceded it: Barack Obama’s administration.
There are big differences between Biden and Bush, and not just ideologically. Bush’s public-service résumé then was scrawny next to Biden’s now. But Biden isn’t exactly campaigning on his three and a half decades in the Senate, not when you consider all the chapters that he wishes voters wouldn’t dwell on.
No, Biden is campaigning on his eight years as vice president. He’s also campaigning on the nostalgia of his surname, the familiarity of his presence and the comfort of his aura. And that’s not just a tactic from Bush’s playbook. It’s a quintessentially Republican move.
The last two Democrats to win the presidency, Clinton and Obama, didn’t take a tack anything like Biden’s. Clinton was the man from Hope, Arkansas, who was determined to give liberalism a modern makeover and set the Democratic Party on a more profitable course. Obama was hope and change.
Both men were under 50 when they attained the presidency, and both were in keeping with the Democratic Party’s flattering image of itself, from John F. Kennedy onward, as youthful, innovative, visionary, trailblazing. But Biden, 76, isn’t about exploring uncharted paths. He’s about following bread crumbs back to where we lost our way.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a Trump thing. For many Democrats, Biden included, the insult of Trump is so immense and the threat that he poses so profound that 2020 isn’t a year for experiments and idealism. It’s a year for survival. It’s a lunge for normalcy, stability, convention – Republican buzzwords that are suddenly many Democrats’ goals.
And from that mindset springs Biden’s campaign, drab in the abstract but unorthodox in the context of Democratic proclivity and precedent. Unorthodox in respect to his rivals, too.
Bernie Sanders, with his call for Democratic socialism; Kamala Harris, with her intensifying emphasis on racial disparities; Elizabeth Warren, with her encyclopedia of plans; Pete Buttigieg, with his husband and his mere 37 years on Earth – the election of any one of them would be a bold statement, a milestone. Each is a figure more romantic than Biden, counting to some degree on the adage that while Republican voters fall in line, Democratic voters fall in love.
Biden, in contrast, is trying to get Democrats to do something that Republicans have more practice at: choose a nominee who’s due over one who’s new. He’s the liberal iteration of Bob Dole, the looser version of Mitt Romney.
He has his raft of policy positions, many of them echoes or adaptations of Obama’s, but they’re not what his supporters think of first. They’re not what he thinks of first, either.
That was clear in a revealing passage from his recent interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. Asked about Harris’ attack on his civil rights record, he signaled surprise and hurt.
“She knows me,” he protested.
A few beats later: “The American people think they know me and they know me,” again instructing voters not to examine the fine points of his record or the minutiae of his proposals but to look into his eyes and into their guts. And one more time, during that same 30-second span: “People know who I am.”
That’s the message. It might as well be the bumper sticker. At most other junctures, it would be fatally underwhelming. At this one, there’s no telling.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.