By launching his 2020 campaign with shameful images of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, 20 months ago, former vice-president Joe Biden has put the focus on what should be the central question of the 2020 election.
More than any of the other 19 announced Democratic contenders, Biden has called for a reckoning: Should someone with President Donald Trump’s deficiencies of character continue to lead this nation?
In Charlottesville, “we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis come out in the open, their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging, and bearing the fangs of racism. Chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ’30s. And they were met by a courageous group of Americans, and a violent clash ensued, and a brave young woman lost her life,” Biden said in his announcement video.
The former vice-president recalled the most distasteful statement Trump has ever uttered: There were “some very fine people on both sides.”
“With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said. “And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
The contrast with the rest of the field is striking. Virtually without exception, earlier announced Democratic candidates offered opening arguments that conspicuously avoided any direct mention of — or even allusion to — Trump’s moral failings. Biden, on the other hand, said these threaten to “forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
It may be that the other contenders have overlearned the lessons of Hillary Clinton’s inability to make that argument stick against Trump in 2016. Clinton, however, was a flawed messenger; decades-old questions about her honesty and trustworthiness were inflamed by the controversy surrounding her use of a private email server, which was vastly overplayed in the media. There was also still hope — long since dashed — that Trump would change once in office.
There is always the possibility that the booming economy over which Trump is presiding will matter more to voters than the fact that he is shattering every norm of governance. Or more disturbingly, that Americans have simply grown inured to his behaviour.
If so, a Democrat who chooses to focus on character might be shouting into the wind, as GOP nominee Bob Dole did in 1996, when he catalogued the many ethical questions surrounding Bill Clinton’s presidency, and cried: “Where’s the outrage?”
But if we gained any new insight from special counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report on the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, it came from the granular, behind-the-scenes look we got at Trump’s crass conduct.
So it may well be that 2020 turns out to be one of those moments when Americans go looking for a corrective.
Though Biden is, by virtue of his name recognition, the front-runner of this crowded field, most senior Democrats I talk to are sceptical that he will make it through the primaries. Biden is that rare politician who wears his heart on the outside. He has a record unblemished by scandal, and even his missteps — as the recent attention to his unwanted touching of women — are presumed to come from a wellspring of goodwill.
But he lost twice before in his bids for the White House, and is burdened by vulnerabilities that are as evident as his virtues. He is undisciplined and gaffe-prone. Along with his vast experience comes nearly a half century of taking actions and positions, particularly on race and gender, that have become apostasies in the modern-day Democratic Party. And he’s a white male in his 70s.
While his announcement video was pitch perfect, Biden made the tactically questionable decision to follow it up with a fundraiser with big-dollar donors. His first public event, on Monday, will be a rally with labour union leaders. All of which sounds as if he is running a state-of-the-art campaign — if this were 1988.
Still, in his eloquent rationale for his candidacy, Biden has offered his party something far more significant and enduring than his much-talked-about ability to connect with the older white voters of the upper Midwest who defected to Trump in 2016. Biden may well indeed be the Democrats’ strongest bet to win back the White House next year.
Karen Tumulty is an acclaimed American columnist who specialises in US Congressional politics.