It's Biden's Heart vs. Sanders' Fist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Dems' communications contrast is as striking as the ideological one.
By Daniel Malloy
Perhaps the image most associated with Joe Biden is the embrace. On every rope line, the former vice president is grasping, touching, extending a tactile connection with his voters. Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has the raised fist, exhorting his rally crowds to exuberant heights as he describes a fundamental reordering of an unfair society.
Tuesday night, the two septuagenarian white men emerged as effectively the last Democrats standing in the fight for the presidency. It was a huge night for Biden, who has been resurrected from the dead in the past two weeks and scored surprising wins Tuesday in Massachusetts and Minnesota — as Mike Bloomberg’s grand, costly experiment crashed. But we still don’t know the full delegate picture (be patient: Sanders won California, but the full count will take a while), and it’s likely Biden and Sanders will be close.
In the weeks and months to come, this battle will be cast as a clash of center-left vs. far-left ideology, of establishment vs. insurgent, younger voters vs. older voters. But as Democrats decide who they want to take on President Donald Trump, they will be confronted with a communications clash as stark as it gets: the personal vs. the policy.
Sanders has not presented himself as an Elizabeth Warren-style wonk. But his speeches and his pitch are big on transformational plans, and light on the man himself. At his victory party in Vermont, Sanders focused on how he’d expand access to health care and education, while attacking the billionaires and the establishment. (A sign that he’s back to underdog status: Sanders was harsher than ever in attacking Biden, from the former veep’s Iraq War vote to his past support for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.)
Even when you try to pull the biography out of him, it’s not always easy. Anderson Cooper tried when Sanders appeared on 60 Minutes last month, asking the candidate about whether his mother’s death when Sanders was just 18 years old had an impact on his forceful advocacy for Medicare for All. Sanders said it did, but he didn’t want to talk much about it. “I’m kind of a private person in a sense, and I’m not particularly anxious to tell the world everything personal about my life,” he said.
That’s not going to cut it if he wants to win the presidency.
Biden’s bio, a career in public life bookended by tragedy, is familiar to most Americans: The death of his wife and infant daughter in a car wreck in 1972, leading to him being sworn in as a senator at his son Beau’s hospital bedside; and Beau’s death from brain cancer in 2015. The line that most resonated from his hopped-up victory speech from Los Angeles on Tuesday night: “For those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign.” His flaws and missteps are evident, but often excused. Expect a fresh round of scrutiny on Biden’s getting uncomfortably handsy with women as he regains the mantle of front-runner.
Biden does bring policy meat to his stump, the incremental version of Sanders’ revolution: free community college, an expanded ‘public option’ for Obamacare, a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally and so on.
And while Biden has yet to form a clear vision of what his presidency would look like beyond a third Barack Obama term, he’s still closer to a complete picture to the public — given his close alignment with Obama.
“I think it’s more important for Sanders than Biden” to change course, says Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer. “Trump would definitely tarnish him as a frightening socialist, so you have to talk about yourself, not just your policies.”
It’s not too late: Zelizer points to President George H.W. Bush, who was known as a foreign policy leader from his time as head of the CIA and vice president, but didn’t have much of the common touch. In his 1988 presidential campaign, Zelizer says Bush was able to reframe his background as not just a family of privilege, but one committed to public service. (And, Zelizer adds, Bush effectively painted the even more wooden Democrat Michael Dukakis as someone “with no humanity at all.”)
After a head-spinning few days in this Democratic primary, there’s ample time for the race to flip again. It may well start with Sanders getting more personal.
- Daniel Malloy, OZY Author Contact Daniel Malloy