Jumping Joe seems more confident in front of audiences here, but he knows the fall could come on Tuesday.
Joe Biden in New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
CONCORD, N.H. – Joe Biden can play the hits. Speaking to 200 or so patient Granite Staters in a union hall last night, the former vice president invoked Barack Obama sparingly. But he otherwise pulled his listeners back three years, even 10, to the halcyon days of Democrats in the White House, international respect, and a modicum of political civility. With a wry smile, Biden told the crowd, “It’s good to be back in New Hampshire…more than you know.” His disastrous fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses chaos acknowledged, Biden returned to familiar ground.
Biden promises two things: he’s not Donald Trump and he’ll be a steady hand on the tiller of state. He invoked Obamacare, the Brady gun control bill, and reaching across the aisle, using Charlottesville, gun violence, and the general nastiness of the current president as convenient foils. He vowed to rejoin the Paris climate accord on his first day in the White House.
The centrist crouch, that Audacity of Nope that so galls progressive Democrats, got its innings. Biden attacked Bernie Sanders explicitly and Elizabeth Warren implicitly over the cost of Medicare for All. In a near-verbatim imitation of Hillary Clinton’s debate jabs at Sanders in 2016, Biden billed himself as a man who could turn “progressive plans…into progress.” “How” is the operative word for Biden.
In a thinly veiled shot at his most callow challenger, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Biden warned the crowd that the presidency afforded “no time for on-the-job training.” One had to be “ready on day one…to command the world stage.”
And command it is what Biden intends to do. The foreign policy failures of the Obama administration, manifested in hundreds of Libyan militias and millions of starving Yemenis, have made little impact on his views. “The world,” Biden warned, “is not self-organizing.” Somewhere in his Brookings jungle, Robert Kagan was smiling.
There were no odd moments, no stuttering or faltering. Biden spoke with clarity and conviction, though of course he drew the most applause from a rote Vladimir Putin condemnation, our inescapable Cold War 2.0. Biden handled a lone Second Amendment heckler with aplomb, using the asinine assertion, beloved by the late lamented Beto O’Rourke, that the only way to protect yourself from your government was with “an F-15.”
Steve Shurtleff, speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, told the crowd that a poll that very day, from Manchester’s Saint Anselm College, had Biden tied for first in New Hampshire. True enough—but the other six new polls from Monday and Tuesday mostly show Sanders with comfortable if not commanding leads.
Biden later insisted that “I like my chances” and that he has “nothing to come back from.” The reality is that he got off easy on Monday. The chaos and ineptitude in Iowa (more results pending any minute!) helped to mute the story of Biden’s horrible fourth-place finish. Currently sitting at 15.6 percent after being projected to be the runner-up in the Hawkeye State, Biden’s front-runner narrative rings hollow. Electability, despite the lesson of 2016, remains Biden’s best case for the nomination. A second embarrassment in New Hampshire would endanger if not cripple his plans to build a firewall in Nevada or South Carolina. He also has far less cash on hand than Sanders, Warren, or Buttigieg.
Perhaps Biden will make an improbable stand in the Granite State and this jostling Democratic pack will again reshuffle. Far more likely is another humbling finish and a looming knife fight among the three Bs (Biden, Buttigieg, and Michael Bloomberg) for the centrist mantle against the dreaded Sanders.
Despite the understandable rage of some of his most online supporters, the Iowa debacle actually turned out reasonably well for Sanders. Biden’s fall and Buttigieg’s rise crowds the centrist lane, preventing the Democratic establishment—and the supposed moderate mass of Democratic voters—from coalescing around one candidate. It is easy to envision Sanders, with unprecedented low-dollar donations, energized activists, and a very high floor of support, taking the 2016 Trump path to the nomination: winning primary after primary with fairly low percentages, while the party is unable to pick one clear leader to oppose him.
The one real negative: turnout in Iowa, as Sanders himself was the first to admit, wasn’t much higher than normal. The Sanders revolution is premised on massively increased turnout among young voters and the disenfranchised, especially in the Midwestern states that Trump flipped. Iowa’s turnout, which roughly matched that of 2016, does not appear to be encouraging news for Sanders and his sans-culottes.
Gil Barndollar is a New Hampshire native and a fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.