I used to think of former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic Party’s best hope to beat President Trump in 2020. As the son of a used car salesman, the Scranton, Pa., native has an avuncular style that appeals to many people in Rust Belt states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.
Biden has been known to commiserate with working-class voters over establishment elitism, telling a group of steelworkers in 2015 that he is known in Washington, D.C., as “Middle Class Joe” — a term Biden regards as disparaging code for “unsophisticated.” While some Democratic activists criticize Biden as “too old” and “too white,” it is precisely older, white voters that can help Democrats win back Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
These voters deserted Clinton in droves after she famously described half of all Trump supporters as “deplorables.”
Biden announced his third bid for president in a video released on social media last week. But rather than focus on his relatable biography or his positive vision for America, Biden went dark, focusing almost exclusively on the 2017 neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Va., that led to the death of a counter-demonstrator.
Some Democratic analysts loved the announcement video. Several even referred to it as “pitch perfect.” But it was closer to tone deaf in my view.
In focusing his announcement on the horrific Charlottesville incident and the president’s flawed response to it, Biden implied that he sees that event not as a shameful outlier, but as part of an aggressive cancer on the verge of destroying America’s soul.
“In that moment,” Biden says with misty eyes, “I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime."
Whether he views this threat as a more serious danger than World War II, Jim Crow segregation, or the spread of communism, Biden does not say.
But Biden’s message is clear: The white supremacists are on the march, and Trump and his supporters are to blame.
The tactic isn’t likely to work. While most white, working-class voters recognize that the Charlottesville protests were a blight on our national character, they resent being told that they are responsible.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Biden has suggested that anyone who chose Trump over Clinton is an enabler of hate. At the annual Human Rights Campaign dinner in Washington, D.C., in September, Biden callously referred to social conservatives as “forces of intolerance,” likening them to “virulent people” and “the dregs of society.”
Biden clearly learned nothing from Clinton’s colossal mistake.
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., by contrast, seems to have gotten the message. Moulton's announcement video, released just a few days before Biden’s, is positively Kennedy-esque.
In it, Moulton speaks eloquently of the struggles of working-class Americans who feel “forgotten” by Washington and left behind by the economy. The video is patriotic, emphasizing his military service, church, and family, while still taking on Trump — and even throwing in a jab at George W. Bush for good measure.
While he pays tribute to progressive pet causes such as the Women’s March and climate change, Moulton seems single-mindedly focused on the future rather than the past. The congressman who represents Salem, Mass., even teases Trump, suggesting that his constituents know a thing or two about actual “witch hunts.”
Moulton is known as a fiscal moderate with a willingness to buck the “establishment” Earlier this year, he unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. Well liked in military circles (he did, after all, complete four tours of duty in Iraq), Moulton is someone with crossover appeal. For any number of reasons, however, Moulton is unlikely to win. But his rollout contains hints of a winning strategy for Democrats.
Whether the Democratic Party ultimately embraces Biden’s dystopian view of America or Moulton’s more patriotic one remains to be seen. But if Democrats really view America as the dark, racist place that Biden thinks it is, then the race for the presidency may turn out to be a Democratic suicide mission.