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Opinion | Michael A. Cohen

For voters at Biden rally, it’s personality over politics

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a rally in Philadelphia onuring a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a rally in Philadelphia onuring a campaign rally at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)(Matt Rourke/AP)

“The single most important thing we have to accomplish is defeat Donald Trump.” With those words, on a picture perfect day in downtown Philadelphia on Saturday, former vice president Joe Biden made the strongest possible case for why he should be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020. It’s not that other Democrats don’t see beating Trump as the party’s number one priority, it’s that Biden is positioning himself as the Democrat best able to do it.

While other Democrats have focused on their policies and plans if they win the White House in 2020, Biden made it clear that he believes progress in America can only come when Trump is back to being a private citizen. So rather than debating the finer points of the Green New Deal, Biden said to raucous applaue, “if you want to know what the first and most important plank in my climate proposal is — beat Trump.”

It was a message that resonated. According to Wendy Meyer, a Philadelphia resident who called herself a progressive and views Biden as a traditional centrist, “I think we have to accept evolution rather than revolution. Sometimes you want to blow things, but from a practical standpoint the most important thing is to end this administration.”

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For Janet Stokes, a resident of the Philly suburbs, electability was also her number one consideration. “I think we need more of a centrist — someone who can appeal to people who voted for Obama and then did not vote for Hillary.”

Over and over, voters, who increasingly seem to fashion themselves as pundits, offered tepid support for Biden the man. When I asked one woman what she thought of his speech, she said, “It’s an improvement over the current administration,” which was one of the least enthusiastic responses to a campaign event that I’ve ever heard.

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There was far more effusive praise for Biden the symbol — the man who they seem convinced can remove Trump from power. As another woman from Biden’s hometown of Scranton said to me, “I’m here because we have an incompetent, dishonest leader . . . and clearly [Biden] is the one who can win and I’m here for anyone who can win.”

In general, voters tend to talk more about personality than policies, but it was striking how skewed the balance was tilted toward the former.

Indeed, Biden’s speech reflects his current position among the other two dozen Democrats running for president – long on platitudes and short on specifics. And at a time when Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and other Democrats are running around the country pledging to “fight” the Republicans and Trump, Biden is taking a different approach.

“Our politics has become so mean, so petty, so negative, so partisan, so angry, and so unproductive,” he told the crowd. “Instead of debating our opponents, we demonize them . . . Our politicians, our politics today, traffics in division, and our president is the divider in chief.”

To the cynic who might argue that the nation’s politics has become so divided and so polarized that compromise and working across the aisle is impossible, Biden was dismissive.

“I know how to make government work,” Biden said. He reminded voters that “compromise is not a dirty word” and said “the country is sick of the division . . . sick of the fighting . . . sick of the childish behavior.”

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Biden even cited former president Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan — and his own role in finding three Republicans to support the bill — as an example of bipartisan legislating.

The problem with this history is that two of those who voted for it were Maine’s moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and the other, Arlen Specter, switched sides and became a Democrat later that year. Every House Republican voted against the legislation. If this is a shining example of bipartisan compromise in Washington, it’s a pretty a lousy one – and it obscures the fact that getting three GOP senators to support Democratic legislation was the exception not the rule during the Obama years.

But the facts of Washington gridlock are largely lost on Biden’s supporters. Woke Democrats may view Biden’s message as naïve and out-of-touch, but for many Democratic partisans, a pledge to move past the rancor of the Trump years is what they want to hear.

For John Smith, Biden’s message that “we need to be united” was touching. “I think he can reach everybody,” Smith told me. “It’s not a question of beating the other side up, it’s a question of bringing us all into the decision-making.”

But it was his wife Susan who put best put the dilemma that many Democrats feel. “I am so wanting a woman to be president,” she said, “but I abhor Trump so much I will go with anyone who can beat him and who is really electable.”

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If Biden ends up the nominee in 2020, it will likely be because such practical considerations have won the day.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears reguarly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.