(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This might be a good moment in history for an eminence grise to preside over a caretaker presidency. The country is bitterly divided, and the atmosphere will soon grow more poisoned. (If Donald Trump’s re-election campaign isn’t the most vicious in U.S. history, it will not be for lack of effort.) Democrats are conflicted about the direction of their party and how to defend the rule of law from the depredations of Trump and his enablers. Meantime, an insurgent wing of the party, led by Senator Bernie Sanders, has an appetite for conspiracy theories that often aids and abets Trump’s disinformation.
When he entered the Democratic primary for president, former vice president Joe Biden offered himself as an elder statesman, an experienced hand who could calm such roiling waters. Few Americans have been in public life as long as Biden, who was elected to the U.S. Senate five decades ago at age 29. His service to Barack Obama, the most admired Democrat, has accrued political capital; Biden had a bank of residual goodwill upon which to draw, and a coterie of smart, experienced advisers.
Eminence grise, however, is not a job you get to claim. Others must bestow the honor upon you. In Iowa this week, the Biden campaign learned that the laurels got lost somewhere along the trail.
So on Wednesday morning, inside the 1899 Ballroom & Function Hall in the small town of Somersworth, New Hampshire, Biden vowed not to preside and soothe but to fight. “I’m gonna fight for this nomination. I’m gonna fight in New Hampshire,” he said. He also acknowledged that he had just lost a big bout. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it: We took a gut punch in Iowa,” he said.
At the mention of “gut punch,” the journalists in attendance lurched in unison toward their keyboards, understanding that Biden’s line was the definitive capstone on a bruising defeat in which he finished fourth. Campaign reporters sense weakness, and they’re writing about it.
There were also demonstrations of strength. The mayor who introduced Biden called him a “visionary leader,” a bit of campaign hyperbole to bolster flagging spirits. A representative from the firefighters’ union said, “Joe Biden has been nothing short of our hero.” And Biden himself announced that he had received the endorsement of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
But signs of fatigue and listlessness abounded. Biden’s herky-jerky performance varied moment to moment, depending on his emotional energy or, perhaps, on his physical stamina. He is the least dynamic of the septuagenarians in the race, lacking Elizabeth Warren’s uncanny electricity, Sanders’ revolutionary zeal or Trump’s venom-fueled vitality.(1)
While he took a few swings at Democratic rivals, noting the slippery record of one unnamed candidate (Sanders) on gun regulation, and defending the Obama administration’s achievements against Pete Buttigieg’s generic attacks on “Washington,” Biden didn’t look like he was eager to go 12 rounds anytime soon. He took no questions from the audience and promptly disappeared from the campaign trail.
At Friday’s New Hampshire debate, Biden began the night not by fighting for the state but by conceding it. “I took a hit in Iowa” he told moderator George Stephanopoulos,“and I’ll probably take a hit here.” FiveThirtyEight has him battling Warren for third place in New Hampshire, which votes Tuesday.
At the Somersworth event, I saw only one African American face in a crowd of a couple hundred people. Black voters nonetheless dominated the space in absentia. Biden, the regular Joe tapped by Obama in 2008 as an emissary to working-class whites, is counting on strong support from black voters in South Carolina, where the primary is Feb. 29, to revive his campaign. A thumping in New Hampshire following the one in Iowa would surely test the faith of voters there. If Biden proves no more convincing as fighter than he did as eminence grise, an unsettled, and for many Democrats, unsettling, contest will be disrupted anew.
(1) Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
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Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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