The thing about Joe Biden, as the all-important, ultimately trivial Iowa caucuses loom, is that hardly anybody seriously dislikes him. Not really. Oh, it’s possible to find dissenters here and there, mainly people who affix slogans such as “neo-liberal” and who think that people who disagree with their opinions must be stupid and immoral.
“Deplorables,” if you will.
But most voters respond warmly to the former vice president. And they like Biden in large part because he appears to like them back. Writing in The Atlantic, Johns Hopkins political scientist Yascha Mounk puts it this way: “Maybe it’s not that voters prefer the candidate they would rather have a beer with; maybe they prefer the candidate who would rather have a beer with them.”
Biden appears to like almost everybody. When campaigning, he has to be restrained from hugging total strangers. He whispers in voters’ ears, listens to their confidences, takes down phone numbers, promises to call them back, and then actually follows through.
Sure, he sounds like a throwback, as Timothy Egan points out, with his talk of “record players and malarkey and pushup challenges.”
Indeed, Biden strongly reminds me of my late father, an Irish-Catholic working stiff from the Northeast with an assertive personality and a terrific smile. “Malarkey” was one of his favorite words, Irish-American slang dating to the 1920s. It basically means “nonsense.”
Or “donkey dust,” another phrase he liked.
However, if my father were alive, he’d be 108. So yes, as I’ve written previously, Joe Biden’s too old to be president. And so is Bernie Sanders. Some people think Biden’s lost a step. But then it’s not my decision, is it?
(As for pushup challenges: Donald J. Trump couldn’t do even one. He’d need a forklift to get back to his feet.)
Anyway, here’s the thing: The whole state of Iowa is a throwback, not to mention its outsized role in our absurd, anachronistic way of choosing presidential candidates. From the Mississippi to the Missouri, it’s populated by rural and small-town Midwestern communities of a kind they aren’t making anymore: approximately 91% white.
As somebody who until quite recently lived down a gravel road in a county with more cows than people, I’ve no issues with the hayseed lifestyle. Indeed, I prefer it. But it’s not much like today’s America.
Maybe that’s a good thing right now. See, Iowa’s a lot like Minnesota, Wisconsin and large parts of Michigan – crucial Midwestern swing states Democrats need to win to prevent Trump from slipping back into the White House on another Russian-sponsored Electoral College fluke.
Biden’s cornball folksiness plays with Iowa voters precisely because it’s real – a quality shared by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who would be my candidate if I had one. (I’ve never participated in politics at any level.) She too comes across as what my wife calls “real people.”
Klobuchar makes me smile. I like her self-deprecating humor, even if she’s said to have a temper. Her memoir is called “The Senator Next Door.” I like how Klobuchar talks about politics – putting together coalitions and passing bills – as opposed to bickering about the details of plans that have zero chance of being enacted by Congress.
She wins counties Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton didn’t.
I like it that Klobuchar’s a wiseguy who made crybaby Brett Kavanaugh look foolish when he tried to engage her on the subject of blackout drinking. She’d eat Trump alive in a debate.
Everything else being equal, a Biden/Klobuchar ticket would be hard to beat, if somewhat blindingly white, ergo highly improbable.
Reporters covering Iowa have found Democratic voters in a distinctly pragmatic mood. According to The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer: “Strategists say they have been surprised by how fluid voters in Iowa have been in moving between candidates with very different ideological profiles.”
That’s certainly how Democrats I know are thinking. In what most see as an existential crisis for our democracy, they’re feeling more practical than ideological. The big question isn’t who can describe a platonically perfect health care plan, but who can win?
Based upon his attempts to frame Biden in Ukraine, the president evidently fears him. And with war looming against Iran, it may also be significant that a November 2019 poll found that Biden was most trusted by Democrats to handle foreign policy by 48%, to Bernie Sanders’ 14%.
But for now, it’s all about Iowa, more like the opening game of the season than the World Series.
Then it’s on to New Hampshire, 93% white, Boston suburbanites many of them, with a history of saddling the party with liberal idealists unelectable outside New England.
And then come Nevada, South Carolina and the rest in rapid succession, as this seemingly interminable Democratic primary season ends rather more suddenly than many of us may be prepared for.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at [email protected]