Debate Prep: Can Uncle Joe Close?

Things are looking pretty, pretty, pretty good for Mr. Biden. After 9 months of tripping and stumbling his way through the campaign, it’s clear he never fell. More than a few candidate strategies were based on picking up the pieces after his inevitable demise. Most of those candidates will be watching him from home Tuesday night.

FiveThirtyEight thinks he’s the most likely nominee. He’s (sometimes by a thread) leading the Real Clear Politics average in each of the first four states. Kamala Harris swung at him in a debate. He’s standing, she’s home. Julian Castro called him senile in another debate. Biden’s standing, Castro will cheer Elizabeth Warren from backstage. He’s still leading Donald Trump in most national general election surveys, and doing better than his competitors in the key swing states. If he does nothing new or different, Biden might well find himself taking an oath on the Capitol steps next January.

Emphasis on might. He’s got about a 40% chance of winning the nomination. I think Trump is 50/50ish to win in November. If you figure Biden is his strongest competitor, maybe you say he’d have a 60% chance against him. Forty percent x Sixty percent equals 24%. Biden has a 1:4 chance of being president next year. Those are the best odds of anyone not named Donald Trump, but odds are even better he’ll have his choice of watching at home, or gritting his teeth in the VIP seats for ex-presidents and ex-vice presidents.

At various times in the fall, like after Ukraine happened, it seemed wise for Biden to take a stronger, more daring stand in a debate. As you know, he didn’t. And he was none the worse for it. He doesn’t regret waiting. His team doesn’t regret waiting. But I think now is the time to swing.

He’s right there in Iowa. Close enough to win. Not far enough ahead to be anywhere near safe. Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg all have more volunteers, energy, and ground presence. However, Sanders and Warren will spend a lot of the time between now and caucus day in the Senate chamber, attending the impeachment trial with fellow candidate Amy Klobuchar.

A winning debate followed by another good bus tour and Biden is a clear favorite in Iowa. The minute he wins Iowa, he’s not just the most likely to win the nomination, he’s better than 50/50. And going on offense here is good preparation for slugging his way through a fall campaign.

In the first debate, Biden wasn’t ready for the heat. In the second one he was, but still took some incoming. The third time he was ready to contrast himself with Sanders/Warren on Medicare for All. If Biden wins the nomination, in retrospect, this was a turning point. At a minimum, it put Warren on the defensive, led to her hedging and satisfying nobody. At the time this happened, she had a potential to unify the party in a way more difficult for Biden or Sanders.

Since then, Biden has faded into the background and let other, more desperate, candidates slug it out. That opportunity likely exists again. Warren will go after Sanders. She’ll call him a hypocrite for saying he won’t say bad things about his competitors and then having his campaign give out anti-Warren talking points. Bernie will get huffy about it. She desperately needs to finish ahead of him in Iowa. He’s more popular in New Hampshire. His advantage is even more in Nevada. South Carolina is bad for her. You get the idea.

Klobuchar is at 6 to 8% in Iowa polls. That’s half of what she needs to keep her supporters at the various caucus precincts. Her support hasn’t moved appreciably in the past 30-45 days, which doesn’t work if you’re trying to make a late surge. Mayor Pete is right in her way. She’s attacked him before and will definitely do so again.

Buttigieg is right on the precipice. He’s dropped back a bit from his November highs, but a good night and he can still win Iowa. His New Hampshire data indicates an Iowa win makes him a strong contender there too. A lot of voters like him, and he has the lowest negatives of the Top Four. But he’s the newest, and his support isn’t the most solid. He’s also sitting there as a good contrast for Biden if he so chooses.

Tom Steyer will be there too. He’s not yet able to really throw punches. It’s not his nature and it takes practice. He also isn’t a factor in Iowa. Biden can worry about him before Nevada if necessary. There are two key issues where the former Veep can distinguish himself:

Iran. Over the past week, Biden was the most measured in his response to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, and the most encouraging of the mini-uprising against the Iranian regime. It’s the moderate position. The old, wise hand position. Voters who are still mad he voted for the Iraq War almost two decades ago aren’t going to support him anyway. Every other candidate has sounded one way, Trump completely the opposite, and Biden about 3/4 of the way toward the Democrats. That’s a perfect spot for him.

This will come up no matter what. If Biden is really serious about closing, you’ll know it when he mentions his son Beau, who served in Iraq a few years before Buttigieg was in Afghanistan. While Mayor Pete’s service is very admirable, and few in his socioeconomic class chose to do so, he was there less than a year. He wasn’t in a senior command position, and didn’t do the multiple tours many others did. Again, not minimizing his decision, but over the past few weeks, he’s leaned extremely heavily on this as a major foreign policy credential.

By referencing Beau, Joe can remind voters of the sacrifices his family has made over the years, remind them Hunter wasn’t his only son, and put his son on the same level as Buttigieg, effectively knocking him down a peg, without needing to do so overtly. Also, when Biden talks about his family, it works. I feel crass typing this, but that old saying about politics not being beanbag applies here. He needs to make the Mayor go away, and if a few extra voters feel safer with the old man instead of the young man when the world seems scary, it’s worth it.

Ukraine. This all started because Donald Trump is afraid of Joe Biden. Which happens to be the best possible thing for Joe Biden to discuss in the debate right ahead of the Iowa Caucus. The supposed trap is Hunter Biden. That even if Joe did nothing wrong, and Hunter technically did nothing wrong, it looks and smells bad. I think Biden should go all-in on this. Especially if he’s already discussed Beau, the audience is reminded there was a “good” son. He should remind everyone how scared Trump is. Remind them that fear caused Trump to commit impeachable offenses.

Then someone will bring up Hunter as a liability. Ideally it’s a moderator, but if an opponent, that’s fine. They’ll mention that Trump is full of graft, has enriched his children, but Biden is in a worse position to attack the incumbent on that issue. At which point he says “I’ll put my children up against Trump’s children, any time, any place, under any conditions.” It’s the sort of combative Joe voters need to see to convince them he can go the distance. Not all voters will love this, but again, they weren’t caucusing for him anyway.

Once this is done, Biden can go back to taking relatively moderate positions and representing himself as the safe, steady, measured choice for the rest of the debate. Voters are worried Buttigieg won’t be tough enough against Trump. They question his experience and electability. This combination gets most voters on the fence between the two (liking Pete better, but worrying) to go to Joe.

Given that neither the 2003 Iraq war vote, nor Hunter Biden’s time on the Burisma board are going away and Trump will spend hundreds of millions reminding persuadable voters about this, it’s time for Joe to lean in and show strength and determination. A good close in the debate will lead to a good close in Iowa, and a cascade of positive events for the Biden campaign.

If something goes awry, it’s hard for me to see how that leaves him much harmed. His core base of support, those waiting for him in Nevada, and even more in South Carolina, will forgive damn near anything, and may well appreciate the attempt, even if he doesn’t land his punch. Biden isn’t finished if he loses Iowa, and even New Hampshire, but the upside is huge.

Go for it Joe!

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