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OPINION | Warren G. Biden might win in ’20

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WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Toby Paone isn’t floored by the speech Joe Biden has just delivered to the Iowa State Education Association.  A staffer at the ISEA, the state’s largest public union, Mr. Paone ranks Mr. Biden’s performance fourth out of the four candidates who’ve spoken — behind Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. But that hasn’t shaken his support for the former vice president.

“This is not, for me, simply about a 15-minute speech that he’s had to give 80 times in the last two weeks,” Mr. Paone says. “This is about history. It’s about a whole career. And I think he can win.” As a voter, his priority isn’t necessarily big structural change, to borrow a rival candidate’s phrase. “Plans are great,” he says. But what he wants most is a “mature adult” in the Oval Office: “I want stability. I want our country to return to normalcy, as was said exactly 100 years ago. I’m not a very emotional person, but Donald Trump boils my blood.”

Mr. Biden might not be flattered by the comparison to the winner of the 1920 election, Warren G. Harding, who promised a “return to normalcy” after World War I. Today Harding is best remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal, for showing up on worst-president lists alongside James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, and for his spicy love letters that were unsealed in 2014. Still, Mr. Biden has made normalcy — and electability — his central selling point. “None of this matters unless we beat Donald Trump,” he tells the union crowd, “and I’m going to beat Donald Trump if I’m your nominee.”

If primary voters do pick Mr. Biden, it would run counter to more than one political stereotype. The old cliché is that Democrats like to “fall in love” with a fresh-faced candidate: the honest peanut farmer from Georgia, the charismatic saxophonist from Arkansas, the stirring orator from Illinois. The new cliché is that they’re obsessed with identity politics. Yet this year they might settle on a 77year-old white man who arrived in Washington in 1973, whose 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns fizzled, and whose verbal stumbles last year led many pundits to write him off.

So far, the pundits appear to have been wrong. In the past year Mr. Biden has never fallen below 25 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls. Only one other candidate, Ms. Warren, has ever surpassed that mark, and it was during a single week in October. Here in Iowa, whose first-in-the nation caucuses are Feb. 3, Mr. Biden leads by about four points, with 21 percent, and he boasts endorsements from former Gov. Tom Vilsack and Rep. Abby Finkenauer of Dubuque. Running second, both nationally and in the Hawkeye State, is Bernie Sanders, another white male septuagenarian.

At the ISEA conference, there’s no Joe paraphernalia in sight, unless you count the framed Obama-Biden campaign poster at the silent auction, which is bid up to $125. Many of the attendees are dressed in matching blue “Strong Public Schools” T-shirts, making it easy to spot the mint-green Elizabeth Warren stickers. A few gold flashes advertise “Boot Edge Edge,” as Mr. Buttigieg has sloganized his pronunciation guide.

In person, Mr. Biden is more poised than during those TV debates that run until 11 p.m. Like the old pro he is, he hams it up for the crowd. As the introduction notes that he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, he theatrically lifts his right hand to trace the sign of the cross, before flashing a wry smile.

Then he introduces himself: “I’m Jill Biden’s husband, Joe” — a good line for this audience. Mrs. Biden, an English professor, holds a doctorate in education and once taught high school. President Biden will stand up for teachers in the White House, the candidate vows: “If I didn’t do it, I’ll be sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom. Hah — you all think I’m kidding. I’m not.”

He says he’ll get teachers a “generous raise,” appoint one as his education secretary, and triple funding for Title I schools (those with high concentrations of poverty). “We’re going to get serious about the tragedy of gun violence,” he says. “Talk about moral depravity: Our kids go to school, you send them off to school this September, and they’ll learn how to duck and cover.”

A few hours later Mr. Biden is 25 miles southeast at Simpson College, a liberal-arts school in Indianola. There are roughly 150 chairs and probably twice as many people, circled in a dim hall above the campus dining center. Kedron Bardwell, a professor of political science here, describes himself as a moderate ex-Republican who can’t bear Mr. Trump. “He’s taken the party in every direction that I thought was wrong for the party,” Mr. Bardwell says. Now he’s not sure what to do, but he sees Mr. Biden’s appeal, as a figure offering “that return to normalcy, that idea that things can’t stay this way, this divided.”

The event opens with the Pledge of Allegiance, and then Mr. Biden argues that America’s Trumpified politics has lost its decency. He calls back to the 1970s, when Democrats and Republicans “argued like the devil” but also broke bread together in the Senate dining room. “Our politics today has become so personal, so dirty, so divisive, that it’s virtually impossible, it seems, to get anything done,” he laments. “Unless we start to work together, the system can’t work.”

Today, Mr. Biden adds, compromising has been replaced by demonizing. “Look what this president’s done,” he says, “from the time that he got elected. He came down the escalator in his building in New York City, Trump Tower, announcing his presidency. He said I’m running because I want to get rid of those Mexican rapists.”

Mr. Biden calls for empathy, citing his experience as a young boy who stuttered. “Everybody thinks you’re stupid,” he says. “You learn what bullies are really like. And, you

know, it’s awful hard to ask the lovely girl, ‘Would you g-go-g-g go-g-go to the dance with me?’ ” His parents didn’t tolerate such mockery, and neither, Mr. Biden implies, should voters. “We have to re-establish basic American values — Iowa values,” he says. “Think about how we talk about one another, how in politics the president talks about people. Our children are listening.”

In 2015, when his son Beau died of cancer at 46, Mr. Biden thought he was through with politics. Then neo-Nazis went marching in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. “Close your eyes,” he says, “remember what you saw on television: The veins on their necks, contorted, bulging, their faces contorted, preaching and shouting the same anti-Semitic bile that was chanted in the streets of Europe in the late ’20s and early ’30s.” Mr. Trump’s comments afterward appalled Mr. Biden: “Remember? He said there were ‘very fine people on both sides.’ ” (He also said there were “very bad people,” as the president’s supporters would counter.) Mr. Biden says he wants to “restore the soul of America” and “unite the country.” Toward the end of his talk, he acknowledges skeptics: “They say ‘Joe Biden’s been around a long time, but he’s really naive. You can’t unite the country.’ ” He disagrees. “I think the American public is ready,” he says. “This carny show has come through town once, and they found out with Trump there’s no pea under any one of the three shells.”

As Mr. Biden pitches decency to the center, though, his agenda has moved steadily to the left. So far he’s proposed $3.4 trillion in tax increases over 10 years, twice as much as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. A Catholic, Mr. Biden spent decades in the Senate supporting the Hyde Amendment, which blocks taxpayer funding of abortions, and his 2007 memoir called it “personal principle above expediency.” But progressives want Hyde gone, and last summer Mr. Biden switched positions in a matter of hours as he geared up his presidential campaign.

On health care, Mr. Biden portrays himself as a centrist who rejects the government insurance takeover that his rivals have styled Medicare for All. “One of the leading candidates” — presumably Ms. Warren or Mr. Sanders, though collegially no names are mentioned — “said I’m not going to tell you what it costs, because it’s confusing,” Mr. Biden says at Simpson College. He leans in, eyes wide, enunciating each syllable: “Thirty. Five. Trillion. Dollars over 10 years. Hear me?” A voice in the crowd murmurs an astonished “wow.”

Mr. Biden says he appreciates the intention of Medicare for All. “The point I’m making is that there’s ways to get these things done, and to do them in a rational way that the American people are ready to accept.” Yet his alternative won’t be enacted by acclamation, and it hardly hews to Warren Harding’s line that Americans need “not experiment, but equipoise.” Mr. Biden wants to put price controls on prescription drugs. He wants to launch a “public option,” meaning a government health plan that competes with private insurers. “I take ObamaCare and do what Barack and I wanted to do in the first place,” he says. “We couldn’t get the votes to get it done.”

But what’s changed? Back then Democrats held a 60-vote Senate majority. Ten years later that has dwindled to a 47-vote minority. Does Mr. Biden think many Republicans will support his public option? What would he be willing to give up in a compromise? Or does he now want to kill the filibuster, meaning BidenCare could pass with the simple majority that he expects his coattails to carry to the Capitol? If so, doesn’t that sound a little...divisive?

And what about the unpredictable politics of his son Hunter’s Ukraine business? Some Democrats think Mr. Trump’s attacks are helping Mr. Biden in the primary, since Democrats don’t believe them and instead rally around the president’s targets. Others worry the tale will let Mr. Trump depict Mr. Biden as a swamp creature, the way he did in 2016 to “Crooked Hillary.” Nominees deemed “electable” —Mrs. Clinton, John Kerry, Mitt Romney — don’t always win.

There’s a 15-minute Q& A, but nobody asks these questions.

Then the campaign’s pump-up music starts, and Mr. Biden is off to work the rope line. As he shakes hands and takes grinning selfies—at last, as the candidate on top, after nearly 50 years of climbing — Jackie Wilson’s voice purrs over the loudspeaker that your love keeps lifting him higher. Higher and higher.

To hear some Democrats, however, if Mr. Biden rises to the highest office in the land, it won’t be because of love. “I don’t know anyone that’s like super passionate about Joe Biden,” says Tyler Higgs, a school psychologist wearing Elizabeth Warren swag at the ISEA conference. “It’s more like he’s the default candidate. But, you know, I mean he’s not a bad choice.”

So sure, if Mr. Biden makes it to November, Mr. Higgs would pull that lever in a heartbeat. “We’ve got Donald Trump on the other side,” he says. “I would vote for a left shoe if it was the Democratic nominee.”

Mr. Peterson is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

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