23 Democrats Are Running for President. Do Any of Them Know What They’re Doing?

In the middle of May, the former vice president was making his maiden swing through New Hampshire. His first stop was a pizza bistro in Hampton, lunchtime on a drizzly Monday. A hundred or so bodies were jammed in, seemingly half of them New Hampshire state representatives wearing name-tag pins, many saying they had known the former vice president for years. “Good to see you, man,” Biden said, patting the shoulders of a guy in a Boston Bruins cap near the entrance.

Like the Democratic field he leads, Biden’s stump speech, at the multiple rallies where I heard it, was an unruly mess. He name-drops “Barack” a lot. The rest is a familiar-for-him mishmash: several references to his family tragedies, calls for national unity and vows to not to “get down into mud wrestling” with Trump. He had the week before called him a “no-good S.O.B.” and a “clown,” among other things.

Biden’s face tends not to move, but you sense furious activity going on behind his eyes. It is as if armies of little chipmunks are working all kinds of levers, reminding him of what notes to hit or people to mention and terms that could now run him afoul of the Woke Police. Mostly, he seems a bit rusty, stepping gingerly into a world of Twitter vigilantes that did not exist the last time he ran for president, in 2008, much less the first time, 20 years earlier, when his campaign was incinerated by a video of his lifting a speech from the British Labor leader Neil Kinnock. Flashes of hesitation crossed his face at the Hampton pizza joint. “My wife, who’s a college professor,” he said, then paused. “A junior-college professor,” he clarified, before clarifying again: “community-college professor.”

The safe candidate grabs for safe things — the parable Biden has been telling for years, for instance, which I heard again at a rally that night in Nashua, about how his father used to tell him: “Joey, a job’s about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about your place in the community, it’s about respect, it’s about being able to look your child in the eye and say, ‘Honey, it’s going to be O.K.’ and mean it.” That basic American promise is dead and needs to be restored, Biden says. The last guy won by promising a return to a mythical America that was once great; why should Biden not promise to make everything O.K. again?

If anything, Biden is banking on a lack of faith among Democratic primary voters. Trump’s election left many of them with little confidence that the general electorate could ever look beyond, say, a candidate’s unconventional gender (i.e., female) as they learned the hard way in 2016. “If this was a normal cycle, Joe would not be running,” said Terry Shumaker, a Concord attorney I met at a backyard reception for Biden in Nashua. Shumaker was wearing a “Biden for President” button that he acquired in 1987 and an official pin from when Shumaker served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. “If not for Trump, he would still be retired,” Shumaker said. “I think he feels called.”

It is frequently pointed out that Biden’s propensity for gaffes presents an even greater peril than in previous races, thanks to a vastly less forgiving social media ecosystem. But in New Hampshire, Biden said a few things that could have made mainstream headlines, and I was surprised that they did not. It made me wonder if he would actually benefit from the permission structure that the current president has enabled through his ability to get away with so much. When a woman in the crowd whom Biden called on fumed about Trump that “he is an illegitimate president in my mind,” Biden replied: “Would you be my vice-presidential candidate? Folks, look, I absolutely agree.”

Not long ago — five years or so — a former vice president signing on to the idea that the current president is “illegitimate” might have been a rather large deal. In 2019, barely anyone noticed — or they noticed much less than they did a few weeks later when the speaker of the House reportedly said she would like to see the president of the United States in prison.

It made me think of something that Marianne Williamson used to talk about when she was running for Congress in 2014, about how things that used to be considered exotic have now been incorporated into the political mainstream. “Today that fringe is baked into the cake,” Williamson told me. She might revile Donald Trump, but she also owed him for this much: In 2020, no candidate, and no idea, can safely be counted out. This is something Williamson could point out from the Democratic debate stage.

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