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Biden Must Find His Own Campaign Voice

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At around 1% in the polls, Joe Biden may look like a dark horse in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination now, but, of the whole swarm of candidates, he has the strongest potential to break out of the pack. In a field dominated by soporific speakers, he is a passionate orator--not so much the Democratic Ronald Reagan as the white Jesse Jackson. In a field of technocrats, again excepting Jackson, he is the only politician who deals in broad themes. Neither a liberal nor a conservative, he is instinctively on the right side of a far more significant divide--that between elitists and populists.

This son of a car salesman and graduate of a public university (where he was a B- student) has, as a senator from Delaware for more than a decade, moved in a world chock-a-block with Ivy Leaguers, Rhodes scholars, tony lawyers and professors by the yard, and yet little of the regnant Washington elitism has rubbed off on him. Flying over the Virginia countryside recently while giving an interview to a reporter, Biden gestured at one of the suburban Washington housing developments beneath him: “We wonder why it is that blue-collar workers, who come from a heritage that is the Democratic Party, began to leave it,” he said. “It’s because we really don’t respect them.”

A candidate with the wit to see that, and with a strong appeal to black voters as well, could heal the split in the base of the party dividing blue-collar and new-collar whites from blacks. Add a large minority of Southern whites to that mix--Biden, from a former slave state, dots his conversation with “y’alls"--and you have the stuff of which Democratic presidential victories used to be made.

A good part of Biden’s populist appeal is bound up with his charm, the dirty little secret of many an American success. Biden, then age 29, was elected to his first term as a senator not because he knew more than his opponent--he nearly flunked out of law school, which he calls the “biggest bore in the world"--but because he is likable, with his ready smile and his facile, self-deprecating wit. These are often winning credentials in the age of the other-directed personality.

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Inevitably the rap on Biden is that he is all charm and no substance--"a great first date,” in columnist Mark Shield’s phrase. “Despite almost 14 years in the Senate,” the Sunday News Journal of Wilmington, Del., wrote last year, “Biden has not established a political identity and has never made a mark on national affairs.”

Biden himself admits that his first term was a washout; his wife and one of his children were killed in an automobile crash just after his election, and he was too preoccupied with grief and looking after his surviving children to be an effective senator. In his second term, however, he took hold, especially on arms-control issues. Significantly, he also sponsored a measure that would restrict court-ordered busing. He was against busing, he said, because it didn’t work and because it threatened, as a National Journal writer put it, to destroy “the consensus on civil rights within the white middle class that permitted progress” for blacks.

Busing is a totem of the juridical liberalism that fractured the base of the Democratic Party, so Biden’s sponsorship of that bill (it failed by two votes) was a sign of both his keen political instinct and a social imagination--a sense of the real-life consequences of government action that is rare in Washington.

Biden says that he wants to be President not to head a government but to lead this society--to use the office as a bully pulpit on behalf of . . . well, just what still remains unclear. The muzzy shape of a Biden presidency--how would he cut the deficit? what would he do to restore America’s economic competitiveness? to rationalize the farm economy?--is among Biden’s salient weaknesses as a serious candidate. Michael Dukakis, Bruce Babbitt, Richard Gephardt, Albert Gore Jr.--these men not only have position papers on the issues, they also talk like position papers. To the degree that Biden follows suit and commits himself on a tough issue--for or against new taxes, say--the magic of his rhetoric will begin to wear off.

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Biden is good at what Mario Cuomo calls the poetry of campaigning, but he’s pitted against a primary election field long on the prose of government, and the conventional wisdom is that, after eight years of presidential poetry, the voters want a season of prose in 1988. For Joe Biden, Ronald Reagan may be the wrong act to follow.

Biden’s other big weakness is the advice that he’s getting from one of his strategists, the crafty and dangerous Patrick Caddell, the Che Guevara of Democratic primary campaigns. Caddell, 37, is urging Biden, 44, to run as a generational candidate. That didn’t work for Gary Hart, to whom Caddell sold the same advice in 1984, and my guess is that it won’t work for Biden, either. It’s too narrow, too cultural, an appeal.

The theme speech that Caddell reportedly wrote for Biden (and that he has been delivering to mixed notices) works on the emotions in a transparently manipulative way. With its mantra-like repetition of the word generation , it reads like something put together by an image-maker, however sincere it may sound coming out of Joe Biden’s mouth.

The generational appeal is the political equivalent of Brie--it’s strictly for the upper-middle-class nostalgics. Where the speech is strongest is not in its ritualistic invocation of the ‘60s--"When we marched, we did not march for a 14-point program and a white paper"--but in its anti-Establishment populism, its feeling for the little guy and against “the elites in Washington” who “share a conceit that they and they alone are the best-equipped to resolve the choices facing America.”

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The populist message, the concern for the lot of the ordinary American family, has a wide resonance. The test of this campaign for Joe Biden will be whether he can free himself from the ministrations of millionaire political consultants and find his own true voice as the tribune of the broad, and increasingly beleaguered, American middle class.


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