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Politics

Column: Joe Biden could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan
President Reagan in 1987, near the end of his second term.

Joe Biden took another step toward locking up the Democratic nomination on Tuesday. His lead in delegates has begun to look insurmountable.

But now the presidential race enters uncharted territory due to the coronavirus crisis. Tuesday’s three primaries may be the last large campaign gatherings for a month or more; at least five other states are postponing their primaries.

The normal rituals of a campaign — giant rallies, town meetings, barnstorming tours — have been canceled. The Democratic and Republican political conventions, scheduled for July and August, may be next.

So what should Biden do? Here’s my advice.

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One: Be presidential.

Biden is best when he contrasts himself with President Trump. His strong suit is his eight years as President Obama’s vice president — but he has to answer for old votes from his 36 years in the Senate before that.

His strongest moment in his one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders on Sunday was his crisp answer on how he would address the coronavirus crisis as president.

“First of all, I have to take care of those who, in fact, are exposed or likely to be exposed to the virus, and that means we have to do testing,” he said. “Secondly, I would make sure that every state in the union had at least 10 places where they had drive-through testing arrangements. I would also, at this point, deal with the need to begin to plan for the need for additional hospital beds…. But we have to deal with the economic fallout quickly, and that means making sure the people who in fact lose their job, don’t get a paycheck, can’t pay their mortgage, are able to pay it.”

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David Axelrod, Obama’s former political strategist, has often been critical of Biden’s campaign, but he pronounced that answer “sensational.”

“He sounded like a guy who knew how to handle it,” Axelrod said.

In the weeks ahead, expect Biden to praise the Trump administration’s actions to stem the epidemic when they work, but draw clear differences on Trump’s economic response.

Two: Reach out to Sanders and his voters.

The race for the nomination isn’t over unless Sanders drops out. The Vermont senator has every right to compete for votes, especially with primaries on hold in New York, Ohio, Georgia and other states.

But that shouldn’t stop Biden and Sanders from reconciling. In Sunday’s debate, Sanders was uncharacteristically restrained in his critiques of Biden’s positions. At one point, he even said Biden’s “heart is in the right place.”

Biden, on the other hand, criticized Sanders’ “Medicare for All” healthcare plan and pointed out that a single-payer system in Italy hasn’t coped well with the coronavirus epidemic.

He might have been better served by emphasizing what he and Sanders have in common — a commitment to universal healthcare, for example.

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Biden’s aides argue that even though he’s a moderate Democrat, his platform is more progressive than any previous Democratic nominees, including Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Like Sanders, Biden wants to impose big tax increases on the wealthy — although not as big. Like Sanders, he wants to make college tuition-free for most families, although Biden’s plan has an income cap of $125,000.

Sanders’ healthcare plan would go further than Biden’s by abolishing private insurance. Biden would allow private plans to continue, but launch a federal plan that anyone could join.

Those differences are deep, but not unbridgeable. Each candidate has said he will support whoever wins the nomination.

Three: Even without rallies, a candidate can make news.

In Sunday’s debate, Biden grabbed headlines by promising to choose a woman as his running mate.

The betting among political strategists is that Biden is most likely to choose Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who ran strongly in New Hampshire, dropped out of the race after South Carolina, and endorsed the former vice president quickly enough to help him win in Minnesota. Her positions are close to Biden’s, and she’s thought to have some appeal to white voters in the swing states of the Upper Midwest.

Finally, get plenty of rest.

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This year’s campaign has produced the mystery of the two Joe Bidens.

He’s long been a gaffe machine, prone to stumble over his words or make an impolitic remark. He’s been especially tongue-tied in debates with lots of candidates shouting to be heard — but there won’t be any more of those.

But he also can be forceful and crisp. He can even be eloquent, as he was in his victory speeches after South Carolina and Super Tuesday. He rarely stumbles in interviews or impromptu exchanges with reporters — as I found when I watched him campaign in Iowa.

At 77, he’s undeniably lost a step from the Biden who first ran for president in 1988 or for vice president in 2008. But claims by President Trump and his supporters that Biden suffers from some form of dementia are malicious and don’t stand up.

And any voter who watches a highlight reel of Biden’s flubs should compare it to Trump’s stumbles and lies, which are at least as alarming — and the president is only 74.

Besides, Biden readily admits that he’s gaffe-prone. “As long as they compare me to Donald Trump, it’s a good thing,” he said in Iowa.

Still, any candidate in his 70s should know his limits. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan, then 73, trimmed his reelection campaign appearances to one a day, and mostly read set-piece speeches.

Reagan won 49 states.


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