Column: Biden, like Trump, wants to turn back the political clock

Joe Biden, wearing a mask, raises both arms to wave to supporters
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden waves to supporters outside Amtrak’s train station in Greensburg, Pa., on Sept. 30.
(Associated Press)

Westmoreland County, a collection of rolling green hills and aging industrial towns east of Pittsburgh, is difficult terrain for Democrats.

Long a labor union stronghold, its once-reliable Democratic voters swung Republican as steel and glass manufacturing jobs disappeared in the last decades of the last century — and as Democrats became a party of racial diversity and upscale professionals.

Since 2000, Republicans have won every presidential race here. In 2016, Donald Trump won 64% of votes cast.


Yet here was Joe Biden, stepping off a chartered Amtrak train on a daylong tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania last week, waving to 150 supporters who summoned him out of the 1910-vintage station with chants of “We want Joe!”

It was almost an old-fashioned Democratic whistle-stop campaign event — almost, because coronavirus precautions prevented Biden from getting near the crowd or removing his mask.

For weeks, Biden has accused Trump of acting irresponsibly and taking too many risks. How does he respond now that events have borne out his warnings?

Biden’s message, delivered a few minutes later at a union hall, was old-fashioned too — with a dash of Bernie Sanders added in.

“There was an expression when I was growing up: ‘You go home with them that brung you to the dance.’ And labor brought me to the dance a long time ago,” Biden said. “The only people who can take on major corporate interests and the oligarchs who are abusing ordinary men and women are organized labor.”

“A lot of people around here voted for Donald Trump the last time, and I get it,” the former vice president added. “I hear them. I respect them. I know them. They are family.”

If Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” weaponizes nostalgia for the 1950s, Biden’s campaign seems fueled by its own yearning for a bygone day — the era when Democrats routinely won the votes of white working-class men.

It’s not so much the 1950s as some imagined combination of the 1960s, before culture wars divided the party, and 2008, when Barack Obama stitched together its last successful coalition.

“A lot of white working-class Democrats thought we forgot them and didn’t pay attention,” Biden told reporters, implicitly critiquing Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. “I want them to know … I get it. I get their sense of being left behind.”

There’s evidence, even in solid-red Westmoreland County, that he has made some headway — at least before Trump’s coronavirus infection upended the campaign.

Outside the station in Greensburg, Marian Ruokonen, 65, a retired county employee who voted for Trump in 2016, said she was ready to switch sides.

“I’m leaning toward Biden this time,” she told me. “My husband is still with Trump, but not me. Trump’s a bully.”

For many in the crowd, the main factor driving their votes was their distaste for Trump, not a deeply felt allegiance toward Biden.

I asked Gerard Rendine, a 65-year-old former autoworker, what he liked most about Biden. “We gotta get Trump out of there,” he replied. “He’s made us the laughingstock of the world.”

Statewide polls suggest Biden is making progress, too. A Fox News poll Sept. 24 found that Biden has opened a 51% to 44% lead in Pennsylvania. Trump won the state narrowly in 2016.

The Fox poll found that white Pennsylvanians without a college education — the working-class voters Biden is aiming for — still favor Trump, 57% to 40%. But that’s much closer than the lopsided 64% to 32% Trump won among those voters in 2016, according to exit polls.

Biden doesn’t claim that he has a chance to attract a majority of white working-class voters. And local Democrats agree, saying the goal is to cut Trump’s margin.

“We’re in a pretty deep hole,” Tara Yokopenic, chairwoman of Westmoreland County’s Democrats, told me. “We’re not going to get out of it in just one year.”

But she said Biden’s history as a moderate Democrat made her job easier.

“He’s a good candidate for Westmoreland,” she said. “He’s an old-fashioned guy, a blue-collar guy.”

Beyond Pennsylvania, Democrats face similar challenges rebuilding their old coalition.

“It’s going to be a tough sell,” said William A. Galston, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House.

“We have to face up to the fact that some aspects of the modern Democratic Party are unattractive to parts of the electorate — the influence of women, of African Americans and other minorities, the focus on a new economy.”

At the seventh campaign stop of an 11-hour day, Biden hoarsely delivered his message one last time, to a drive-in rally in Cambria County outside the Amtrak station in Johnstown, another once-Democratic town that’s now a Trump stronghold.

“Donald Trump will never understand that Wall Street didn’t build this country,” he said. “The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class.”

Outside the event, a few dozen Biden supporters who didn’t have tickets braved an autumn chill to watch from a parking lot across the narrow Conemaugh River.

“Dump Trump!” they chanted sporadically, the part of the Democrat’s pitch that united them most.

It’s not a complicated message, but it may be enough to enable Biden to win the swing state where he was born.