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Rhetorical Recap: One Last Run

From the era of rugged heroes and big-sunset happy endings, his hair trimmed, his jaw thrust forward and (in outdoor photos) rocking aviator glasses, Joe Biden finally strode onto the stage to make one last run at the presidency. At a cultural moment dominated by the superhero epics “Game of Thrones” and “Avengers: Endgame,” Biden has donned a veritable Captain America costume. In his candidacy declaration videohe said he was running for president to rescue the country from Donald Trump and, well, make America great again in a different sense of the word “America:”

If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation. Who we are. And I cannot stand by and watch that happen.

Everything that has made America America is at stake.

Biden’s “idea of America” embraces equality, dignity, and an anything-is-possible in this land bravado. Trump threatens that idea. Recall that one year ago, discussing Trump’s remarks about women in the notorious Access Hollywoodvideo, Biden said that “If we were in high school I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”

Well, the recess bell has rung. Someone hold his coat. But Biden has his own problems with women to reconcile.

The former Vice-President’s first post-video speech was set in a union hall in Pittsburgh, where he acknowledged receipt of the endorsement of the International Association of Fire Fighters, heroes who rescue for a living. The strategy could not be more plain; it was part of his pitch.

If I’m going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here.

“Here” meaning Pennsylvania but more generally in the northeast and midwest where blue-collars have been fading, ripping, and disappearing from the Democratic Party on election days. On the one hand, playing for the manufacturing base is a last-war strategy. On the other, that has been a staple of Biden’s campaign appeal for decades. These are the “folks” he has always professed to represent.

Three questions accompany the former Vice-President into the 2020 race:

1. AFTER THE RESCUE, THEN WHAT?

Kicking Donald Trump out of the White House would be a great accomplishment; it might be the top criterion Democrats will use in evaluating the aspirants to the nomination. But Biden needs to talk policy specifics to give voters a sense of what a Biden Administration would pursue starting the day after the election. Deft issue positioning would exhibit his presumed advantages over the Democratic field, that of unmatched experience in government and his vaunted sense of humanity, underscored by the tragedies in his personal life. So where does he stand?

While Biden touched on issues at the union hall he stinted on details. Biden ventured in the same direction as Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, but not as far. He pledged to make community college free (his wife Jill teaches at one) but not to expunge student debts. He said he would defend and improve the Affordable Care Act but not pursue a Medicare-for-All plan. He shouted that “folks like you” built America, not Wall Street and hedge-fund managers, and spoke of eliminating the “stepped-up basis” tax loophole for the wealthy, but little beyond that. A policy speech has been promised for May 18 in Philadelphia, the big city at the other end of “here.”

2. OBAMA?

Biden faces the classic dilemma of Vice-Presidents seeking the people’s promotion: how to pay tribute to his predecessor and promise continuity –or in this case restoration– while advancing his own political identity. A video released after the Pittsburgh speech accomplished this beautifully, using excerpts from President Obama’s 2017 speech awarding Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom without asserting an endorsement. (I must note that in both videos linked here the music has been banal and excessive.)

In Pittsburgh Biden did not mention Obama by name.

3. WOMEN?

Biden has used daytime television guest appearances to voice regret for his treatment of Anita Hill in the 1991 Judiciary Committee hearings that helped send Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Hill has expressed her dissatisfaction with his statements. Additionally, Biden has coped awkwardly with criticism for his displays of affection toward women, joking about it at times and “accepting responsibility” at others.

In Pittsburgh Biden did not address this aspect of his character.

Biden’s best-received line in Pittsburgh urged voters to choose “hope over fear, unity over division and, most importantly, truth over lies.”

The rest of it looked and sounded more like a mid-campaign speech, a stop on the stump tour, than a presidential candidacy launch. But Biden’s claim to the support of fire-fighters, as with the earlier announcement video, got big rises out of President Trump on Twitter. Thus far the @realdonaldtrump’s trademark two-word epithet for Biden has been “Sleepy Joe,” a variation on his “Low-Energy” sobriquet for Jeb (Bush), whose 2016 candidacy Trump wants people to put in mind as they consider the Biden challenge.

“Sloppy Joe” seems a more apt moniker for Biden’s manner. For some voters he makes it work as working-class comfort food. Early polls report a big lift, perhaps fueled by Trump’s take-the-bait tweets along with Biden’s near-universal name recognition.

Given the way he has rolled out his candidacy, it seems the most logical and compelling route to sustain a rescue of America would lie in Biden’s leading the charge to persuade Congress to impeach and remove the president. Everyone knows the Senate will not vote to remove Trump, but the journey is the destination, and the Senate vote can effectively be taken instead by the electorate in November 2020.

Along with Harris, Biden has stepped to the fore to do that among the candidates. Of course Speaker Pelosi runs impeachment proceedings and that is to Biden’s advantage; he need not sink into the mechanics. Biden, who cited Thomas Jefferson in his video, could instead promulgate a Declaration of Independence-style bill of particulars against Trump.

Win or lose, spearheading a one-man charge against the character and power of Donald Trump would be a valorous run. It would not excuse Biden from answering the three question marks about his candidacy, but it would provide a great pivot and release valve in Town Halls, press interviews, and debates.

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