Saturday, April 6, 2019

Biden Didn’t Rush Into 2020. The Race Came to Him Anyway

2 hrs ago

© Erin Schaff/The New York Times Joseph R. Biden Jr. is expected to announce his presidential campaign this month.

For months, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. hewed to a tortoise-like strategy for the 2020 presidential race: Repeatedly delaying his final decision, he hoped to skirt a long stretch of campaigning as a front-runner with a target on his back.

That approach carried risks. Mr. Biden missed the chance to recruit top-level aides, including former Obama advisers, women and people of color, because he had not formalized his campaign. He left urgent questions about his political vulnerabilities lingering, and he has not deployed researchers to review his vast record, because he has not hired any.

Still, the former vice president persisted with his unrushed strategy — until this past week, when it appeared to backfire in striking fashion.

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Mr. Biden has faced accusations from multiple women who came forward to complain that his penchant for close physical contact made them feel uneasy. Rival Democrats demanded that he account for his treatment of the women, and President Trump lobbed taunts that offered a preview of how he might attack Mr. Biden in a 2020 general election.

It was a multiday crisis that seemed entirely foreseeable, given that Mr. Biden’s physical touching occurred over many years, often in public. But despite almost five decades in the political arena, Mr. Biden, 76, did not have an agile, fully staffed campaign in place to confront it.

He issued three statements and one online video attempting to explain his conduct, only to joke about the issue in a speech to a union conference Friday. Afterward, he gave an ambivalent response to reporters who asked if he was sorry, acknowledging that he would have to change his behavior but apologizing only for the fact that he “didn’t understand more” about the implications of his conduct.

Mr. Biden showed no evident regret about his wait-and-wait-some-more strategy, explaining coyly that he would “give everybody else their day, then I get a shot.”

But Mr. Biden’s eventual announcement now seems fated to fall in the shadow of the recent allegations and the progressive concerns he has so far declined to address. Far from remaining above the fray, Mr. Biden will enter the campaign as bruised as any of the 16 other candidates already in the race.

“They’re in this never-never land right now,” said David Plouffe, the former strategist to President Barack Obama’s campaign, “because they’re being treated by the outside world like they’re in the race full speed and they’re not. That’s a really tough place to be.”

Mr. Plouffe cautioned that Mr. Biden’s initial difficulties could all mean very little should the former vice president enjoy a successful start when he formally enters the race.

Indeed, amid the week’s chaos, Mr. Biden for the first time took several swift steps toward becoming a candidate: His allies have been told to expect an announcement after Easter and the former vice president was sighted on Thursday in Scranton, Pa., apparently recording a video at his childhood home there. And Mr. Biden has secured the services of Mark Putnam, a Democratic ad maker known for crafting gripping, cinematic commercials, according to people familiar with the decision. (Mr. Putnam declined to comment.)

Mr. Biden has used his time on the sideline to some advantage. Aides have put him through so-called murder board sessions on his vulnerabilities and compiled documents detailing his accomplishments and weaknesses. His likely campaign manager, Greg Schultz, has organized now-weekly conference calls with future staff members.

But if the attacks from Mr. Trump and his allies illustrated that Republicans are worried about facing Mr. Biden, the controversy this past week has also shined a light on the risks Democrats would be taking in nominating him — and not just because of his recent problems.

The uneven response to the women’s accusations capped a four-month stretch in which Mr. Biden has labored to expand his core group of older, mostly white advisers; failed to defuse the political equivalent of ticking time bombs relating to race and gender that await his entry in the race; and delayed a campaign that will have considerable ground to make up organizationally, financially and technologically.

Even some of his strongest allies are growing anxious. “I’d like to see him go ahead and get engaged because the summer is going to be here before you know it, the debates are going be here before you know it,” said Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, who was a state chairman for Mr. Biden’s 1988 presidential bid.

The questions now looming over his campaign-in-waiting, however, are not merely ones of timing. Mr. Biden’s uncertainty over how to address his past positions and conduct, and how contrite he ought to be, captures the tension at the heart of his emerging candidacy: Can he retain the unvarnished, tell-it-like-it-is political brand that appeals to so many voters, especially older ones, while also inspiring a Democratic Party that has grown more progressive and is increasingly defined by its youthful, diverse constituencies?

He does retain obvious strengths as a potential candidate: He is still at the top of the polls, albeit not quite as high as he was at the start of the year. Democratic voters view him in overwhelmingly favorable terms, as a thoroughly qualified commander-in-chief and an emblem of the Obama administration. And there is also deep and lasting sympathy for Mr. Biden and his family after the death of his eldest son, Beau, from cancer in 2015.

Yet his decision to wait on announcing his candidacy has come with a cost, in part because he did not use the time to better prepare for some of the most inevitable questions about his lengthy record in politics. Without a campaign in place, Mr. Biden has also not done any polling to determine his most glaring liabilities or substantial assets.

Mr. Biden has yet to apologize to Anita Hill even though he said last month that he regrets that “he couldn’t give her the kind of hearing she deserved” — a reference that seemed to play down his powerful role as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Ms. Hill testified at Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing in 1991 that he had sexually harassed her.

Mr. Biden has also done little to reach out to feminist leaders before entering a campaign in which his mixed record on abortion rights is sure to be an issue. He has not contacted Ilyse Hogue, the head of Naral Pro-Choice America, or Cecile Richards, the former head of Planned Parenthood, according to Democratic officials.

He has said publicly that he wants a campaign that reflects the country, but his inner circle remains largely white and male, and some of his overtures to next-generation Democratic strategists have fallen flat or petered out, several people briefed on the efforts said.

© Erin Schaff/The New York Times Mr. Biden spoke at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction and Maintenance… Karine Jean-Pierre, a top official with the liberal group MoveOn, met privately with Mr. Biden but elected not to pursue a campaign job. Biden advisers sought to hire Tara McGowan, a highly regarded Democratic digital strategist, and Emmy Ruiz, an operative who managed several Western states for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Neither signed on, and Ms. Ruiz now works for Senator Kamala Harris of California. (All three women declined to comment or did not respond to requests.)

Many Democrats also expected Larry Grisolano, another veteran of Mr. Obama’s campaigns, to take a senior role in Mr. Biden’s organization, but earlier this year Mr. Grisolano declined.

It is not clear how strongly Mr. Biden might be able to rely on other members of Mr. Obama’s political network, many of whom have gravitated toward newer candidates like Ms. Harris and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas. (Mr. Obama himself has been tight-lipped during his former running mate’s difficult week; a spokesman for the former president declined to comment while noting that Mr. Obama had praised Mr. Biden warmly in recent months.)

And Mr. Biden has done little self-vetting of his legislative record because he has not hired a research director. His aides have contacted at least two Democratic officials, James Singer and Helen Smith, about research jobs, but Mr. Singer went to work for Ms. Harris and Ms. Smith is planning to work on a House race.

Patti Solis Doyle, who managed Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in 2008, said Mr. Biden had already sacrificed some of his political strength by waiting so long. She said Mr. Biden remained formidable, but urged him to enter the race soon and initiate a “bigger, more thoughtful conversation about how men of power interact with women with not so much power.”

“I think he can look at this as an opportunity, and I wish he would,” Ms. Solis Doyle said.

As he demonstrated on Friday with his joking references to giving hugs and his impromptu press availability, there is only so much his aides can do to contain Mr. Biden. His reliance on his own instincts has been legendary for decades, since his turbulent, 1988 campaign chronicled in the classic political book “What It Takes.”

But it’s unclear whether Mr. Biden’s instincts will be enough to navigate his party’s shifting center of gravity. After declaring at a Democratic fund-raising dinner in Delaware last month that he would be “the most progressive candidate” in the race, Mr. Biden clarified on Friday that he meant his positions on issues like race and L.G.B.T. rights — not, as he put it, on the question: “Are you a socialist?”

Quieting aides who sought to cut short his session with reporters, he argued that the “party has not moved” and said that “the vast majority of the members of the Democratic Party are still basically liberal to moderate Democrats in the traditional sense.”

Some of Mr. Biden’s longtime friends, who winced at his boast in Delaware, urged him to campaign as the center-left Democrat he has always been.

“You can’t try to out-progressive the field, you’ve got to be who you are,” said William M. Daley, the moderate former White House chief of staff who lost a race for mayor of Chicago this year.

John Morgan, a prominent Florida trial lawyer who raises money for Democrats, said he believed Mr. Biden’s authenticity would still connect powerfully with voters. Mr. Biden’s “only sin,” he said, “is he loved people.”

But, Mr. Morgan added, it was past time for Mr. Biden to make a decision about the race.“There are two ways to get in a cold pool,” he said, ”toe by toe, or take a tequila shot and do a cannonball.”

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