The Zombie Campaign

Joe Biden is the least formidable front-runner ever. Will it matter?

Vice President Joe Biden at a campaign rally in Philadelphia on May 18, 2019. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Inevitably, he arrives late, by SUV or van. The former vice-president is thin and, yes, he’s old. He dresses neatly and always in blue. Staff envelop him. There’s the body man, the advance man, the videographer, the photographer, the digital director, the traveling chief of staff, the traveling press secretary, the local press secretary, the adviser, the other adviser, the adviser’s adviser, the surrogate, the other surrogate, and the bodyguard.

The looming presence of the last guy, Jim, is especially important for optics. Jim is tall and official-looking. He greets the world chest-first, his hands resting in a dignified clasp, his expression even, his mouth unmoving. Most people assume that he’s a Secret Service agent. Which he was.

But ex-VPs don’t get security for life the way ex-presidents do. Most people don’t know that, not even the politically savvy types who attend these sorts of things. And that’s all for the best, because Jim — or whatever local guy they’ve got filling in for him in Iowa or New Hampshire or Nevada or wherever else — is a necessary component of the vibe they’re trying to generate here, the Big Presidential Energy, if you will, that powers this production.

And it is a production. This is true even when the event is small, which it often is, because the stakes never are — Joe Biden speaking off the cuff is something the entire campaign seems focused on preventing at all costs. Inside the community center or union hall or college auditorium, the stage is crafted just so. The red and blue letters — each roughly the size of a 9-year-old — spell IOWA 4 BIDEN. The American flag is stretched taut and stapled to the plywood. The lawn sign is stapled to the lectern. The delicate panes of teleprompter glass angle to meet his hopeful gaze, so that he may absorb the programmed speech as he peers out at his audience, which usually skews quite old and white, unless he’s in South Carolina.

This first part — the reading of the speech — he almost always gets right. Even when he makes changes, rearranging the order of the words, skipping over a few, adding others, how could he not get it right? He’s been delivering some version of it for more than 40 years and living it for longer. He could deliver it in his sleep, if he ever sleeps. It’s like my father always said: Joey, a job is about more than just a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about being able to look your child in the eye and say, “It’s gonna be okay …” There is an undercurrent of shame that pulses throughout, this idea that the unequalness of our society is embarrassing for those who have access to less, rather than embarrassing for those who have more than anyone could need.

Folks … Not a joke! He’s always saying something rather solemn, about cancer or immigration, and then adding, “Not a joke!” as if anyone thought it might be. I’m being serious here … Come on … The bottom line is … I’m not kidding around … The fact of the matter is … Barack and me … Folks … Folks … Folks … folks … folks … folks … folks … folks … folks … folks … FOLKS … folks … FoLkS … fOlKs … F. O. L. K. S. …

And this next part — the greeting of the voters — he gets right, too. In this context, he possesses an almost mystical quality that, for whatever reason, does not come across when filtered through the kaleidoscope of newsprint or television. It’s the way he focuses his eyes, which are as blue as the seas, except for (yikes) that time the left eye filled with blood on CNN a few weeks back.

He is swarmed. Women reach out to him, linking their arms in his. He bows his head and lifts their hands to his mouth for a kiss and, later, when you ask them if that makes them uncomfortable, they look at you like you have three heads. This is the best day of their lives. Are you insane? There are men, too, who embrace him, wrapping their hands around his neck. He calls every male-presenting human he encounters “man.” I watched him call a baby “man.” As in, Hey! How­areya, man?! He is as skilled a selfie-taker as any influencer, and in the span of 30 or 40 minutes, he snaps hundreds, leaning his body against the rope that separates him from the crowd, straining it one, two, three feet forward. He really does connect with every living being this way, talking about their jobs or their health care as he listens, sometimes crying with them, whispering in their ears, taking their phone numbers and promising to call them. He does, in fact, do that. Everybody is Joe Biden’s long-lost friend. Every baby is Joe Biden’s long-lost child. A little girl in Iowa City called him her uncle Joe. On the Fourth of July in the town of Independence, he took off, running through the parade like a dingo with somebody’s newborn. As hard as it might be to believe that anything in this realm could not be bullshit, it’s simply true that this isn’t.

His own loss is staggering in its scale and cruelty: Neilia, his wife, and Naomi, his infant daughter, killed in a car crash. Beau, his oldest son, who survived that crash with his brother, Hunter, killed decades later by brain cancer. And it’s as though in that loss he’s gained access to an otherwise imperceptible wavelength on which he communicates in this way, with the eyes and the hands.

“I don’t know how to describe it, but sometimes some people would walk up with a lot of emotion in their face, and without even hearing their story, he could connect with them,” John Flynn, who served as Biden’s senior adviser in the White House, said. “He would know it was either one thing or another, and he would just know how to approach them and to get them to gently open up if they wanted to. And if they didn’t want to, he just said, ‘Hey, I’m with you, and I’m there for you. I feel your pain.’ ”

Chris Coons was an intern for Biden in the Senate and is now a United States senator from Delaware himself. He told me about Loretta Wootten, a former colleague who in January went into a coma after a car crash that killed her husband. “I went to visit Loretta when she regained consciousness, and she looks at me, and she says, ‘Does Joe know I’m here?’ That’s her first sentence. I said, ‘I don’t know. I mean, he’s running for president.’ And, she says, ‘I just would love to hear from him.’ The next time I see him, I say, ‘Do you remember Loretta Wootten?’ and he smiles and he says, ‘Of course.’ I said, ‘Well, Loretta’s husband was just killed in a car accident, and she’s in recovery.’ And he gets this look, and he turned to someone and said, ‘Get me a piece of paper.’ And he writes out this page-long, heartfelt message to her, hands it to me, and says, ‘Please get this to her.’ When I delivered that to her, she wept with joy.”

I have witnessed this kind of connection at nearly all of the countless events I’ve attended in a half-dozen states in the six months since Biden announced his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. If he ever does sleep, surely Joe Biden dreams as he proselytizes, of an unbroken America, its ideals and reputation restored, where everybody is folks and folks have everything they need and maybe some of what they want, where the field is just even enough that nobody is ashamed of their own place on it, and where the president isn’t an idiot but where you can easily deal with the idiots by kicking the shit out of them out back in a parking lot or something. Crucially, in this dream, Joe Biden is the president.

A campaign event in New Hampshire in October. Photo: M. Scott Brauer

The pitch goes like this: Joe Biden ought to be the nominee because he’s electable, a meaningless concept if recent history is any guide, and presidential, that wonderful word — the thing Donald Trump could never be even though he literally is president — despite the fact that Biden, who appears by almost any measure to be a good man, a man whose lone sin in life is ego (and does that even count anymore?), has spent a half-century grasping for this position and watching it slip through his fingers.

To anyone paying attention — the army of political professionals more wired to observe shortcomings than are those likely to actually vote for him or for anyone else — it looks, unmistakably, like it’s happening again. His vulnerabilities are close to the surface. There’s the basic fact of his oldness and the concerns, explicit or implicit, about his ability to stay agile and alive for four more years. This was true of Biden, who is 76, even more than it was true of Bernie Sanders, who is the oldest candidate at 78, up until Sanders had a heart attack while campaigning in Nevada earlier this month. (It’s not true at all of Elizabeth Warren, who is 70 but seems a decade younger. And it’s not exactly true of Trump, who is 73 and really just seems crazy, not old.)

But it’s not just his age itself. It’s his tendency to misspeak, his inartful debating style, and — most of all — his status as a creature from another time in the Democratic Party, when the politics of race and crime and gender were unrecognizably different. It’s not just that the Joe Biden of yesteryear sometimes peeks out from behind the No. 1 Obama Stan costume. It’s that the Joe Biden of today is expected to hold his former self accountable to the new standards set by a culture that’s prepared to reject him. And though he’s the party Establishment’s obvious exemplar, he can’t seem to raise any money — spending more in the last quarter than he brought in and moving into the homestretch with less than $9 million in the bank (roughly a third of what Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders has on hand). For political reporters, marveling every day at just how well this isn’t going, watching Biden can feel like being at the rodeo. You’re there because on some level you know you might see someone get killed.

Yet Biden is still the front-runner. Volatile and potentially worthless as they may be, it’s what the polls say. Biden leads the field on average by a handful of percentage points, though his lead has trended steadily downward, from a high of 33 in May to 20 in June to 11, and then to 9.9, and 6.6, and 5.4, according to RealClearPolitics. In the whole campaign, there has only been one day — October 8 — when he slipped to second place, an average of 0.2 points behind Warren. He’s also the front-runner in South Carolina, Nevada, California, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida. “There is this sense of hanging on. And perhaps he can. But that’s generally not the way the physics of these things work,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod told me. “Generally, you’re either moving up or moving down. Warren is clearly moving up. There’s no sign that he is.”

Biden is aware that it’s not going well. But it’s not apparent that he knows how to fix it. Recently, according to his staff, his anxieties have manifested more visibly. If he begins to question something small, he spirals, eventually questioning everything. Should he be saying this in his speech? Wait, should he be giving this speech at all? Should he even be focusing on this group? Is this even the right position? He freaks out over minor stuff on the trail that staffers don’t believe he should be concerning himself with and yet is unable to make strategic adjustments. But the staff concern themselves with unimportant matters, too, running what they think is a general-election campaign when they need to be running a primary. Inside the campaign, the Biden brain trust seems to exist more to comfort the candidate than to compel him, and strategy meetings inevitably devolve into meandering, ruminative roundtables that feel purposeless except to fill time in the day. Nobody will tell the candidate in plain terms what they think he needs to change. Not that Biden really listens anyway.

Some on the campaign still believe he can win, in part because they believe he should win. But even to them, the path to a collapse seems clear: Biden loses in Iowa and New Hampshire, where his leads have been steadily declining for months and where, recently, Elizabeth Warren has overtaken him, and then, as a result, loses his sheer aura of electability, too. But inside the campaign, they reportedly see another path, though it might not seem, at first, an optimistic one: Okay, so he loses Iowa and then New Hampshire, but so what? Because he is who he is and represents what he represents — the embodiment of both the white-working-class model of the electorate and the glow of the Obama years — he can weather the losses and march to victory through Super Tuesday and beyond. “Their theory is a long, twilight struggle where they accumulate delegates everywhere as minority voters start playing a larger role,” Axelrod said. “But in reality, it’s tough to be a winner when you keep losing or at least appear to be.”

Biden would obviously like you to think about his age as experience, but another way of thinking about experience is as a record. He’s got a long one. When he was elected to the Senate, Pete Buttigieg was still a decade away from birth. There’s a lot of material, then, for Biden’s critics to work with. All sorts of stuff that doesn’t age well, or doesn’t quite compute, in this season of absolutism: Anita Hill and allegations that he violated the personal space of several women, controversy over his crusade against busing as a desegregation measure and his eagerness to work with segregationist lawmakers. Last week, after Biden attacked Trump for calling his impeachment a “lynching,” video emerged of Biden calling Bill Clinton’s impeachment the same thing. If it was relevant to American political life at any point since Richard Nixon was president, Biden probably said something about it, but it’s new to many younger voters and activists and talking heads now.

Many of them treat Biden’s talking as yet another symptom of his age, but Biden has always been like this. “His major defect is that he goes on and on and on,” Orrin Hatch told the Washington Post in 1986, when Biden was 43. To say he overcame his childhood stutter would be a bad joke, like one of those I BEAT ANOREXIA T-shirts they sell on the Jersey boardwalk in size XXXL.

In Des Moines, in August, he told a crowd, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” Realizing what he’d done, he tried to correct himself. “Wealthy kids,” he said, “black kids, Asian kids. No, I really mean it, but think how we think about it.” Two weeks later, in Keene, New Hampshire, he said, “I love this place. Look, what’s not to like about Vermont in terms of the beauty of it? And what a neat town. This is sort of a scenic, beautiful town.” (When he returned to New Hampshire the following month, a protester held a sign that read WELCOME TO VERMONT, JOE.) And so on.

Biden is cocooned by family, longtime advisers, and former White House staff. His wife Jill, Val, Mike Donilon, Ted Kaufman, Bruce Reed, Annie Tomasini, Tony Blinken, Steve Ricchetti, Ron Klain. But beyond that small circle, veterans are harder to find on his campaign. Biden is chronically slow to make decisions, and his late entry into the race, which came months after many of his competitors, was an additional challenge to staffing the campaign. Many working at Biden headquarters in Philadelphia have no experience on a presidential campaign, and some have never worked on any campaign at all; even those closest to the candidate address him, deferentially, as “sir.”

“Some of these folks who have never worked on a presidential before are like, ‘Okay, I’m working for the former vice-president!’ They don’t really feel like it’s slipping,” one senior campaign adviser told me. “There’s such reverence for getting to work for the vice-president that I think, for some of those folks, there’s a mentality of How could we possibly lose? He’s who he is. I don’t think they see that that’s not all it’s gonna take.” (Yes, even Biden’s staff say “folks” the way others say “like” or “um.”)

For many of these staffers, the campaign feels like it should be a coronation. Joe Biden 2020 isn’t a labor of love or ideology. It’s about the proper order of things. It’s about who’s entitled to what. It’s the vehicle by which the Democratic Party Establishment arrives once more to power, the displaced Obama and Clinton professionals reinstalled at the levers. If the Republic is spared in the process — which everybody genuinely wants, sure! — that’s a plus. And it’s great branding. When it comes to the enthusiasm voters wear on their sleeves for Warren or Sanders, the Biden campaign strikes a cool, dismissive pose, as if it could be believed that a candidate for president weren’t preoccupied with such metrics.

The activist wing of the party is a lost cause to Biden just as he’s a lost cause to them. When they show up at his speeches to confront him or protest in support of the Green New Deal, something I’ve witnessed twice in New Hampshire, he attempts to formulate what he surely believes is a respectful response, and yet they don’t think it’s enough, because nothing that he says could be enough because of who he is. Can you blame anyone under the age of 30 for their cynicism, for their hostility?

“Internally, there was always this idea that there would be some point when he wasn’t No. 1,” one senior campaign adviser swears. “To some extent, people were prepped for that. There isn’t a culture inside the campaign right now like, This is a done deal and we’ve lost. The culture is, This is getting real. People are still reacting to that. The question is: Does this now change our strategy and our culture? That’s where we are right now, figuring out what this new stature means.”

Where they are, if you’re keeping track, is slumped. And it’s a strange dynamic — the most qualified candidate in the race, surrounded by entitled staff who don’t understand that they have to fight for the nomination, or even the presidency, but without a real case to make beyond a Democratic succession that would amount to an Obama restoration. “He has no center,” as one person close to the Biden family put it. “He’s literally only a politician. That’s who he is. That’s all he is. Biden is fundamentally a toadie. He’s just political. He needs to kiss ass? He’ll kiss ass.”

“They have him in the candidate-protection program,” Axelrod says. “I don’t know if you can do that. I don’t know if you can get through a whole campaign that way. Either he can hack it or he can’t hack it. If you’re worried the candidate can hurt himself talking to a reporter, that’s a bad sign.” (Biden declined to be interviewed for this story.)

For his part, Biden is consumed with his endorsements, another sign of his perhaps outdated political instincts; getting insiders to declare their support meant something when powerful political machines controlled the primary process, but it has much less relevance to presidential politics today. And the only endorsement that could matter hasn’t materialized. President Barack Obama has remained silent on the 2020 primary even as he saw it fit to involve himself in Canadian affairs, endorsing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. A senior White House official, reflecting on Biden’s weakness, told me Biden should have never even entered the race without knowing he’d have the former president’s support.

Of course, that was always less of a sure thing than it might have seemed. In 2016, Obama went all-in for Hillary, even as his vice-president contemplated a run. In the early stages of this race, he didn’t just avoid aligning himself with Biden but gestured toward other candidates, including unlikely contender Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, possibly to discourage his former veep from running.

And then there’s Hunter Biden himself, who was going to become an issue one way or another. The 49-year-old son of privilege and tragedy, he has had struggles with addiction and run-ins with the law that have been well-documented. The campaign did its best to control the subject, cooperating with a tell-all interview over the summer in which Hunter candidly discussed his drug use and his relationship with his brother’s widow. This is sometimes how flacks think they’ll get ahead of a story: You neuter the shock value by delivering the shock yourself. But when your son is a central character in an impeachment saga likely to preoccupy all of Washington and political news for six months, it’s a hard thing to get ahead of, especially when you don’t really seem to want to engage.

“It’s sort of bewildering,” Axelrod says. “I guess I understand it from a familial, psychological sense. It would just be so much better if he stated the obvious: Even Hunter has said he exercised poor judgment. He won’t even say what his kid said. It’s an obvious question as to why the rules that he’s going to apply in the future didn’t apply in the past. All this was foreseeable … You can’t say, ‘He did nothing wrong,’ and, ‘He’ll never do it again.’ Those things don’t go together. Biden can be stubborn. I think his stubbornness is showing here.” All of that said, Axelrod added, “what Trump is doing is loathsome and outrageous because there’s no evidence that Biden did anything wrong or that Hunter did anything wrong.”

In a certain sense, impeachment creates for Biden what he wanted all along: a direct competition with Trump. Looked at it one way, it’s a story about how the president of the United States was so worried about his formidable opponent that he risked his entire presidency, and even broke the law, to try to stop him. But in other ways, it’s exactly what Biden hoped to avoid: a focus on his most troubled child, the last remaining member of his first family, and the privilege his political and celebrity status affords. Even if he didn’t do anything “wrong,” Trump is right that there’s a swamp, though he doesn’t realize he’s its ugliest creature, and impeachment is a daily reminder that Biden swims there, too. Who could withstand an entire year of character assassination by the president, who is aided by a political media that projects his every statement to the world?

Former vice-president Joe Biden.
Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux/Mark Peterson/Redux

At the Iowa State Fair in August, as candidates took to the stage to deliver their stump speeches and answer questions from the Des Moines Register, I stood off to the side with a few members of the press. We craned our necks downward to squint at a zoomed-in photo of the side of Joe Biden’s head. There, just behind the ear, is where you can supposedly observe the scar from a face-lift, one of many cosmetic procedures Biden is rumored to have had.

The dramatic change to Biden’s appearance is a matter of preoccupation for Biden-watchers. In the timeline of images from throughout his career, you can observe as he grows older and then younger and then older but somehow more elegant and alert. His hair is white now but thicker than it was in the 1980s. He’s thinner, but his cheeks are fuller than they were in 2008. To be honest with you, he looks good. He’s almost 77!

This is also a minor obsession of the White House, as you can probably imagine. Privately, Trump has marveled at the “work” Biden has had done and the fact that, in his opinion, he doesn’t look any better for it. Those who know him say the president is against plastic surgery (by which I assume they don’t mean breast implants) and, especially, bad plastic surgery, and he considers it an all-too-common tragedy when someone has their face inexpertly altered.

A senior White House official who regularly discusses the campaign with Trump was describing how his view of Biden has evolved since the winter. It was then, before Biden declared, that the campaign began conducting polling and sharing the results with Trump himself. The internal numbers were as bad as the external. Biden destroyed Trump. The president’s anxieties only grew as Biden became a more popular topic on cable news. “It was easy to get caught up,” this official said. “The president saw that it’s easier to picture Joe Biden up on the debate stage than some of the others.”

Over time, as Biden formally waded into the race, and the president saw the reality of the candidate as opposed to the idea of Vice-President Joe Biden, he grew less concerned, according to the senior White House official. Biden was no longer “the guy he was worried about.” And one of the reasons was, in Trumpian fashion, “his look.” Though the official adds a few more items to the list as well: “His cadence. His inability to speak. His small crowds.”

Trump has also commented on Biden’s wardrobe choices, wondering why he’d wear Ralph Lauren polo shirts on the campaign trail that show off his graying chest hair and skinny arms. (Trump himself wears polo shirts almost exclusively while golfing).

Inside the White House and the reelection campaign, the true believers know how to decode Trump’s bitchy nicknames for his competitors. As iconic as “Crooked Hillary” and “Lyin’ Ted” may be, his crowning achievement remains “Low Energy,” his characterization of Jeb Bush. “Sleepy Joe” is considered Trump’s attempt at a 2020 remake of “Low Energy,” and it’s all about emphasizing Biden’s age.

In September, somebody had the bright idea to stage an afternoon event under the open sky at the Indian Creek Nature Center in sunny Cedar Rapids. It was the day after news of the whistle-blower broke, but Biden stuck to the event’s topic, climate change, addressing all the usual themes. Then faces began turning upward to the birds overhead. Somebody from Showtime’s The Circus told me the birds were bald eagles, but at the time I thought they looked like hawks, which, I guess, is a sort of glass-half-empty or -half-full dilemma. Eventually, word of the alleged bald eagles made its way to Biden, and with a look of optimism, he turned his face to the sky. He grew emotional. He said that at the Lake House, Beau used to sit by the water and watch the bald eagles fly overhead. The night Beau died, in 2015, Biden said he watched an eagle take off from the lake, circle in the sky, and then fly away. He hadn’t seen another bald eagle since that night, he said, until now. Looking at the bird, he said, “Maybe that’s my Beau.”

Biden wrote a book about his grief, and about his son, called Promise Me, Dad. Therein, he tells a similar story, but with a different bird. That night, he wrote, “Jill spotted a white egret at the far edge of the water.” She told her husband that, as he lay dying, she whispered to Beau to go to the dock, “his happy place,” with his brother. “We watched the egret for twenty minutes, until it finally took flight,” Biden wrote. “The two of us sat in silence as the egret circled overhead repeatedly, slowly gaining altitude, until it finally headed away to the south, beneath the clouds, and gradually disappeared from sight. ‘It’s a sign from God,’ Jill said. ‘Beau being at the lake one last time, and heading for heaven.’ ”

Anne Kearns is an 84-year-old grandmother of 16 and retired professor. For 58 years, she has lived in the modest blue house with black shutters on North Washington Avenue in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden lived during the first decade of his life.

“He calls this ‘the Homestead,’ ” she told me last Sunday. We were sitting in the living room, surrounded by framed photos of her large family and one photo of Biden, propped up on the TV stand. For most of his career, Biden was among the least-wealthy members of Congress, an attractive bullet point that he continues to note even after amassing a fortune in his post–White House life. He often claims that “they” call him “Middle-Class Joe.” (As far as I can tell, he is the only person who calls himself this.) But he’s always had a weakness for grand old houses, even before he could really afford them, and an odd habit of referring to his properties by nicknames: North Star (for the Delaware village in which it was located), the Station (his once-bustling home in Wilmington), and the Lake House (self-explanatory). What does Anne call the Homestead in which she lives? “Well, nothing,” she said, laughing.

You could tell the story of Biden’s astonishingly long political career through Anne and through this house.

She first learned there was an interesting man who had once lived here in 1972, when she saw Biden’s ads on TV. At the time, he was running for the U.S. Senate against Cale Boggs, a powerful Republican who had won seven consecutive elections in Delaware, climbing from Congress to the governor’s mansion and ultimately to the Senate. Boggs was 63, and Biden, who at 29 wouldn’t even be eligible to serve in the office he was seeking until two weeks after Election Day, used his seniority against him. “We need some new thinking,” read one of Biden’s advertisements. “He understands what’s