international analysis and commentary

Joe Biden: Comeback kid or default candidate?


Despite a poor start in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, former Vice President Joe Biden has defied most pundits and resurrected his campaign with a string of impressive victories in the Super Tuesday contests constituting 14 states and roughly one-third of delegates.

This begs the question: is Joe Biden more political comeback kid or default candidate?

Biden supporters in South Carolina


Biden’s resurgence on Super Tuesday was fueled by a variety of factors. These include fear of Senator Bernie Sanders’ socialism and the pullout by other candidates such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar which helped Biden consolidate the centrist vote. Above all, it was the general realization by the Democratic party establishment and mainstream centrists that although Biden does not inspire, he is the most viable and least worrisome Democratic contender to confront President Donald Trump. According to conventional wisdom, but subject to debate, is that in a general election Biden could most effectively unite a currently divided Democratic party and win over independent centrists disenchanted with Trump.

Should Biden eventually secure the Democratic nomination, it will partly be as a default candidate who won by process of elimination.

Despite Biden’s impressive Super Tuesday performance, it is still premature to write off Senator Bernie Sanders, particularly after his victory in California. Like Trump, Sanders inspires and appeals to a core base of diehard loyalists. Despite the outcome of the primary process, they will have to be reckoned with at the Democratic Convention in July 2020,  particularly when devising the party platform. Failure to ensure an inclusive process risks loss of their support and absence at the polls on Election Day.

As a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Sanders is more of an independent socialist than a member of the Democratic party. Despite his current status as a leading Democratic party candidate, he remains the longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history.

Much of Sanders’ appeal stems from his quest for ideological purity. He largely sticks to his political agenda composed of basic tenets and direct speaking points. For his followers, Bernie’s ideological consistency and commitment is what distinguishes him from most other politicians who operate on political convenience and opportunism. However, whether Sanders’ agenda can be realized within the confines of political reality remains subject to fierce debate.

Despite a successful business career, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s official entry into the primary race on Super Tuesday ended before it even began.  Despite spending over $400 million in four months, miserable debate performances largely resulted in political suicide. Bloomberg’s business pragmatism finally prevailed. He abandoned the race and shifted support to Joe Biden. During his brief run, Bloomberg created a formidable, well-resourced political machine which will now benefit the Biden campaign.

Bloomberg’s campaign expenditure was a drop in the bucket when compared to his net worth of $55 billion. However, Tom Steyer is alleged to have spent roughly a quarter of his $1.6 wealth on his campaign and has little to show for it except for a third place finish in South Carolina.

By failing to win her own state of Massachusetts or any primary, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has hit the end of the road. Although far from guaranteed, the conventional wisdom is that her grassroots progressive base will shift to the Sanders camp.

Despite pulling out just before Super Tuesday, both Senator Amy Kobluchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg have achieved national standing, through competent debating and electioneering, which has opened the door to future political opportunities.

After Super Tuesday, Biden’s path to the Democratic Party nomination becomes clearer but not yet fully secured. Despite not taking California, Biden’s sweep of the south puts him in pole position for upcoming primaries. Overall, the Democratic party establishment has reason to celebrate and breathe a temporary sigh of relief. At least for now, Biden is fully back in the game, unless his gaffe-prone antics resurface with a vengeance to the point of unbearability for a broader American public. However, for many Democrats it is far more bearable than the current White House leadership.

Until now, Biden’s road to victory has been largely premised on capitalizing upon fear of Senator Bernie Sanders’ socialism during the primaries in order to capture the Democratic party’s nomination and then target independent voters during the general election by presenting Biden as a safe alternative to Trump.

Winning a party nomination based on fear of another candidate may work. However, running a campaign in a general election simply as a safe alternative to the present incumbent is a far more risky strategy.

Ultimately, the Biden campaign will have to develop a more compelling narrative about who Joe Biden really is, beyond the nice-guy, safe-pair-of-hands storyline.

Should Biden win the Democratic party nomination, he will be engaging in a battle of attrition with Trump, a formidable political warrior who takes no prisoners. Whether the former Vice President has the stamina, persistence and perseverance to engage in trench warfare with Trump still remains a very open question.