During a verbose half-century in public life, Joe Biden has never made such a succinct case for his election.
“Ask yourself,” he said in Pennsylvania on Monday, “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” In 16 words — the last one delivered with a thespian frown — the US Democratic presidential hopeful alluded to a long career of moderation. The Republican friends. The orthodox foreign policy. The prison-building crime bill. There is no less plausible Jacobin in the party.
Everything about the line was perfect, in fact, except its necessity. Two months away from an election, a candidate should not have to distance himself from political violence. As deftly as he did it, one of Washington’s old saws — “If you’re explaining, you’re losing” — feels dangerously apt.
What should trouble Mr Biden is not the recent narrowing of his poll lead over President Donald Trump. Some tightening is natural as the election nears. Far more ominous is the change in the subject of national discourse.
As recently as May, Mr Biden’s attitude to protesters and those who police them was not at all germane. Nor was anything, come to think of it, bar the coronavirus pandemic. That he must now explicitly disown rioters shows how much the terms of political trade have moved against him over the summer. What had promised to be a single-issue election — a plebiscite on the handling of Covid-19 — has spread to more familiar themes of crime and race. The issue of the day is less public health than public order. To that extent, a drowning president has a life line.
It is, to be clear, a frayed and tenuous one. Mr Biden has been an eerily stable frontrunner in first primary and then national polls for most of the past two years. His doubters must entertain the possibility that he is quite good at politics. Nor has the president much to brag about as a keeper of the peace. It is one thing to deplore chaos on the streets from outside government, as Richard Nixon did in 1968. To do it as the most powerful person in the republic amounts to what I believe is called a “self-own”.
And yet the more we parse Mr Trump’s record on this matter, the less we discuss the pandemic. The numbers have lost their power to shock. With about 4 per cent of the world’s population, the US now accounts for between one-fifth and one-quarter of its known Covid-19 cases. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, Britain is the only other rich nation (among 14 surveyed) that believes its government has botched the coronavirus response. Other than the world wars and the Depression, no living American has experienced a larger historic event. And still the election is increasingly about something else.
Mr Biden is fighting gamely, then, but on the wrong ground. As long as the pandemic crowded out other subjects, Mr Trump was not just vulnerable. Democrats themselves were united. Almost all of them see the crisis as its own case for universal healthcare, labour protections and what populists have slandered as the “administrative state”.
On the suite of issues we might file under “identity”, though, this is hardly a single party or movement at all. It is an unstable truce between old liberals, who envisage a colour-blind republic, and a younger set that views this as so much cover for structural racism. A faultline that runs through such Democratic strongholds as the American campus and the elite newspaper was always going to rise like a vein in the party itself. Last month’s Democratic convention was a delicately scripted attempt to avoid offending either the party’s moderates or the activist left. Mr Biden’s Pennsylvania speech was a more explicit pitch to the former.
Either way, the mere act of addressing this subject amounts to a strategic loss for the party. In the campaign of Republican dreams, Mr Biden spends the next two months explaining that “defund the police” means something subtler, that “no justice, no peace” is just a slogan, not a threat, and that neither is Democratic policy. For the first time since he effectively clinched the nomination in March, Mr Biden is on the defensive. And a once-in-a-century pandemic has lost its monopoly on public debate.
An election is often understood as pitting against each other two answers to the same question — classically, “who will best run the economy?” Really, though, it is a contest to set the question. Mr Biden wants voters to ask, “who will fix the pandemic?” Mr Trump wants them to wonder who will secure their cities. That the more pressing question is even in doubt attests to the president’s momentum.