David Brooks: Joe Biden is stronger than you think

(Matt Rourke | AP) Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Iowa Central Community College, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

It was yet another epic failure of political punditry. Go back to the early months of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and read what the consultants and commentators were saying about him: His support is just name recognition; he’ll fade! He’s too old! He’s running a zombie campaign! The party has moved left and he’s out of touch! He voted for the crime bill!

Almost everybody was bearish on Joe. But now look where we are, weeks from actual voting. If the polls are to be believed, Biden will win Iowa; he’ll come in second in New Hampshire; he will easily win Nevada; he will dominate in South Carolina. He’s now tied for the lead in California, and he’s way ahead in Texas.

I don’t know if he’ll win the nomination (both he and Bernie Sanders look strong), but this is not where a lot of people six months ago thought we’d be.

It’s the 947th consecutive sign that we in the coastal chattering classes have not cured our insularity problem. It’s the 947th case in which we see that every second you spend on Twitter detracts from your knowledge of American politics and that the only cure to this insularity disease is constant travel and interviewing, close attention to state and local data and raw abject humility about the fact that the attitudes and academic degrees that you think make you clever are actually the attitudes and academic degrees that separate you from the real texture of American life.

Biden didn’t just luck into this. He and his team grasped six truths:

Understand the year you are running in. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are running the same basic campaign they would have run in 2012 or 2016. Biden’s campaign is completely focused on the central problem of 2020: that Donald Trump is a steaming hot mess in the middle of national life.

Biden has fixated his campaign on the Trump problem and fighting for the soul of America. Nearly twice as many Democrats say it’s more important to beat Trump than to have a candidate with whom they agree on all issues.

Understand your party’s core challenge. All around the world parties on the left are losing because they have lost touch with the working class. These parties think they can reconnect with that class by swinging even further left. But Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders here are a doctoral student’s idea of a working-class candidate, not an actual working person’s idea of one.

Biden has criticized his own party for losing touch with this class. He emerged from it, is focusing his attention on it and is winning support from it.

Moderates are still powerful. The Democratic Party is moving left, but about half of Democrats still say they are moderate or conservative. No candidate has ever won a nomination without strong support from these voters, while college-town candidates — Howard Dean, Gary Hart — tend to falter. In every presidential general election that Democrats have won since 1988, they carried moderates by more than 12 percentage points. In every race they have lost, they failed to do that. Biden kept his moderate credentials when many other candidates saw A.O.C. on Twitter and decided to move left.

Many Democrats resent their own elites. There is a quiet tension between Democrats who wield cultural power and those who don’t. The former are active on social media and clobber the latter — people who say or write the “wrong” thing.

The non-elites tend to feel judged and looked down on by the self-appointed savior class. “Politically correct” has become the phrase people use to define those who use cultural power to enforce ideological conformity. Seventy percent of Democrats who are not on social media say political correctness is a big problem. These are people silently but vehemently reacting against this social reign of terror. Biden communicates affection, not judgment, acceptance, not expulsion.

Have a better theory of social change. Sanders and Warren imagine they can rally movements of progressive supermajorities to transform American politics. The reality is that if they are elected we’ll be stuck with the same 42%-to-42% stagnant political war we have now.

Biden starts with the understanding that we are a closely divided nation. He understands the elemental fact that if you want to pass laws you have to go through Congress. As Damon Linker pointed out recently in The Week, Biden’s argument is that a center-left congressional coalition is the best we can do under present circumstances. That’s a more realistic theory of change. A beloved legislator like Biden is more likely to transform the political landscape than a down-the-line progressive.

Connection. Connection. Connection. Many candidates pound the podium and lecture at their rallies. It’s the big leader onstage and the passionate mass of followers down below. Nobody makes an individual connection as well as Biden. In a time when people feel exhausted, isolated and alienated, a candidate who seems normal and emotionally relatable is going to have a lot of appeal.

The ironic fact is that the candidate who can be vulnerable has a surprising power.

David Brooks

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.