Joe Biden may have been coy and cautious when thinking about a 2016 presidential candidacy, knowing that he would be challenging 2008 titan, and recent White House colleague, Hillary Clinton. Ultimately, despite Clinton suffering from the smoldering private email scandal, Biden decided to sit out 2016. Like other Democratic insiders, Biden was likely pressured by Party leaders to remain out of the race in order to bolster unity among liberals.
But, with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, it appears that the former vice president is regretting his October 2015 decision not to run. In the aftermath of the 2016 upset, pundits have loudly opined that both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders could have won the Electoral College, insisting that Hillary Clinton was too polarizing and politically boring to win over independents. Indeed, recent polls show that both Biden and Sanders would easily defeat Donald Trump in a hypothetical presidential election held today.
Of course, both Biden and Sanders are old. Very old. Born before Bill Clinton, both septuagenarians are political risks due to perceived infirmity. Despite Trump being no spring chicken (at 70, he clocked in as the oldest incoming U.S. President), the GOP will inevitably launch ageist attacks against either nominee. Ironically, the GOP itself complained when Democrats attacked 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain over his advanced age (then, a mere 71). Mocking a political opponent as infirm or un-masculine is an age-old tradition.
But, despite their advanced ages, it seems that both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden may seriously be considering 2020 presidential bids. Given the continued outrage among liberals and moderates at Trump’s nonstop hostility and bumbling, it is unsurprising that any popular Democrat (or, in Bernie’s case, Democrat-caucusing independent) is willing to take a shot at unseating him. With few other big-name Democrats in position to run for president, both Biden and Sanders may feel obligated to claim the mantle of Anti-Trump Candidate.
Both Biden and Sanders are seen as anti-Clinton candidates, which means both stand to kick off the 2020 campaign season in strong shape. But how can these two pro-labor septuagenarians from Washington differentiate themselves? At first glance, Biden and Sanders may be seen as very similar: Aged Northeasterners with lengthy resumes in Congress, a history of outspokenness on liberal policies, and little love for Hillary Clinton. In this political chess match, both Biden and Sanders need to find a way to differentiate themselves and begin rallying distinct blocs of liberal, moderate, and independent voters.
Biden appears to have made the first move, telling voters at a recent event in Alabama that Sanders “doesn’t like” him saying that “the wealthy are as patriotic as the poor.” The knock, made while stumping for Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Doug Jones (who will face religious fundamentalist ex-judge Roy Moore for Jeff Session’s old Senate seat), sets up a social class conflict between the two former Senate colleagues. Biden is clearly trying to win the support of well-heeled Democrats, likely to obtain a solid advantage in fundraising.
This isn’t the first time Biden has broken with Sanders on issues of income, wealth, and social class. Sanders has been aggressive about criticizing corporations for profiteering, while Biden has tried to soothe CEOs by declaring that corporations are a vital part of the U.S. economy. This may guarantee Biden a much greater chunk of political donations from liberal millionaires, but could backfire if progressives think it makes him look like a “limousine liberal” in the vein of Hillary Clinton.
Additionally, the subtle dis of Bernie is risky because it doesn’t necessarily wound Bernie’s own fundraising ability. Since the populist Vermonter raised the vast majority of his 2016 funds through small, grassroots donations, trying to paint him as unfriendly to the rich is unlikely to reduce his potential 2020 funds. All it does is create the risk of Joe Biden looking unfriendly…or in the pocket of the rich. And, given Sanders’ status as the most popular member of Congress, being unfriendly to the Bern could easily backfire.
With the Trump administration floating tax reform that is very favorable to large corporations, now is an inopportune time for Joe Biden to be praising corporations and CEOs, especially when some in the middle class might actually see their taxes increase under the GOP tax plan. Arguing that the corporations and the wealthy are indeed equally “patriotic” may not play well to the liberal base at a time when those moneyed taxpayers will see their tax burdens substantially decrease. At the same time, the tax burdens faced by the poor will not decrease, ramping up social class resentment.
The former vice president’s apparent strategy of trying to appeal to wealthier Democrats as a political moderate is risky, especially seeing the magnitude of Hillary Clinton’s downfall. While Bernie Sanders may be seen as too far to the left by many Democrats, his ardent progressivism will likely be seen as more refreshing than Biden’s pro-rich rhetoric of yesteryear.