Joe Biden is looking for that sweet spot between “wise” and “over the hill.”
That can be hard to find when your voting record is older than some of the other candidates in the race. People who know him have told me that the former vice president has decided, out of both strategy and conviction, that he should never apologize. He still sees himself as the same young-buck visionary, the one who was barely old enough to be sworn in to the Senate when he first won his seat in 1972, three years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Everything about Biden comes back to how long he’s been around. He was working on civil-rights legislation for years before any of the other candidates, which is part of the reason he was “compromising” with segregationists. The Violence Against Women Act, the Assault Weapons Ban, the Voting Rights Act renewals—he has been part of more legislation on pretty much every topic than his competitors. He knows more of the history and ins and outs of how it went down. (Biden’s press secretary, TJ Ducklo, declined to comment on questions about the candidate’s age.)
Biden believes that his experience gives him an important window into how Washington can work, from a time when political discourse was more like the Lincoln-Douglas debates than rats scratching at each other over stale bread crusts. And he has the comfort of knowing that primary voters tend to skew both older and more moderate, and have been telling pollsters so far in this primary race that they value experience.
The questions aren’t just about Biden’s years in office. Responding in April to the women who accused him of unwelcome physical contact, Biden acknowledged that he’d come up in a different era, and that he knew he’d need to change with the changing times. He snaps sometimes. He can ramble. The references can be dated, as when shortly after he launched his campaign, he mixed up Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher. When he has these gaffes, rivals and pundits ascribe added significance. He is deft with selfies, but also defends himself by pointing out things like being the deciding vote on the Gurney Amendment (which happened in 1974). Since he entered the race this spring, he’s spent more days off the trail than on (though, notably, he often meets with supporters for longer than his rivals, and on the day of that big fish-fry event in South Carolina two Fridays ago, he was the last candidate to leave).
Then there was his exchange with Senator Kamala Harris of California at last week’s debate, when she went after him for his opposition to public-school busing in the 1970s. Biden’s surprised response prompted a number of people to use the words old and weak with me. Calling him out of touch and unapologetic is how the Harris campaign has kept going after him, even as Biden and his aides have responded by calling her grasping and opportunistic (including by pointing to comments on Wednesday in which Harris got tangled up trying to give her own position on busing).
Or there’s the story he told last weekend at a Seattle fundraiser, of how it would have been okay to make fun of a “gay waiter” five years ago. He told the same story in 2014, as having been okay 15 years before. Five years ago, he illustrated the story with an imitation of the waiter, with a put-on lisp.
Biden would be the oldest president ever if he wins the nomination and is elected—he’ll turn 78 two weeks after Election Day—beating out the current record holder, Donald Trump, who was 71 when he was inaugurated. (Though Bernie Sanders, who’s 14 months older than Biden, would outdo both.)
Biden is sensitive to questions about his age. His insiders told me he’d immediately shot down speculation seeded by people close to him about potentially making a pledge to serve only one term. Two weeks ago, when introduced at a Planned Parenthood forum in South Carolina, he stopped a moderator who said, “You’ve had a long career in politics—” saying, “Stop emphasizing the long part, will you?”
“He’s like Farmers Insurance,” Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana told me in May, just before Biden’s official kickoff rally in Philadelphia, appropriating the company’s slogan. “He knows a thing or two because he’s done a thing or two.”
Biden’s pitch is that he connects to the new generation, because Millennials have been awakened politically in response to Trump in a way that mirrors how he remembers his generation being inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as he told Reverend Al Sharpton in a recent interview.
The contrasts can play out within a few minutes, like at that Planned Parenthood forum, when a woman spoke emotionally about having three abortions after being assaulted by an ex-husband and while in the military, pressing Biden on how he changed his position on the Hyde Amendment. Biden’s initial answer struck some in the audience as patronizing, given who would be in the crowd at a Planned Parenthood primary event. In short, he made the issue about him: “First of all, a lot of you women, maybe a lot of the men out here don’t realize what incredible courage it took to stand up and say that—because the fact of the matter is that when you recall … The reason I wrote the Violence Against Women Act in the first place, and I wrote it, was because of what I’ve seen, what I understand happening, going into neighborhoods and communities and it knows no color, it knows no bounds, it knows no ethnicity. For you to stand and recall that, brings it all back immediately.”
What he said after that, though, went further. Biden spoke passionately about how he thought that the woman’s ex-husband should be in jail. He cited statistics about transgender women being killed. He stumbled a little bit—much like he stumbled at the debate last Thursday, still trying to keep up with staff who have been pushing him to squeeze his senatorial answers into 30 seconds—but told the woman he wanted to talk with her in person backstage and learn from her about what he didn’t know.
In a pre-debate briefing last week, a person who, by the rules reporters had to agree to as a condition of attending, could only be named as a “Biden campaign official,” responded to one question about age by noting that Sanders is a year older and insisting no one ever talks about that. Swatting back arguments about making room for a new generation, the campaign official said, “It is the rare Democratic campaign where there isn’t a candidate calling for a new generation or someone to pick up the torch,” adding, “This is a process, and it’s an open process for a reason.”
About six hours later, Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who was still in diapers through Biden’s second term in the Senate, called for Biden to pass the torch (it’s printed on his campaign merchandise)—by citing a speech that Biden gave in 1986 calling for the torch to be passed to the next generation. “I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden said, and a mini-melee erupted onstage. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has been talking for more than a year about how he doesn’t think Democrats can win by saying “back” or “again,” tried to get in with, “As the youngest guy on the stage, I feel like I probably ought to contribute …” before being cut off by Sanders saying, “As part of Joe’s generation, let me respond.” The moderators gave the time to Sanders, who argued that the question was about ideas, not age.
Biden’s team feels confident that his greatest strength in the campaign is that people know him to be a decent man. But voters have never gone for anyone they knew anywhere near as well as they know Biden, or anyone who’d been in politics as long. Jonathan Rauch, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank (and an Atlantic contributing editor) coined in 2003 what he calls the “14-year rule,” which found that every president since the beginning of the 20th century had been elected president or vice president a maximum of 14 years since his first election. Biden would pass the 14-year rule three times over, with five years to spare.
On Wednesday, I called Rauch to ask how he’d assess Biden’s chances. “The math says he might be the nominee, but he definitely won’t be president—if you believe in math,” Rauch told me. “If the public goes for someone who’s been around this long, that would show a substantive change of heart or a backlash against Trump—that would be a statement on Biden’s part that they don’t want anyone who breaks a lot of china and knows what he’s doing,” he told me.
There’s no magic to the rule, just a happenstance that hits on what Rauch thinks is a fundamental truth about the American public’s desire for fresh faces and ideas. With Biden, he said, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen that kind of staleness before—either he’s nonviable if you believe the 14-year rule, or he completely blows the rule out of the water.”
Trump has called Biden “sleepy” and said “he looks different than he used to, he acts different than he used to, he’s even slower than he used to be,” prompting Biden to respond in Iowa a few weeks ago, “Look at him and look at me and answer the question.”
Everyone else so far who’s made the age arguments against Biden has made them very carefully. Seth Moulton, the representative from Massachusetts who launched a presidential campaign late and has been swinging hard to get in, has a line that he uses all the time about how it’s time for the generation who voted for the Iraq War to move aside and be replaced by the generation who fought in the Iraq War. This isn’t very subtle: Biden supported the war, and Moulton is a decorated Marine who served four tours, but it’s an attack that Moulton is making after a few years of being a favorite of Biden, who included him in the group of young veterans in Democratic politics who reminded him of his late son Beau.
“What I’m really saying is not specific to him—it’s a generational argument. I don’t know many people in their mid-70s who are as young and energetic as Joe Biden, but our government should represent all of us. We have a lot of people who represent the older generations, and I think we need more people who represent younger people,” Moulton told me this week, on a layover on his way to campaign in Nevada. He recalled how confused senators were last year about how Facebook works when they called Mark Zuckerberg in for a regulatory hearing last April—and those senators were, for the most part, younger than Biden. “I think he’s a very sensitive guy, but our national-security challenges right now are drones and artificial intelligence and space warfare; I don’t think people look to the Vietnam generation as the generation that’s going to figure that out.”
Among the people who are voters, that hasn’t been the case. Even after taking hits at the debate last week, Biden is still at the top of all the polls. Moulton has yet to register in any of them.