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.