Right now, the vast majority of Democrats still harbor warm, fuzzy feelings about Obama’s No. 2, forgetting, perhaps, that Biden has a long and complicated record of his own that predates Obama’s by several decades. It’s also easy to forget, with Biden taking a light touch to campaigning, how liable he is to put his foot in his mouth. While everyone loves Biden, it’s not clear how deeply their affection runs. In a recent town-hall swing through New Hampshire, most of the potential voters who came out for Biden were older, as opposed to the young blood turning out for Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg events.
As Vanity Fair contributor Peter Hamby recently wrote, “every time a Democrat has won the presidency, it’s because Democrats voted with their hearts in a primary and closed ranks around the candidate who inspired them.” Biden, far from promising a break with the past, has based his entire candidacy on the promise of a restoration. When Democratic voters are less than enthused—as they were with Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and yes, Hillary Clinton—they tend to lose.
In surveys measuring the performance of a generic Democrat running against Trump, the generic Democrat wins every time. And what Democrat is more generic than Joe Biden? Still, it’s a somewhat dreary message to run on—and one that might foreshadow danger, with more than eight months remaining until the Iowa caucuses. Trump, who has a keen eye for the visual signifiers of popularity, has already seized on reports that Biden is drawing underwhelming crowds. “Look at the thousands and thousands of people we have,” he boasted during a recent Pennsylvania rally. “They said [Biden] had 600 people . . . I’d say 150.” (The Trump campaign did not release the number of people who attended his own rally.
Any day now, if you haven’t seen it already, a video will surface of Joe Biden sounding downright Trumpian on the subject of immigration. “This isn’t amnesty,” Biden says in the clip, arguing that if “illegal aliens” want to earn their place in America, they need to pay a fine and learn to speak English, damnit. Chris Matthews, who is interviewing Biden on MSNBC’s Hardball, nods his head. He wonders whether, if the U.S. government wants to prevent employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, it should be made a “huge embarrassment to your family” with a “fine that’ll kill you.” Biden, his hair combed back into a silvery helmet, agrees. “Absolutely you can,” he says. “And that’s what we should do.”
The fact that the interview is from 2006 is irrelevant to the opposition-research team at the Republican National Committee, which recently uploaded the clip to YouTube as part of a painstaking, labor intensive effort to excavate the last 50 years of Biden’s personal and political life. The former vice president is already facing uncomfortable questions about his immigration agenda from political reporters and progressive activists. This most recent evidence of un-wokeness, Republicans hope, will jeopardize the sizable lead he has built in the crowded contest for the presidential nomination.
With laser-like precision, the G.O.P. machine plans to expose it all: previously undisclosed or forgotten episodes, statements, Senate votes, relationships, favors granted, favors accepted, what he ordered in the Amtrak café car and how much he tipped— anything that might be relevant now that Biden is ascendant. “It’s a bountiful harvest of research,” is how one Trump World insider described it.
It’s not as easy as it looks. Since Obama plucked Biden from a collection of 2008 also-rans, a powerful mythology has emerged around the colorful, 76-year-old politician. He’s lovable “Middle Class Joe” from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is or crack a politically incorrect joke. He is, in fact, a little like Trump, minus the high-risk side effects that read like they belong in a pharmaceutical ad. As one concerned Republican pollster told me in an e-mail, Biden “doesn’t seem like the type of guy who wants to take my gun. He doesn’t seem like a miserable person to have to live with for four years. Biden’s record is so long and all over the map, that I think we worry voters give him a pass on everything before Obama and somehow he almost seems like he has a clean slate.”
Republicans want to rewind the clock and re-write the script, recasting Biden as the rhetorically cringe-worthy second coming of Crooked Hillary, responsible for nearly everything that’s gone wrong in Washington during Biden’s 50 years walking the corridors of power. To pull it off, the R.N.C., working hand in hand with the Trump campaign, has assembled perhaps its largest-ever war room, with approximately six to seven operatives working in opposition research and four to five conducting near ‘round-the-clock rapid media response. The effort—featuring public document requests and other standards of the dirt-digging trade—has been well underway since last year.
But the real oppo muscle of the Republican campaign is being provided by America Rising, an outside group that is focused on finding damaging information on Democratic candidates. With a staff of 70, expected to grow to 90 by Election Day 2020, America Rising for more than a year has been compiling dossiers on Biden and several other Democratic contenders.
There’s more to it than Freedom of Information Act requests. The group, which was founded by some of the best in the business, employs a full-time army of trackers shadowing the Democratic candidates, while another unit travels the country searching for obscure pieces of history on each candidate, in courthouse records, public libraries, maybe college yearbooks, that the candidates themselves might not even realize exists.
The material is forwarded to two of America Rising’s most important clients, the R.N.C. and America First Action—Trump’s designated, third-party super PAC—and weaponized. “There’s a lot of material on Biden. He was the vice president, so we got a head start, which is great. But we’re definitely not relying on that; we’re going deeper,” said an R.N.C. strategist involved in the takedown attempt. “It’s sort of a gold mine of content.”
Whatever Biden’s potential weaknesses as a candidate, Donald Trump appears more than a little angst-ridden at the prospect of a general election matchup. And for good reason, according to more than a dozen Republican operatives I spoke to for this story. Joe Biden is the biggest threat to Trump because he is a sharp, double-edged sword,” one veteran Republican operative told me. Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point; if Biden can cut into the president’s margins with the white working class, it’s not hard to imagine the old-school Labor Democrat reconstituting the blue wall that used to ring the industrial heartland. And without those three states, it’s game over. “He’s been singing the song of the disposed a hell of a lot longer than Donald Trump has,” a Republican media maven said. “He knows how to do grievance politics.”
It’s not just the Rust Belt. Republicans fret Biden would build on the Democratic Party’s midterm-election success in traditionally conservative suburbia, where women voters are inclined to switch off the television to shield their children from #MAGA rallies. Hillary Clinton showed some appeal in the suburbs three years ago, but was too radioactive to close the deal. Biden, however, could succeed with affluent, college-educated whites where Clinton failed. “The one thing Biden apparently gets is that he needs to motivate the white-collar suburban people who think politics should all be like the TV show The West Wing. He speaks that pablum fluently,” an alumnus of the George W. Bush White House lamented.