PHILADELPHIA — And to think I was worried. Having lingered too long over a cheesesteak lunch, I feared being late for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s big kickoff rally here Saturday, forced to watch the event at the Eakins Oval from a mile or so away. But despite showing up at about 12:58 p.m., two minutes before the festivities were set to begin, I easily waltzed right up to the front of the thin crowd, a mere 20 feet or so from the lectern from which Mr. Biden would deliver his remarks.
A Barack Obama or Donald Trump rally this was not: Despite being held in the heart of a big, Democratic city on a picture perfect Saturday afternoon, the crowd could not have totaled more than a few thousand. The organizers were obviously expecting the light loads, as the bay of television cameras set up to capture the event was brought in close to the stage. At least that way, the small area in front of the stage looked full of Biden fans to the TV viewers at home.
The organizers were less successful in their choice of the cascade of opening acts that took to the stage before the former vice president’s arrival. A pastor gave a benediction; a young girl led the crowd in a rote Pledge of Allegiance; a local singer tried gamely, if not altogether successfully, to hit the low notes on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sadder was the gospel choir that fell prey to incompetent technical organization: While they were belting out a song, some technical genius simultaneously played a different song over the loudspeakers. To their credit, the choir pretended not to notice except to sing a little louder.
The crowd was similarly wan. Attempts at starting a “We Want Joe!” cheer petered out after no more than five chants. A woman in front of me remarked that she came out of curiosity, but was really interested in Pete Buttigieg, the wunderkind mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Another recounted how Obama rallies felt like “rock concerts.” This, not so much.
Mr. Biden himself tried to capture a little rock star energy though. After being introduced by his wife, Jill Biden, the former vice president strode onto the stage to the predictable tones of “Born in the U.S.A.,” sporting aviator shades and a suit jacket, both of which he quickly dispatched with. His 30-minute speech was disastrously delivered. Either the sound was too low or Mr. Biden was nowhere near close enough to the microphone as he spoke. So inaudible was the former vice president to the crowd assembled in front of him that at one point he was drowned out by a tiny Cessna flying thousands of feet overhead. Cries of “speak louder!” did little to change the situation.
What was audible was less than impressive. Mr. Biden stumbled over his teleprompter-delivered words, at one point suggesting that the Constitution was ratified in 1887. He delivered policy-free peans to “unity,” punctuated with an overabundance of the word “folks.” He also has an odd habit of, every now and again, stressing that he actually means what he just said. “Really, guys!” Or, “I’m not joking!” This has the odd implication that the vice president doesn’t mean much of what he says. It’s like when a person prefaces a sentence, “To be honest …”
By far the largest applause line that Mr. Biden delivered was one stressing the need to defeat President Trump. And, indeed, this is the barely suppressed subtext of the former vice president’s rationale for running. It’s not that he’s the smartest, or the most qualified, or the most competent, or the most charismatic. It’s that his fans have determined that, his obvious struggles on the stump aside, he is the most “electable.”
Central to this contention is that Mr. Biden connects with the white working class, the blue-collar voters who pulled the lever for Mr. Obama twice, and then switched to Mr. Trump, thereby flipping Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania and delivering the presidency to the New York real estate magnate. The evidence for this is thin on the ground: One awful showing in the Iowa caucuses aside, Mr. Biden has run only in Delaware, which suggests, if nothing else, a connection with credit card and pharmaceutical-company employees.
Bob Byrd, a longtime Delaware politico, does point out that for many years the state hosted a large auto plant, now shuttered. He says that Mr. Biden did indeed have a strong appeal to the workers there. But that was decades ago, and, as professor Paul Brewer of the University of Delaware says, “The political loyalties of the white working class have changed a lot since [Biden]’s last Senate run.” Which is to say, they are now much more likely to vote Republican.
And indeed, in a weird way, the strongest rationale for Mr. Biden’s electability — that he served two terms as the vice president of the last Democratic administration — actually undermines it. After all, doesn’t the victory of a liberal, biracial law instructor undermine the notion that only Old Joe can win back Joe Sixpack?
⦁ Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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