For Joe Biden, the déjà vu is real.
An unpopular, scandal-plagued incumbent President. Tax cuts that aren’t being felt in the middle class. A restless public that has lost faith in its institutions and is looking for alternatives. A confrontation with Iran. America’s self-image is in the balance, the electorate is weighing a generational change, and there are young upstarts promising to take the nation in a fresh direction.
Everything old is new again this year, and 2020’s election cycle feels a whole lot like 1988, when Biden first ran for President. But this time, Biden isn’t the rabble-rouser in his mid-40s; he’s the seasoned grandfather who’s atop the polls. Biden’s opponents are promising dramatic changes, while the former Vice President is pitching himself as a steady-as-she-goes figure who will buck up, not break, the status quo.
All of which makes Biden’s team of advisers nervous about Thursday’s night debate. It will be the first time the Democratic contenders will be on the same stage with Biden, challenging each other on policy and politics. And even then, it will only be about half of the crowded field. Ten of Biden’s rivals debated Wednesday night in Miami, while another nine will join Biden on the same stage for a sequel. All eyes—and all the pressure—will be on the race’s front-runner, who last debated a political foe in public in 2012.
Biden has been putting a lot of pressure on himself to get this right. Advisers likened it to the pressure he put on himself before deciding to join the race: if he’s going to do this, he has to do it right this time. His campaign has been unsteady in the early going. Fundraising and online operations that loomed as possible weaknesses have turned out solid showings, and the early storylines about his non-sexual physicality with men and women alike seems to have faded. A misstep last week—invoking an avowed segregationist while preaching compromise — did nothing to ding him in the polls, not even among African-Americans. Word he lifted parts of his energy plan without attribution (another unhappy echo of his plagiarism scandal in 1988) was barely a sneeze.
But Biden has also been rusty on the trail. What’s more, he has not faced this level of exposure in more than six years, when he debated Paul Ryan in the fall of 2012. During his two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president, the internet turned him into the well-meaning uncle who sometimes was prone to goofiness. But that doesn’t cut it when it’s a nine-on-one discussion, especially if any of his younger challengers—and everyone except Bernie Sanders is younger—turn his four decades in service against him.
That’s why Team Joe spent more than 10 hours huddled on Monday, trying to fine-tune answers they’ve been practicing for weeks. Under debate rules, responses are capped at one minute. Follow-ups can go another 30 seconds. Biden sees his expertise, forged over decades in national politics, as his biggest strength. But his long-windedness could work against him in this format. Ask Biden about the Green New Deal and he will start with legislation he sponsored in the 1970s and walk audiences through the legislative history.
At no point, Biden advisers say, is he prepared to attack his competitors. “What you’ll see from the Vice President … is him making his case directly to the American people about why he should not only be the Democratic nominee but the next President of the United States. You hear a lot about Joe Biden on television but not necessarily about what his plans are and what he would do and why he’s running and what his vision for America is,” said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign.
During the first evening, Biden was largely spared any jabs. The closest of a direct critique came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who said she would leverage public opinion to bring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republicans in the Senate to heel. Biden has long promoted his ability to work across the aisle for compromise.
“Our responsibility tonight was to lead and to say who we are,” Jen O’Malley Dillon, Beto O’Rourke’s campaign manager, said Wednesday. “It’s not our job to define the other candidates.”
Biden aides snarked that the rivals were lesser-known than Biden, who enjoys near-universal name recognition. “I think they made a decision that the imperative was on them to introduce themselves to the American public,” said Kate Beddingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager.
But with Biden on stage, that dynamic may change. And Biden does not plan to respond.
“A lot of people might want to talk about Joe Biden on that stage,” Sanders said. “Joe Biden is going to speak to the American people.”
That’s not to say his rivals are going to adopt a similar posture. Biden’s polling advantage has not evaporated, as some rivals expected. If they’re going to overtake him, they’re going to have to knock him down a few pegs.
On Thursday, Biden’s rivals could try to use him as a foil. Sanders is likely to throw zingers at Biden, while South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg will attempt to break into the top tier. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, author Marianne Williamson and businessman Andrew Yang will also debate — and all of them know the best way to gain attention is to punch up.
But it will be Biden who is literally at center stage, with a political advantage he has pursued — often unsuccessfully — since the 1980s. The conditions around him may feel similar in some ways. But he has never been in such a strong figure position to capture the Democratic nomination. Or had so much to lose.