By Steve Howell
It doesn’t matter whether you are chocolate pudding or a would-be president, the product has to meet expectations. The Marks and Spencer ‘food porn’ adverts were hugely successful only because most people actually agreed that #ThisIsNotJust any food. Politicians similarly must both choose the right narrative and live up to it.
Joe Biden’s recent announcement that he’s running for US president came with a strapline positioning him as representing ‘the conscience of the country’. His campaign materials quoted the Declaration of Independence – ‘all men are created equal’ – and evoked the American Dream – ‘there’s nothing (people) can’t achieve if they work at it’.
Those sentiments are, of course, often deployed in US politics. But this isn’t just any election: Biden – or whoever the Democrats choose – will be up against Donald Trump, a populist par excellence.
Trump’s surrogates were quick to attack Biden for not living up to the ideals he was appropriating.
Out came the clips of Biden’s sleazy moments with women and patronising references to people of colour. Particularly damning was a 2008 interview in which he said: ‘You cannot go to a 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.’
On their own, these might be passed off as harmless gaffes, for which Biden is famous. But his supporters will find it much harder to dismiss his 1970s voting record on school desegregation.
Elected to the Senate in 1972 on a platform backing school bussing to achieve integration, Biden soon retreated when he realised how bitterly white constituents in his Delaware seat opposed it. He was not alone among Democrats in the 1970s in abandoning the emblematic civil rights era policy, but it is baggage that sits uncomfortably with being the nation’s conscience.
Biden is not Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. He does not have the kudos of being the first African-American or attempting to be the first woman to reach the White House.
The UK media has largely echoed the Biden campaign spin that he is the candidate Trump really fears: a moderate who can win the middle ground. Honest Joe, it’s said, will go down well in the Midwest states the Democrats have to win.
But, if that’s the case, why has he chosen a narrative that – even if he could live up to it – speaks mainly to the Democratic party’s liberal, cosmopolitan base?
This is all the more puzzling given how the 2016 battle between Clinton and Trump turned out. Unlike Biden, Clinton was credible as a voice for equality and diversity on social questions. Her downfall was in dismissing Trump supporters as ‘deplorables’. Perceived as part of the elite, she simply galvanised many alienated voters against her.
Trump, on the other hand, positioned himself as the anti-establishment candidate who would ‘drain the swamp’. Once in power, he has surrounded himself with old guard Republican insiders and former corporate executives. And the big policy of his first term was tax cuts that blatantly benefited the super-rich.
But he is adept at turning reality on its head. And Biden is an easy target. After nearly half a century in Washington, he is an archetypal insider. The mismatch between his choice of narrative and his track record allows Trump’s attack dogs to portray him as a shifty politician who follows the tide.
If the Democrats in Congress then also pursue Trump over obstructing the Mueller inquiry, that – however justified – will only compound the problem, allowing Trump to play the victim of an establishment vendetta.
In the latest poll of Democratic contenders, Biden is the front runner on 36%, followed by Bernie Sanders on 22% and Elizabeth Warren on 9%. But there are twenty confirmed candidates altogether and name recognition plays a big part at this early stage.
In my view, Biden would be a gift to Trump. He has too much baggage and has adopted a Hillary-esque narrative that fails the Marks and Spencer test. You might say that the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but the trouble is that, in politics, you don’t get your money back.
Steve Howell was Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications in the 2017 general election and told the story of the campaign in Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics (Accent Press).
He is the founder and a board director of Freshwater UK, a communications consultancy based in London and Cardiff. He is a dual US-UK citizen.
Photo via Good Free Photos