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Safe Bet

May 20, 2019 8:58 a.m.

This note from TPM Reader DR from a few days ago got me thinking along the lines I mentioned in my post from over the weekend …

I think people are missing a basic point about Biden’s lead. It’s not so much a sign of his strength as of the other candidates’ weakness. Democrats are looking at the alternatives and aren’t all that impressed. Sure, Joe has flaws but they’re no worse than those of the other candidates, who are far less tested. How will they stand up against the onslaught? Joe isn’t very exciting but he’s a known quantity. I doubt the campaign will tell us anything we don’t already know about him.

Collectively, this may look like a strong field, but taken individually they all look pretty weak. Do you want to bet the future of the country on Bernie beating Trump? Beto? Kamala? Mayor Pete? It’s not so much about Joe’s electability but everyone else’s apparent unelectability. But it’s still early. Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina could still produce a breakout star. If that happens, Biden’s lead could dissipate quickly. Everyone likes Uncle Joe but few are enthusiastic. Until then, Dems will go with the one least likely to lose.

I will say that I’m not sure this is accurate. Or I’m not sure it’s accurate in more than a transitional sense. Biden’s current popularity belies a lot of the arguments about what kind of candidate Democrats are looking for in 2020. But his strength against Trump relative to the rest of the top five candidates (Sanders, Harris, Warren and Buttigieg) may really just be a matter of relative exposure, trust levels. I don’t think that applies to Sanders that much. He’s a known quantity with near 100% name recognition. That’s partly the case with Warren. Certainly for Harris and Buttigieg they’re just not that well known. They have room to build.

Still, I think DR is on to something. Many Democrats believe something dramatically or significantly different is necessary in response to the catastrophe of Trumpism. I believe this myself in many ways, that whatever you thought of the Obama era, we can’t just set back the clock. We will need to go forward to get back to normal or good or okay. But that’s certainly not the only way to look at it and, at least in terms of who the nominee is, it doesn’t seem like what Democrats are thinking as of this moment.

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