Joe Biden delivering a eulogy at Strong Thurmond's funeral in 2003. Photo: Getty Images
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Two funerals and a candidate

Why Biden is winning

“He was one complex guy,” eulogised Joe Biden in 2003 at the First Baptist Church of Columbia, South Carolina. That “complex guy” was Strom Thurmond, the Democrat-turned-Republican senator notorious for his commitment to segregation and opposition to the civil rights movement. “The truth and genius and virtue of Strom Thurmond is what I choose, and we all choose, to remember today,” said Biden, then a senator, celebrating a friendship that transcended political differences and arguing (on slender evidence) that Thurmond eventually saw the light on race and civil rights.

As well as being friends, Biden and Thurmond were legislative partners, working together in the Senate on crime legislation that contributed to the mass incarceration problem at the heart of the questions of race and criminal justice that dominate the political conversation today.

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This week, Biden delivered another eulogy, at the funeral of George Floyd, whose death after Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost ten minutes has triggered nationwide unrest and international outrage. “We cannot leave this moment thinking we can once again turn away from racism that stings at our very soul, from systemic abuse that still plagues American life,” said Biden in a video message played at the service in Floyd’s hometown of Houston.

In several important ways, these two eulogies — one for a politician who stood in the way of racial equality in America, one for a black victim of police brutality — reveal the quiet and oddly underrated talents of a sometimes clumsy politician whose shortcomings are all too clear.

Biden’s private losses are perhaps his defining feature as a public figure

First, they are a reminder that Biden’s default political gear is empathy. As the New York Times pointed out this week, it is no coincidence that Biden is something of a serial eulogiser: “Mr Biden has been linked to matters of death and recovery since he was sworn in as a United States senator, from the hospital where his two toddler sons were recovering after the 1972 car crash that killed his first wife, Neilia, and their daughter, Naomi. One of those sons, Beau, died of cancer at 46, five years ago last month.”

His intimate knowledge of tragedy and grief have made him an unusually human politician. Biden’s private losses are perhaps his defining feature as a public figure. In an election year characterised by pandemic and pandemonium, and up against an incumbent who appears almost allergic to the empathy and reassurance that are an important part of the job, it’s not hard to see why the traits that make Biden a popular funeral speaker make him a potent Presidential candidate.

Second, these two funerals, 17 years apart, demonstrate Biden’s ideological flexibility. The tough-on-crime senator who worked with Strom Thurmond in waging a racially-inflected war on drugs has taken up the fight for racial justice. Notwithstanding a minority on the left of the Democratic Party still smarting over Biden’s primary victory, no one has batted an eyelid.

Biden has acknowledged problems with the 1994 crime bill that he was instrumental in passing and announced his intention to reverse parts of that law during the primary. On countless other issues, Biden has blown with the wind over his long career. He voted against the First Gulf War and for the Second. Biden, a Catholic, used to call the decision in Roe v Wade a mistake. Over the years, he has softened and reversed his stance on abortion as the Democratic Party has become steadily less hospitable to pro-life politicians. He now promises to enshrine the court ruling in legislation. In the primary, he dropped his support for the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion services except in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening circumstances, as soon as it started to look like an obstacle to securing the nomination.

He swerves left and right freely, but charges of flip-flopping don’t seem to stick. That’s because Biden makes no claims to consistency. He could hardly be less ideological, prizing values rather than specific policies, valuing bipartisanship as an end in itself and never knowingly expressing any interest in ideas. And so he can U-turn with abandon, making him a difficult opponent to pin down.

Much could change before November, but present evidence suggests that the American people look at the Democratic candidate and like what they see. A poll released by CNN this week gave Biden a whopping 14-point lead over Donald Trump. (Redoubling the humiliation, the Trump campaign sent CNN a cease-and-desist letter arguing that the poll was “a stunt and a phony poll to cause voter suppression, stifle momentum and enthusiasm for the President”.) Methodologically, the survey was nothing out of the ordinary, and is broadly consistent with other polls. One survey of Michigan gave Biden a 12-point advantage in a swing state that was central to Trump’s 2016 win.

Pretty much the only area in which the President leads Biden is on the economy, and Trump will hope that the dynamics of the race change when the economic news improves. But, for now, the unavoidable conclusion is that the former Vice President is in a very strong position — and much stronger than Hillary Clinton was at this stage in 2016.

Of course, Biden has been a beneficiary of the President’s missteps. Trump’s lacklustre response to Covid-19 and his tone deaf reaction to the death of Floyd and the subsequent protests have made Biden’s argument for him. But the man who last year launched his presidential bid as a “battle for the soul of America” nonetheless deserves more credit than he is given for his frontrunner status. He has consistently read the room better than his opponents. During the primary, he defied the widely held view that only radicalism could win over Democratic voters. During the pandemic, he largely ignored the calls to do and say more, rather than wait it out in his Delaware home.

As the Trump team goes back to the drawing board to devise a strategy that could deliver them four more years, Biden has his offering figured out, and a political style that increasingly looks like its time has come.

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