Published May 28, 2019
Joe Biden’s campaign seems to believe that the adage from the story of the tortoise and the hare — “slow and steady wins the race” — is the secret to winning the Democratic primary campaign. That’s probably right, but maybe in this story, Biden is the hare.
The former vice president’s late entry into the contest has been followed up with what can only generously be described as a languid effort. A couple of events in early primary states, a couple of minor interviews with reporters and a few private fundraisers. Nothing that could expose the front-runner to too many spontaneous questions — or tax a 76-year-old man’s energy.
Backers want to portray this as a pace of a confident, well-known leader. In this view, Biden is like the tortoise, the slow, plodding but dogged competitor whose determination will just ground out a win.
The truth, however, may be that he’s acting more like the hare. Recall that the speedy rabbit jumped out ahead at the start and then, confident of his lead, stopped to take a nap. Comfortable in his dream world, the hare never noticed the tortoise passing him and crossing the finish line.
It’s about a month into the campaign and Biden, who has sprinted to the front, is already napping. He’s had a few public events since he declared, had none over the three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend and he won’t be attending the California State Democratic convention this weekend. Meanwhile, 22 tortoises are plodding along across the country trying to catch up.
That sort of pace just isn’t enough. Dante Scala, an expert on the New Hampshire primary and a University of New Hampshire professor, recently told Politico that “the watchdogs of the process — the local media, the national media, the voters themselves” would start to question Biden if he kept avoiding spontaneous questioning from voters and reporters. That concern might be even more prevalent in Iowa, where voters expect intimate contact with candidates and where the most recent poll showed him tied with Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign should serve as a warning for the Biden chieftains. Reagan started as the big front-runner and his honchos adopted the same sort of limited effort for their man. He avoided candidate debates in Iowa and failed to make much of an effort there. Meanwhile, a GOP tortoise named George H.W. Bush made winning Iowa his chief focus. Bush’s shocking upset win put him on the map and forced Reagan to abandon his above-the-fray campaign to directly engage with voters.
Perhaps Biden’s slow rollout is part of a plan to gin up second-quarter fundraising numbers. He could be working the phones, pushing his team to bring checks in before the June 30cutoff date. If Biden finished his first quarter in the race with a huge money haul — say, $25 million or more — he could easily cement his front-runner status and pick up the pace on the campaign trail.
But that’s the rub: He would still need to pick up the pace to be a viable contender. He may not need to do as many events each day as a lesser-known candidate, but he will need to start meeting more people and opening himself up to more questions. Doing so would put him at risk of making mistakes, especially poorly worded replies or the sort of rambling, undirected answers that would make people think about his age.
Democratic voters hate President Trump, but they know their adversary has a seemingly boundless energy and a taste for combat. They know Trump will crisscross the country hosting three or even four massive rallies per day when the time comes. He’ll lay it on thick, baiting Biden at every turn with jab and sucker punch. Trump will treat the general election like a UFC match — all contact with no rules and no holds barred. Democrats may not want someone who will meet him blow for blow, but they won’t want someone who can’t or won’t fight back.
Older Democrats have seen that script before. See Michael Dukakis, the 1988 nominee against Bush. Dukakis, too, ran as the hare, ignoring attack after attack from Bush as the energetic tortoise tried to make up a 17-point deficit by questioning Dukakis’s patriotism and judgment. When he finally did reply, the result was the infamous Dukakis-in-a-tankphoto op, a moment so ludicrous and ill-conceived that it destroyed his campaign overnight.
Democrats won’t want that again and will abandon Biden in a heartbeat if it looks like he’s not ready for mortal combat. “Sleepy Joe” is going to have to wake up this summer, get on the hustings and persuade voters why he is the right man for the job. If he doesn’t, don’t be surprised if more than one Democratic tortoise passes him as he snoozes on the side of the road.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.