In the left corner, weighing in at 180 pounds, standing at six feet tall, the winner of two vice-presidential belts, with one Iowa caucus loss and one presidential primary disqualification, the Scranton Stallion: Joooooe Biden!
And in the right corner, at 239 pounds* and six feet, three inches*, with a 41-15 primary record, undefeated in the presidential general election, and the undisputed champion of the 2007 WWE Battle of the Billionaires, the King of Queens, the President of the United States: Dooon-aaaald Trump!
Is this where we are as a country? Yes. Yes it is.
Sure, in recent days, several other Democratic presidential contenders have been trying to gin up some headlines. Sen. Bernie Sanders hosted an online town hall on inequality, which attracted nearly two million live viewers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren slammed fellow Democrats who joined Republicans to modify Dodd-Frank bank regulations, rolled out new health insurance legislation and joined Bernie’s town hall. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand pressed her colleagues to support legislation that would put congresspeople, and not taxpayers, on the financial hook for settlements in sexual misconduct cases. Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar promoted paper ballots to repel Russian hacking of election systems, and helped secure funds in the omnibus spending bill to that end.
But none of that got nearly the same level of attention as Biden’s recent trash talk: “If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,” for Trump’s attitude toward women. That’s because Biden got under Trump’s skin, prompting a presidential retort on Twitter that “Crazy Joe Biden … would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.”
This is hardly the kind of debate for which many Democratic primary voters are hungering. It’s not about economic inequality. It’s not about health care. It’s not about Russian interference. And it’s only tangentially related to misogyny. But, with the memory of the juvenile free-for-all that was the 2016 presidential campaign fresh in their minds, there is one thing every Democratic voter wants to see in their eventual 2020 nominee: the ability to take Trump on. Not who can literally throw a punch, but who can rhetorically punch and counter-punch with the most vicious campaign brawler ever to occupy the Oval Office. And in this respect, Biden, with his playground put-down, has put himself at the front of the pack.
Democratic fear of being mauled on the campaign trail has never dissipated since George H.W. Bush’s team pummeled 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis beyond recognition. In the documentary “Feed” about the 1992 New Hampshire primary, an elderly woman goes up to the nebbishy former Sen. Paul Tsongas and asks, “Can you be nasty enough?” He calmly responds, “I can be nasty.”
Most Democrats were unconvinced. The movie also shows a Bill Clinton surrogate firing up the troops with, “We’re not going to lose to some man who wears a pocket protector!” They didn’t. Democratic voters opted for smooth Southerner over the Massachusetts nerd.
Since then Democrats have cringed at how the wonkish Al Gore became a “serial exaggerator” and the patrician John Kerry got swiftboated despite being a decorated Vietnam vet. The memory of how Trump brazenly used misogynistic language to dispatch Hillary Clinton still burns. Only Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both charismatic yet cunning, have successfully deflected the Republican attacks on their manhood in the era of Fox News.
In past elections, Democrats worried about fiendish operatives like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. Today, they must worry about the candidate himself. Normally, facing an incumbent president perpetually stuck at around 40 percent approval would not induce much panic. But not only did Trump manage to win the first time without the popular vote, he also has a proven ability to verbally diminish his rivals and knock them off their game. Ask “Low-energy” Jeb Bush, “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz and “Crooked Hillary.”
Biden’s retrograde machismo doesn’t fit the progressive sensibilities of a Democratic Party that skews young and female. The Forward’s Batya Ungar-Sargon posted on Twitter, “1950 called. It wants Joe Biden and his toxic masculinity back.” Keying off of that comment, the Washington Post’s Eugene Scott surmised, “Biden’s words could cost him some votes from women who are tired of seeing stereotypical expressions of manhood offered as a solution to the very real problem of sexual assault of women.” Biden already has a challenge of convincing Democrats to send yet another old white male to the White House, talking too “old-school” exacerbates the problem.
However, no one could possibly think Biden would get discombobulated at Trump’s juvenile nonsense. This is a man who dispensed with Rudy Giuliani – crowned Time Magazine’s 2001 Person of Year – as a man with nothing to say but “a noun, a verb, and 9/11.” In 2012, When Biden faced off with Paul Ryan (perhaps the closest thing to a Republican Tsongas in terms of nerdiness) in the vice-presidential debate, the New York Times reported that Ryan “seemed disconcerted by the sheer blowhard intensity Mr. Biden brought to the night,” and The Guardian headlined, “Joe Biden’s alpha-male display leaves Paul Ryan overwhelmed.” You cannot stop Biden from being Biden.
Biden should not get an advantage for being male. But let’s face it: A presidential candidate is more likely to win if she or he is an alpha, and especially so against Trump. However emotionally stunted or insecure he is on the inside, Trump plays the uber-alpha on TV. That energy is going to have be met. As the Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis wrote in defense of Biden’s bravado, borrowing from an old Bill Clinton saying, “It’s better to be strong and wrong” than weak and right.
In the Bernie Sanders town hall the Vermont senator, along with agitprop filmmaker Michael Moore, lamented that the “corporate media” tries to distract viewers with sensationalistic stories about “Russia” and “Stormy Daniels,” instead of covering issues related to poverty and inequality. Certainly this Biden-Trump dust-up would qualify as a similar type of distraction. But complaining, even noble complaining, is not much of an alpha move. Biden probably isn’t thrilled that his big mouth stepped on his rollout of a set of proposals designed to resuscitate the working-class, and his Thursday public forum the Biden Institute to discuss them. Yet I don’t see him wringing his hands about it.
The political reality is that getting into a (rhetorical) fight with Trump gives Democratic voters a chance to assess your fight skills, and preview what a general election might look like. Last month, Warren pledged to respond to every one Trump’s “Pocahontas” taunts by “us[ing] it to lift up the story of [Native American] families and … communities.” In December, when Trump attacked Gillibrand as someone who would “do anything” to get a campaign donation from him, she shot back on Twitter, “You cannot silence me or the millions of women who have gotten off the sidelines to speak out about the unfitness and shame you have brought to the Oval Office.”
Their moments of conflict got far more attention than their policy pronouncements. Is that fair? No. Should it mean that candidates shouldn’t bother with policy? No. But the 2020 nominee will need to live in the real world. And in the real world, the incumbent president is an insult machine and voters hate-click on food fights more than they sift through policy papers.
In preparing to go toe-to-toe with Trump, Democrats will have to take some sparring practice, and not all punches are going to land. But to insist that candidates shouldn’t treat the campaign like a schoolyard brawl is to deny the reality that one of the candidates is going to make sure that it is one.