Joe Biden intended to stay above the fray. He wasn’t going to punch down at opponents, or embark on any apology tours for past votes or statements. Creating a sense of inevitability was the goal.
That strategy is now out the window. Since Kamala Harris cold-cocked him on the debate stage two weeks ago, Biden has had to recalibrate. The former vice president, who rarely submits to TV news interviews, granted a sit-down to CNN. His surrogates have been unleashed to deliver more pointed attacks on Harris. In speeches, he’s now more directly referencing his eight years with Barack Obama as a defense.
Perhaps most revealing of all, after repeatedly insisting he said nothing wrong in his controversial comments about working with segregationist senators, Biden finally conceded — he offered an apology over the weekend for the “pain and misconception” his words caused.
“There are people that are all over Joe to get more aggressive,” according to a source who spoke with Biden in recent days. “People are very nervous.”
The source added that the debate will be Biden’s next big test. “If he doesn’t come out strong and swinging, you’re going to see a lot of people leaving him.”
Since the late June debate when Harris surprised him with an attack on his record on racial issues — including working with segregationist senators and his opposition to federally mandated busing — Biden has received an earful from supporters and donors who say he lacked both presence and aggression in the debate, according to sources who recently attended events with or spoke to the former vice president in recent days.
More worrisome, the former vice president has seen his poll numbers slide in post-debate surveys.
In recent days, he’s worked to get back on track, beginning with a more coherent defense of his work on civil rights. In South Carolina, where the African American vote will be pivotal to the outcome of the primary, he apologized for his remarks concerning segregationist senators.
In a CNN interview with Chris Cuomo, Biden drew sharper contrasts with primary rivals he once ignored, asserting that those who backed Medicare for All would undo the landmark accomplishment of the Obama administration: the Affordable Care Act.
In the interview, Biden relayed a familiarity with Barack Obama, repeatedly referring to the former president as “Barack” and nodding to personal conversations the two shared in shaping the health care law.
A top Biden South Carolina surrogate, former state Democratic Party chair Dick Harpootlian, said the campaign didn’t need to take an aggressive approach before the Harris exchange.
“Until the debate, nobody had attempted to land a critical punch,” he said. “They’re responding to deal with issues that arise from someone attacking the vice president’s record.”
Biden’s new tack isn’t a campaign restart; his campaign insists that positioning Biden as the antidote to Trump remains the central thrust. In New York on Thursday, Biden is scheduled to deliver an expansive foreign policy speech that is expected to lay out a view of what American policy should be, and serve as a critique to the current president’s approach to it.
Still, it’s clear that the debate sparked a realization that Biden would need a different approach with five more debates in 2019 alone, and seven months to go until Iowa votes.
“I think it is true that what you’re seeing it is a more assertive time in the campaign,” a senior Biden adviser said. “He’s not going to sit back and let people distort his record, nor is he going to let people define the terms of engagement.”
“Coming out of the debates, something the campaign felt strongly about is, we needed to be assertive on what his record was, both in terms of moving forward but to also demonstrate to the political world at large that we weren’t going to take that sort of thing without a response,” the Biden adviser continued. “We went out and tried to, best we can — especially with a slick and slippery person — try to pin Kamala Harris down on her own record.”
The California senator’s bloodying of Biden figures prominently in the campaign’s revised thinking, in no small part because of the considerable resentment it created within the Biden camp.
Biden himself spoke of what he perceived as the personal nature of Harris’ attack since Harris and his late son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, served together as attorneys general of their respective states.
“I was prepared for them to come after me,” Biden told CNN, speaking to his expectations of the debate. “But I wasn’t prepared for the person coming at me the way she came at [me]. She knew Beau, she knows me.”
Harpootlian characterized Harris’ debate assault as below-the-belt given Biden’s past political support for her and Harris’ friendship with Beau Biden.
“It’s not right, it’s distressing. It shows a lack of integrity: win at any cost,” Harpootlian said. “Why is she taking that shot when Joe Biden and his son did everything they could to help her? It was more of a comment about her than it was about Joe Biden.”
Another Biden surrogate, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, expressed a similar sentiment.
“Kamala Harris got a lot of applause when she said Americans didn’t want to see a food fight. Then she took a whole platter of mashed potatoes and gravy and dumped them on the vice president,” Rendell said. He then suggested that other campaigns were combing through Harris’ record as a prosecutor, saying if she made mistakes: “They’re going to find them in her dossier. So be careful what you wish for.”
Other Biden team members and surrogates have kept up the anti-Harris drumbeat on cable news, social media and on Twitter.
A person close to Harris who declined to be named dismissed the criticism, saying that “trotting out a parade of 70-something white guys to attack a black woman’s integrity may not be the best look.”
Either way, the aggressive counter-assault might be necessary — and unavoidable — in a crowded field where Biden’s front-runner status is suddenly in peril with several contenders now nipping at Biden’s heels.
“I think the vice president has to display a much more vigorous style, a more vigorous schedule, but most of all he has to do better in the next debate,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Bernie Sanders. “He’s got to show some sizzle. Democrats like energy and sizzle.”
Longabaugh said Biden, like many of the Democratic candidates, must also sharpen his message if he hopes to be a durable candidate.
“What’s the case he’s going to make? Is it the third term of the Obama administration? Is it ‘fighting Joe Biden’ — and what does that mean?” Longabaugh said. “I just don’t think he has laid out compelling elements of his candidacy yet.”