Is New Hampshire the end for Joe Biden?

His campaign is sputtering

(Image credit: Illustrated | Tom Brenner/Getty Images)

It sure looks as though the end is near for Joe Biden's latest presidential campaign.

Forecasting the future in politics these days is a fool's game — as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan noted on Saturday, journalists are "bad at predictions." So here is a caveat: It is still early in the primary process, there is no clear front-runner, and anything could happen.

Still, Biden gave off the distinct odor of flop sweat over the weekend.

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At Friday's Democratic presidential debate, he conceded he is unlikely to win this week's New Hampshire primary. That, in turn, led some of his staffers in the state to all but abandon the campaign. "I can't give up 12 hours of my time — I'm a busy person myself — if he doesn't think it'll make a difference," one volunteer told Politico. Biden tried salvaging the operation, but at least one poll showed him sliding behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. If there were bright signs for his campaign, they were few and far between.

Oh, and on Sunday Biden called a voter a "lying dog-faced pony soldier." Apparently this was a joke. It wasn't a good one.

Maybe the former vice president will actually be president by this time next year. But he won't earn the office campaigning the way he has been. To have a chance at a clean slate — and to turn the campaign around — Biden and his advisers are going to have to confront three big issues.

First, there is no such thing as inevitability. That's a lesson candidates should have learned in 2016, if they didn't understand it already. Hillary Clinton was inevitably the Democratic nominee that year — until Sanders made it a close call for her. Then she was inevitably going to win the general election. She didn't. No Democrat, no matter how prominent, should ever have entered the 2020 contest expecting to be crowned.

Biden's campaign tried to create that sense of inevitability — and I admit that I fell for the message. He was ahead in so many polls for so long, surviving gaffes and fresh takes on old scandals, that I began to think of his candidacy as inexorable and inevitable, even writing to tell progressives how they could build their agenda with his candidacy as the starting point. "If Biden does win the nomination," I wrote, "there will be no time for petulant, third-party rebellion."

That was right. But premature.

Second, it's tough to build a winning campaign on a rationale that everybody knows is false. Biden has marketed his potential presidency as a return to prelapsarian America, a time before President Trump when senators of both parties could knock the hell out of each other during the day, go get beers after work, and then hash out a deal the next day that everybody could live with. Just elect Biden, and an era of bipartisan comity will reign one again. "I just think there is a way, and the thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends," Biden said last spring.

That almost certainly won't happen — and Biden, who served as vice president to Barack Obama, should know it better than anybody. Republicans dedicated themselves to complete obstructionism during the Obama administration on the theory it would benefit them electorally. They were right. Which means there will be little or no incentive for them to play ball with a Biden administration, and everybody who has paid the least bit of attention to politics in the 21st century understands that. The Democratic nominee will need a plan for how to govern in the face of that obstructionism, and Biden doesn't really have such a plan — he offers himself instead. It's not enough.

The third issue may be insurmountable. It seems possible — even likely — that the best and highest office for Joe Biden is vice president of the United States. It was the perfect position for somebody like Biden — an experienced politico who could run errands and make contacts on Capitol Hill on behalf of his (initially very inexperienced) commander-in-chief. He even gleefully knocked around Paul Ryan a little bit during the 2012 vice presidential debate. Certainly, "Joe Biden" is probably the most popular character ever at The Onion. But the skills required for the vice presidency are different from those needed in the big chair.

Maybe Biden can address these issues. Maybe, having failed in two previous runs for the presidency, he has the formula figured out this time. With the New Hampshire primary looming, though, it is starting to look — again — as though the former vice president will wipe out. If so, it would be a sad end to a long career of mostly honorable, if sometimes flawed, public service.

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