By going on the attack, Biden did something else important: He turned the conversation away from his own record, on which heâ€™s immensely vulnerable. During his nearly half century in politics, Biden has taken so many positions that contemporary Democrats loathe that his rivals could fill every Democratic debate criticizing him. And especially after seeing how ineptly Biden rebutted Kamala Harrisâ€™s attack on busing, itâ€™s likely that the other top competitors are sharpening their swords. When the next debates begin later this month, itâ€™s easy to imagine Sanders going after Biden for his vote for the Iraq War or Elizabeth Warren accusing him of making it harder for families to declare bankruptcy. These duels would be hard for Biden even if he were an immensely skilled debater, which he no longer is.
Biden needs to approach the primary campaign like Barack Obama approached the 2012 general election, when his approval ratings hovered below 50 percent: He needs to delegitimize the opposition. And health care is Bidenâ€™s best chance. Itâ€™s his best chance because his positionâ€”Obamacare plus a public optionâ€”is more popular even among Democrats than the Sanders/Warren position of Medicare For All without private insurance. When the Kaiser Family Foundation asked Democratic voters in January what they wanted congressional Democrats to prioritize, protecting and improving the Affordable Care Act beat passing Medicare for All by 13 points.
Drawing a clear contrast with Sanders and Warren also reminds commentators, and voters, that Harris hasnâ€™t been clear on health care at all. Twice alreadyâ€”first at a CNN town hall in January and second at last monthâ€™s debateâ€”Harris has indicated that sheâ€™d abolish private insurance only to reverse herself. She also failed to answer a Washington Post survey on the issue. So at the same time as he paints Sanders and Warren into an ideological corner, Biden has the chance to paint Harris as someone who canâ€™t make up her mind.
Finally, focusing the campaign on Obamacare versus Medicare for All highlights Bidenâ€™s greatest political strength: the perception that heâ€™s the Democrat best able to beat Trump. If scrapping private insurance is a loser among Democrats, itâ€™s an even greater loser among Americans as a whole. As the January 2019 Kaiser poll notes, support for Medicare for All drops to only 37 percent when Americans are told it would eliminate private insurance. Thatâ€™s an awful number for a party that has consistently relied on its advantage on health care to win elections. By emphasizing how unpopular abolishing private insurance is, Biden can give substance to his electability argument. Itâ€™s no surprise that this weekend in New Hampshire, while attacking his opponents on health care, Biden also noted that he was the only presidential candidate invited to campaign for congressional candidates in conservative states like Montana and North Dakota.