PITTSBURGH — Joe Biden’s debut as a 2020 presidential candidate placed him far away from his rivals for the Democratic nomination — both philosophically and geographically.
While others rally around ideas such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, Biden used his kickoff rally to advocate for a more moderate public option for health insurance and less sexy policy proposals, such as outlawing noncompete clauses for low-wage workers.
And though most newly declared candidates head straight for Iowa, New Hampshire, or one of the other early caucus and primary states, Biden chose to stage his first event in western Pennsylvania, an area where President Donald Trump exceeded expectations in 2016. (Biden is headed to Iowa on Tuesday.)
The former vice president told a crowd of more than 600 packed inside a Teamsters banquet hall that Democrats have struggled in such working-class regions. He then suggested that he is uniquely positioned to win back the voters who abandoned the party for Trump.
“Quite frankly, folks, if I’m going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s gonna happen here,” Biden said. “With your help, I think we’re going to be able to do that.”
One of Biden’s staunchest allies made the case more explicitly in a warm-up speech.
“With a field of good people putting themselves forward this primary season, the most important factor that we must determine in the Democratic nomination process is: Who can win?” said Harold Schaitberger, head of the IAFF, the firefighters union that endorsed Biden earlier Monday. “Who has the necessary experience to win? Who’s got the mettle to win the general election? Let me shoot straight with you — and this may not be popular in parts of the Democratic Party, but we have to have a nominee and can’t have a nominee that is too far left.”
About an hour later, Biden diverged from much of the rest of the Democratic field on health care. He called the Affordable Care Act — which as Obama’s vice president he proclaimed a “big fucking deal” — a “huge step forward” before talking up a public option to purchase government-run health care.
“Whether you’re covering it through your employer, or on your own, or not, you all should have a choice to buy into a public option plan for Medicare,” he said.
Biden, who was late to the stage and kept his speech to under a half hour, promised more specific policy proposals later, noting that those in the audience had stood waiting for him for hours. Besides the ban on noncompete clauses, he endorsed a $15 minimum wage and called for a more simplified process for issuing professional licenses. And though he has said his campaign will promote broad themes such as reclaiming the soul of America and rebuilding the middle class, Biden spoke repeatedly about the “dignity” of work — a theme pursued by Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio when Brown was considering a presidential bid earlier this year.
Biden’s electability argument strongly resonated with many on Monday.
“I’m 27 and a lot of folks in my age cohort are really jazzed about the more overtly progressive candidates,” said Patrick Joyal, a Pittsburgh political consultant and Biden supporter. “I think Biden has all those qualities but he speaks to the issues that matter to the folks we lost in 2016.”
Biden has argued that he would be the most progressive Democrat running. But progressive groups more in step with the new political left — think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others pushing for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — have signaled a willingness to attack Biden for his past votes as a senator.
The lead-up to and early days of Biden’s campaign also have been marked by scrutiny over physical behavior with women that some women say was inappropriate and his treatment of Anita Hill when she testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her during Supreme Court confirmation hearings Biden chaired in 1991. None of that bothered one IAFF union member, who voted for Trump in 2016, believes Trump “can be an idiot,” and is open to supporting Biden in 2020.
“I would like to vote for Trump,” said the firefighter, who declined to give his name because he didn’t want to be seen as representing the union. “But I wonder if all the controversies are his fault — or is it the news media’s fault? Biden’s been there. I would lean toward him. Seems to be a decent guy. Do I believe what the women said? Yeah, I think he did make them feel uncomfortable. But you can sneeze on somebody and make them feel uncomfortable.”