Even so, the opening days of Joe Biden’s third presidential campaign are giving some Democrats flashbacks to another presidential front-runner: Hillary Clinton.
Biden’s first fundraiser? Hosted by a Philadelphia-area donor who did the same for Clinton four years ago. His early policies? Embraced by Democrats, including Clinton, for years. A decadeslong record in Washington? Clinton had a similarly lengthy résumé. And a tortured, drawn-out apology as the first controversy of his campaign? Remember her private email account, former Clinton aides shudder.
As he ramps up his presidential campaign, Biden appears to have taken some lessons from Clinton’s defeat — but paid no heed to others. Even as he structures his campaign around an implicit critique of her general election effort, offering a full-throated appeal to working-class voters at his opening event in a Pittsburgh union hall, Biden has embraced the kind of incumbent-like, establishment campaign that left Clinton open to a fierce primary challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Like her, he touts his decades of government experience, intimate knowledge of world leaders and close relationship with former President Barack Obama.
But unlike Clinton, who faced attacks from just one opponent, Biden is running against a historically large and diverse field of candidates, some of whom have already spent months scrutinizing parts of his long political record.
“It’s a very different moment,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a progressive civil rights advocacy group that has consulted with 2020 candidates. “At the end of the day, Hillary was a historic figure and Biden will have to explain, in a moment when there are many historic figures running, why him?”
Since Clinton’s loss, Biden has criticized her campaign for failing to sufficiently address the economic concerns faced by working-class voters and focusing too heavily on Donald Trump. Now, in his own stump speech, Biden has adopted a version of her general election rhetoric in his primary campaign, centering his effort around a moral call for returning to the values of a pre-Trump America.
“Everybody knows who Donald Trump is, but we’ve got to let him know who we are,” Biden told a crowd of voters gathered at a brewery in Iowa City. “We’ve got to start by making it clear we choose hope over fear, we choose unity over division.”
Some former Clinton aides say that after two years of Trump’s administration, voters may now find a character argument more compelling.
“Normally, in a Democratic primary, going back to the way it was is not the kind of forward-looking message that will win primaries, but this time could be different,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s campaign communications director. “There are people who want to put a lot of faith in the idea that Biden is like a tonic that can wash away the Trump years.”
Biden’s allies say the fervent Democratic desire to defeat Trump will prompt primary voters to overlook any issues they may have with Biden’s age or previous positions.
“Number one is who can beat Trump,” said Ted Kaufman, Biden’s former chief of staff in the Senate and appointed successor as senator after the 2008 election. “That will be the determining issue when we actually start voting.”
The Clintonian echoes began before Biden even kicked off his campaign, with his drawn-out apology to Anita Hill for how she was treated during the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings over the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas. It is an issue he has been publicly expressing regret over since 2017.
After several interviews, Biden settled on some phrasing: “I take responsibility,” a sentence that echoed the words Clinton landed on after months of declining to apologize for her use of a private email system while she was secretary of state.
Biden’s entrance into the race prompted a fight with Trump over age and energy levels, a dust-up that recalled the president’s attacks on Clinton’s “stamina.” A conservative news aggregator later spliced together clips from Biden’s first campaign appearance where he appeared to slur his words and posted a video on YouTube with the title “Old Man Joe.”
A link to the video on the Drudge Report sent shivers down the spines of some Democrats, who recalled the steady drumbeat of conservative attacks on Clinton’s health. So did calls by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani for the Justice Department to open an investigation into the business activities of Biden’s son, Hunter, during the Obama administration.
Supporters say Biden, who frequently highlights his working-class background, has a far deeper connection with voters than Clinton, whose struggles to connect left her vulnerable to Trump’s attacks.
“He’s running the way he’s run for 40-some years and that is focusing on the middle class,” said Kaufman. “That is the way he views himself and the people he identifies with.”
His gender may also help Biden appear more relatable than Clinton: Research has found that it is much harder for female candidates to be rated as “likable” than male candidates — and that they are disproportionately punished for traits like ambition that voters accept in male politicians.
“He’s a strong candidate in support of the little guy,” said Dan Buser, 56, a lieutenant in the Iowa City Fire Department. “You didn’t know what to believe there at the end with Hillary Clinton.”
Biden and his supporters have not exactly been shy about calling out what they see as the failings of Clinton’s campaign.
“He speaks to and connects with those workers who didn’t believe the last Democratic nominee heard about them, cared about them, and felt that their historic votes for the Democratic candidate were maybe just being taken for granted,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which endorsed Biden.
Biden and Clinton developed a respectful relationship over their decades in Washington, though one marked by slights and awkward rivalries. Biden was resentful of the attention Clinton received when they ran against each other in the 2008 primary race, but it was he who was eventually chosen as Obama’s running mate.
They became more friendly through weekly meetings while they both served in the Obama administration. But tensions deepened after Biden considered running against Clinton in 2016. After her loss, he has been fairly open with his critique that she failed to talk to middle-class voters.
“What happened was that this was the first campaign that I can recall where my party did not talk about what it always stood for — and that was how to maintain a burgeoning middle class,” Biden said in March 2017.
But sandwiched amid the “folks” and “malarkey” sprinkled throughout Biden’s stump speeches, the former vice president has largely embraced the same traditional Democratic Party policies as Clinton.
Like her, he backs a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, would provide a public option through Medicare to expand the reach of the health care law, and would eliminate tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and large corporations.
When asked by protesters in Des Moines about climate change, Biden referenced his work on the 2009 stimulus bill, meandering through a number of ideas to expand the use of renewable fuels.
“I’m one of the first guys that introduced the climate change bill way, way back in ’87. By the way, you are preaching to the choir,” he told a group of demonstrators wearing penguin masks.
Two days earlier, Beto O’Rourke, another candidate for the Democratic nomination, released a $5 trillion proposal to combat climate change. A few days later, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington proposed making all U.S. electricity “carbon-neutral” by 2035. At least a dozen candidates are willing to consider a carbon tax.
“In a primary where there are big, bold new ideas, Joe Biden is advocating for more of the same, at least as far as Democratic Party policies,” said Lanhee Chen, who was chief policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s Republican presidential campaign in 2012 and is now at Stanford University. “We’re talking about 1990s-era economic policies.”
As his opponents begin testing arguments against Biden, rivals from both the left and the right find themselves turning to some of the same kinds of attacks they leveled against Clinton. Just hours after Biden announced his campaign, Sanders took aim at a series of votes in Congress, including on trade — reprising criticism Sanders once leveled against Clinton.
“When people look at my record versus Vice President Biden’s record, I helped lead the fight against NAFTA. He voted for NAFTA,” Sanders said in an interview with CNN.
During his first swing through Iowa as a candidate, Biden largely avoided the press, as Clinton once did, taking only a handful of questions before a limited number of reporters.
“I’m not going to get in a debate with my colleagues here,” he said.
Liberal activists say those kinds of nonanswers are unlikely to fully satisfy Democrats, particularly minority voters who largely know Biden from his role as Obama’s vice president.
“The question will be how much will he be able to give us the story of why so many of the moments where he could have been on the right side of civil rights and social justice issues, he wasn’t,” Robinson said.
That’s part of what worries younger voters like John Cross, a teacher in Des Moines who said he liked Biden but believed it was time for a new leadership to take power.
“He and Clinton, they’re kind of both part of that generation,” said Cross, 35, who supported Sanders in 2016. “The things they are talking about now, why didn’t they do them 20 years ago?”
Even so, he is not totally ruling out supporting Biden.
“At the end of the day, if I don’t think anyone else can win, I’m going to vote for Biden,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.