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Imagine if Joe Biden weren’t so bad at running for president

On Saturday, Biden packed a small auditorium in North Liberty, a suburb of Iowa City, with a crowd that looked identical to the audiences Hillary Clinton attracted in 2016. The generally older group cheered here and there — especially about ousting President Trump and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) — but the enthusiasm seemed more dutiful than irrepressible. The most ardent cries of “let’s go, Joe” came when the crowd shouted down a prankster interrupting Biden’s remarks.

“I’m going to do whatever it takes to make progress on the matters that matter most,” he said in a mild monotone, not even thinking to stop for applause. It was easy to miss that Biden’s program is well to the left of what Barack Obama proposed in 2008. He promises to aggressively fight climate change, create a generous public health-care option and crack down on guns.

But if this was more progressive than Obama dared, it was far less uplifting than what Obama offered. “Talk is sometimes very expensive,“ Biden warned in a not-so-oblique jab at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt). “Especially when you don’t tell people how you’re going to pay for it or who is going to pay for what you’re proposing.” True, but voters are also looking for inspiration, not just a reminder to eat their spinach.

At times Biden seemed to be pitching Republicans to caucus for him. He quoted Ronald Reagan and center-right New York Times columnist David Brooks. “I refuse to accept the notion that it’s a forever war between Democrats and Republicans,” he declared, calling for unity and healing.

Nothing he said was wrong. But the event ended with former secretary of state John Kerry livening things up, which says something about the level of excitement. “In a little under a year from now, Joe Biden’s going to be moving into the White House and Donald Trump is going to be worried about moving into the big house,” said the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, a line perhaps too banal to have not been prepared by Kerry.

Trump’s toxic personality will motivate many in the middle to seek a calm, competent candidate, so it is reasonable for Biden to pitch the Democratic center, even Republicans, on character, decency and unity. In other words, boring. This is the core of his primary-season argument: He can win the centrist voters who don’t want to vote for Trump in the general election. It’s even possible that some erstwhile Republicans could support Biden in Monday night’s Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Imagine if he made that argument better. His failure to do so has left a large opening for former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D). Like Biden, Buttigieg offers a unifying message and a realistic progressive platform, yet he doesn’t make it seem like a capitulation. For her part, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) musters more rhetorical fire than Biden.

But American liberalism in the broadest sense — the consensus that for so long governed the nation’s progress, which the Republican Party has now abandoned — needs a champion, not several splitting each other’s vote shares. Down the road from Biden’s Saturday rally, a crowd of 3,000 young hipsters and aging hippies cheered raucously as Michael Moore implicitly compared Sanders to Jesus Christ. Sanders’s democratic socialism, he said, is like the literal miracle of the loaves and fishes: “Everybody got a piece of bread, and everybody got a piece of fish. That’s called sharing the wealth; that’s called redistribution,” he bellowed. Sanders then outlined his political revolution — a maximalist, we-win-you-lose approach to politics that stokes unrealistic demands in the minds of supporters and repels those with even mild disagreements. Such as, for example, experts who sympathize with Sanders’s goals but point out that it would take a miracle for his numbers to add up or for his key policies to become widely popular.

Sanders is fighting an asymmetric war on terms that favor him. He rejects the notion that reality as it has presented itself until now is relevant. He has the luxury of saying, well, whatever, and in the loudest, most gravelly voice he can muster. It is not fair that Sanders gets to sell exciting nonsense while his opponents have to deal in boring reality.

But that is what the times demand. Biden may yet prove to be politically durable, in Iowa and elsewhere. If so, it will not be because he rose to the moment when it mattered most.

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