Biden needs to invite the nation to his virtual front porch

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.

Of course the issues were different. The country was different, its role in the world was different. The means of communication were different, the methods of transportation were different. The roles of the sexes were different, racial attitudes were different. Even the diversions were different; there were dance halls and vaudeville and a World Series where the Cleveland Indians prevailed over the Brooklyn Robins. The candlestick phones that were popular did not have camera features.

But there was this: In 1920, the leading presidential candidate did not campaign among crowds at all.

A century ago — when the post-World War I flu pandemic clearly had passed its peak danger and wasn't much of a campaign issue at all — Warren G. Harding didn't venture into packed hotel ballrooms, held no rallies, appeared at no rope lines. He didn't venture into the country to seek votes. He stayed at home and bid the voters to visit him in Marion, Ohio. It was the last of the four front-porch campaigns, and the way he ran against Gov. James M. Cox of Ohio may be the precursor of the way former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is forced to run against President Donald J. Trump this fall.

The contours of presidential politics 2020 already have been altered. Nine states postponed their primaries. The parties can't be sure they can hold their summertime nominating conventions. The financial crash endangers campaign fundraising, and in any case, glittery events to rake in money are out of the question. The rhythms of the campaign have been reset.

Just weeks ago the political world was dominated by the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the struggle between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was the principal topic in political circles and on cable television. That fight has become the undercard in the American conversation.

Biden is gasping for airtime, stumbled in an appearance on "The View," issued a bland video from his basement and was overshadowed even in his own campaign by a far more compelling video appearance by his onetime chief of staff Ron Klain, who asked why the Trump administration had dismantled the pandemic response operation he built in the White House in the Barack Obama years.

Meanwhile, Sanders — in the thick of the fight on Capitol Hill over the economic-stimulus debate and carrying much of the progressive water in that struggle — has won much media attention. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, with a personal profile perhaps even more abrasive and off-putting than that of Sanders, has emerged as the Democratic media star of the moment. His daily briefings have been so compelling that even Nikki Haley, the onetime South Carolina governor many Trump supporters wish would replace Vice President Mike Pence on the GOP ticket, regards them as must-see TV.

The political figure who is the straw stirring the media drink: Trump himself.

Presidents always emerge as the major figure in times of crisis; nobody paid much mind to Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas in 1933 as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt struggled to steer the country out of the Great Depression, much as nobody worried much about Sen. Barry Goldwater's views about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Trump remains where he has been since the early months of the 2016 presidential campaign and into his White House years: at the center of every conversation, every debate, every seminar in the American presidency, every conference (even by Zoom) on the nature and future of American politics. His televised appearances spawn more news than any event anywhere. And though his highest approval ratings remain the lowest of any president's since polling began, they are inching toward the important 50% mark in several of them and have surpassed that level in the Harris Poll, which generally has been more favorable to the president.

Meanwhile his opponents wonder, as they once did about the mythological Waldo, where is Joe Biden?

The editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal said Biden had become "a junior partner of the congressional wing of his party," no compliment from that corner. His campaign was slow developing a digital operation, in part because his campaign had been so weak early on that he didn't attract enough money to build what now is a vital part of his effort to slam Sanders from the race, gather the remaining 777 delegates to reach the 1,991 required for the nomination, and retool for the general-election campaign.

Now he is facing the prospect of running for president less like FDR than like Harding, conducting a 2020 version of the 1920 campaign that Harding ran from his front porch. Harding argued for a theme Biden has embraced with enthusiasm: a return to "normalcy," a term that had been confined to higher mathematics until Harding popularized it a century ago.

The Biden and Harding campaigns have political nostalgia, which is why Harding deliberately sought to employ an image from the Garfield campaign of 1880 while utilizing the radio technology of 1920.

"A huge theme of the Harding front-porch campaign was that in a period of turbulence, he presented a portrait of the serenity of the good old days," said Phillip Payne, a St. Bonaventure University historian and author of "Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding's Scandalous Legacy," published in 2009. "Biden will campaign on a return -- a return to competent government, a return to the familiar. Harding may have stood on his front porch and spouted platitudes, but it worked. It was the image of 'normalcy' and looking 'presidential' that he was selling."

A front-porch campaign -- also conducted by Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and William McKinley in 1896 -- has attributes Biden might consider in his makeshift studio. He cannot summon large crowds to Wilmington, of course, because people can't travel and can't assemble on his lawn. But he could set out his views, announce his running mate, mount a verbal offensive against the president, and even deliver his non-convention acceptance speech from that basement redoubt.

"It could work," said Jeffrey Bourdon, a University of Southern Mississippi historian who wrote a book on front-porch campaigns. "You can produce optics for television, Twitter and Instagram. It is a technique tried only four times, but there never has been a candidate who tried it who lost."

North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

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