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Michael Barone / Jun. 14, 2019

The Not-Inevitable Candidate and His Not-Feasible Pet Project

Will Joe Biden inevitably win the Democratic nomination for president? A month ago, many psephologists thought so, as national polls within two weeks of his April 25 announcement showed the former vice president with 41 percent of Democratic primary votes.

Will Joe Biden inevitably win the Democratic nomination for president? A month ago, many psephologists thought so, as national polls within two weeks of his April 25 announcement showed the former vice president with 41 percent of Democratic primary votes.

Four weeks later, that number has fallen to 32 percent, still formidable in a field of 24 candidates but lacking the look of inevitability. His light schedule of campaign events suggests a lack of confidence in the stamina steadiness of a 76-year-old candidate, and his flip-flop on major issues strengthens that impression.

The most important issue on which he’s switched is probably China. In May, he downplayed its importance. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!” he told Iowa Democrats. “They’re not competition for us.”

He changed his tune in June. “We need to get tough with China,” he said, decrying its “abusive behavior,” “cheating” and “repression.” Quite a turnabout for one with 42 years of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the National Security Council.

Attracting more attention was his 24-hour renunciation of his 43-year opposition to Medicaid abortions. He argued that recent state laws restricting abortion, if upheld by the courts, would reduce availability of abortions. But Medicaid payments won’t open closed clinics or enable banned procedures.

Nor did Biden’s abortion flip-flop reflect unanimous Democratic opinion. A June Politico/Morning Consult poll showed Democrats almost evenly split on Medicaid abortions: 45 percent for, 38 percent against.

All of which makes a Biden nomination look less inevitable this month than it did in May. And maybe it was all along. A May YouGov survey reported that only 8 percent of Democrats were for “Joe Biden or bust.” The same percentage was “Bernie Sanders or bust,” while 67 percent were “considering multiple candidates.”

This is a race in which every candidate, well known or not, is standing on quicksand. As former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, wrote this week for CNN, “No one is going to hand Biden the Democratic nomination. He’ll have to engage fully and fight for it if he is to get the face-off with Trump he is seeking.”

And if his flip-flops on China and abortion undercut his supposed advantages of deep experience and settled conviction, his stance on another issue has the capacity to make his priorities seem downright eccentric.

That issue, dear to his heart, is passenger rail. During his 36 years in the Senate, he commuted almost every day to his home in Delaware on Amtrak, a 75-minute commute each way these days on the Acela. A month after the election, his first wife and daughter were killed in an auto accident. The commute enabled him to help raise his two sons. Over many years, it enabled him to keep in closer touch with constituents than almost any other senator.

No wonder he’s been a booster of high-speed rail, which makes him a natural ally of freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this year. Her “Green New Deal” proposals include “transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible” and would, according to a staff-drafted FAQ document, require the federal government to “build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops being necessary.”

Of course your mileage may vary on what is “necessary.” There’s no doubt that the not-quite-high-speed Acela is the fastest way to travel the 120 miles from Capitol Hill in Washington to downtown Wilmington. But it’s cheaper to drive a car or take a bus, and it would be faster if you could commandeer a helicopter.

The veteran Biden, like the newcomer Ocasio-Cortez, wants the federal government to pay for “the construction of an end-to-end high-speed rail system that will connect the coasts, unlocking new, affordable access for every American.”

It’s hard to overstate how wacky an idea this is. We already have “affordable access” through commercial airlines and interstate highways. And at distances above 300 miles, high-speed rail can’t compete on travel time with airlines and on costs with automobiles. Among the world’s much-praised high-speed rail lines, only the 300-mile-long Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen and the Paris-Lyon TGV have been profitable.

Given the fiasco of California’s now-canceled high-speed rail and the longstanding failure to upgrade the Acela line to Shinkansen/TGV standards, it’s lunatic to envision — and start paying for — a 3,000-mile coast-to-coast passenger rail line. Anyone want to ask Biden about this?

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