- - Monday, September 7, 2020

Joe Biden cannot have a Sister Souljah moment because he cannot afford one. Despite the riots demanding one and his campaign increasingly needing one, Mr. Biden lacks the political capital for one. Instead, he is again forced in the only direction that brings unity to his fractious and tenuous coalition: Blame Trump. 

In June 1992, Bill Clinton attended the Rebuild America conference held by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Also attending was the political activist Sister Souljah, who had shocked with her embrace of racial violence by stating: “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill White people?” Mr. Clinton used his attendance to confront Souljah’s sentiment: “If you took the words ‘White’ and ‘Black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

It was a brilliant — and a brilliantly successful — political gambit. Mr. Clinton’s premeditated confrontation created the “Sister Souljah moment” and catapulted him onto a different political plane. The upstart winner of the Democratic Party nomination had pivoted decisively to the middle ahead of his underdog general-election matchup with the incumbent George H.W. Bush. 

A generation later, rapidly increasing left-led riots in Democrat-governed big cities have created a social crisis for America and a political crisis for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. It is one that Mr. Biden wanted to ignore — and was during the Democratic National Convention and Mr. Biden’s acceptance speech. Now, like waiting until delivery to acknowledge pregnancy, he and Democrats no longer can. 

Joe Biden is now being urged to reprise Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment. Despite the seemingly perfect societal and political chance, Joe Biden will not do so. He will not because he cannot. 



Joe Biden is no Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton was a masterful politician with the ability to deftly pivot politically on a dime. He went from being the young governor of a small conservative state in the Deep South to seizing the nomination of America’s liberal Democratic Party. First governing as an institutional liberal, following landslide midterm defeat, he assumed the role as a fiscal conservative. He survived two sex scandals — at the beginning of his presidential quest and then in his second term — either of which would have doomed any other politician.

While Mr. Clinton had an amazing ability to be anything to anyone, Mr. Biden is plagued by being exactly the opposite. Bill Clinton was the anti-establishment candidate; Mr. Biden is the ultimate establishment candidate. Mr. Clinton was articulate and at his best campaigning; Mr. Biden was so poor at campaigning he had to stop.  

However, the most important difference separating Mr. Biden from a Sister Souljah moment is that he cannot afford to do it. Even if Mr. Biden were personally capable of pulling it off, he is not politically capable of it.  

The 1992 Democrats were not the 2020 Democrats. Mr. Clinton could take on extremism because it was not Democratic mainstream then; it helped Mr. Clinton to do so then. Today, it would irreparably damage Mr. Biden.  

In 1992, Mr. Clinton had earned his base; in 2020, Mr. Biden has inherited his. Mr. Clinton was betting with “house money” then; Mr. Biden would be betting the house now.  

In 1992, Mr. Clinton had just convincingly and surprisingly won the primary contest for the nomination. He was turning to an even more uphill general election contest with George H.W. Bush. Mr. Clinton knew winning the ultimate prize would take a grand gamble; so, he started five months out, knowing he also had time to recover if he lost this one.  

Mr. Biden backed into the 2020 nomination when the rest of the left-dominated field backed out. Thinking he had the general election won. and wanting to avoid the only thing that his campaign thought could lose it — their candidate’s own gaffes — Mr. Biden withdrew for months from the public. Now entering the race’s homestretch, Mr. Biden’s time for big gambles is gone, along with his time to recover from a lost one.  

Now with the increasing riots increasingly causing Mr. Biden a problem, he is trapped in a way Bill Clinton never was. Mr. Biden must acknowledge the obvious, but he obviously cannot alienate his base.  

Mr. Biden’s only choice therefore is not the grand gamble of Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment, but the old standby of blaming Mr. Trump. So, last week he went to Pittsburgh, where instead of really denouncing the violence, he absolved it by first laying it at Mr. Trump’s feet: “He’s stroking violence in our cities.”  

Mr. Biden did so because he had to. He had to acknowledge the crippling riots, but he could not risk two of Democrats’ most important constituencies. Blaming Trump was his only alternative, because it is the only thing that draws those constituencies to Mr. Biden. So instead of getting Sister Souljah from Mr. Biden, we got Brother Scapegoat.  

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.

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