Joe Biden is not my favorite Democrat. Over his half-century in public service, the former senator from MBNA did much to alienate pinko proponents of “purity politics” such as myself. The man undermined integration, championed mass incarceration, abetted financial deregulation, and green-lit the Iraq invasion. Now, whenever millennials call attention to the ways his policies have hurt our generation, Uncle Joe tells us to quit complaining — and that nothing fundamental is ever changing.
And yet, until recently, I could see why so many Democratic primary voters were abiding Biden. There’s a very good chance that Mitch McConnell will control the Senate no matter who wins the presidency next year. And even if he doesn’t, a Democratic Senate majority will depend on the votes of lawmakers well to the right of (2019) Biden. A President Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would be lucky to get health-care and climate legislation as ambitious as Biden’s past their party’s “problem solvers.” Granted, whether the next Democratic president is a socialist or a centrist will definitely have stakes for regulatory and foreign policy. But the stakes of whether Donald Trump gets evicted from the Oval Office are still higher. So why not do the “electable” thing, and nominate an affable old white guy who’s managed to win the trust of the Democrats’ African-American base, while remaining just racist enough to make white swing voters comfortable? After all, no other Democrat performs nearly as well against Trump in the polls (and the larger the Democratic standard-bearer’s margin of victory in 2020, the more likely the party will be to retake the upper chamber next year, and thus, to actually govern come 2021).
But Joe Biden is not an insurance policy or Onion character. He’s a 76-year-old human being with a rapidly metastasizing case of “foot-in-mouth” disease.
Now, there’s nothing all that unusual about a candidate flubbing one word in a speech. One could plausibly read Biden’s absentminded equation of “poor kids” with “black kids” as a Freudian slip — but it’s also possible that the former vice-president was supposed to say “poor kids are just as bright as wealthy kids, black kids are just as bright as white kids, etc. …” and got the lines tangled for wholly innocent reasons. If this were the only cringe-inducing gaffe of Biden’s campaign, it’d be scarcely worth a mention.
But it was just one in a series of cringe-inducing gaffes. (Biden kept it up on Saturday, saying that as VP he received a visit from survivors of the Parkland shooting … which happened in 2018.) And the veep’s first two debate performances featured roughly as many senior moments as they did ham-fisted appeals to Obama nostalgia. In Miami, Biden said he was running for president to help America’s “poor and hardworking middle-class people,” and “you can’t do that without replacing them with the dignity they once had.” In Detroit, he ended his closing statement by inviting Americans who shared his vision for the country to “go to” his first name and then five random numbers.
Thus far, Biden’s Democratic rivals have been too polite to make an issue of the candidate’s increasingly conspicuous senescence. But some of his allies have been more forward; in interviews with the New York Times last month, “some of Mr. Biden’s own donors” evinced “significant unease about Mr. Biden’s ability to be a reliably crisp and effective messenger against Mr. Trump.”
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has already demonstrated that it can and will work to disqualify Biden, one gaffe at a time. The most widely shared clip of Biden’s “poor kids” slip-up on progressive Twitter Thursday night was packaged by the president’s official rapid-response director. On Saturday, Trump himself called out Biden’s “truth over facts” flub.
Electability is in the eye of the beholder. I’m far from convinced that there’s a tradeoff between how progressive a Democratic candidate is, and how likely he or she would be to prevail next November. Bernie Sanders is something close to a known commodity at this point, and he still polls quite well against Trump. Elizabeth Warren is proving herself a far stronger campaigner than many skeptics had predicted. That said, those in the market for a conventionally “electable” moderate have plenty of safer bets than an Iraq War supporter in ostensible cognitive decline. Amy Klobuchar consistently wins elections in Minnesota by a wider margin than the state’s partisan lean would predict. Cory Booker is an amiable orator with a gift for inspiring documentaries about himself and rescuing freezing dogs. Beto O’Rourke came within a couple points of beating an incumbent senator in Texas (and he’s starting to get really good at cursing). Steve Bullock has managed to win elections as a pro-choice, pro-labor, pro-gun safety Democrat in Montana. And Pete Buttigieg is easily the most lifelike android that Democratic consultants have ever manufactured.
None of these candidates inspire euphemistic whispers about whether they’ve “lost a step.” None has a half-century worth of controversial congressional votes that Trump’s henchmen can cynically exploit. Like Hillary Clinton before him, Biden will bring a record of supporting failed foreign interventions, catering to despised financial institutions, and demagoguing about “super-predators” with him to the general election. Which is to say: Nominating him will enable Trump to once again cast himself as the alternative to a discredited political Establishment — and his opponent as a betrayer of black voters — in targeted Facebook ads. Were Biden as sharp today as he was when debating Paul Ryan in 2012, one might feel confident in his capacity to rebut such attacks. But he isn’t.
Finally, Joe Biden is the only candidate in the Democratic field who can plausibly win the nomination without running an impressive campaign. By definition, an “unelectable” nominee is one whose core assets are more valuable in a primary than they are in a general election. If Biden stumbles into the nomination on the strength of his association with Barack Obama — and the goodwill he’s accrued with the Democratic faithful as one of the party’s elder statesmen — there’s a significant risk that the general electorate will be less forgiving of his contemporary weaknesses.
Is it possible that swing voters will be as indifferent to Biden’s rhetorical hiccups and personal baggage as they were to Trump’s in 2016 and/or that the threat of another four years of this administration will ensure high Democratic turnout for a Biden-led ticket? Sure. I can’t say with certainty than those polls showing Biden trouncing Trump are wrong (though I can say that such surveys aren’t typically predictive this far out). And I can’t say that swing voters definitely don’t find Uncle Joe’s familiarity as comforting as the Democratic base does.
But do you want to bet the White House on it?