The Democratic front-runner cannot speak in complete sentences when he is feeling tired or defensive. And 90 minutes of debate is enough to make him tired. And a reference to something that he said about race in the 1970s is enough to make him defensive.
These were my three main takeaways from the Democratic Party’s third presidential primary debate in Houston on Thursday. And they’ve left me rather apprehensive about the prospect of the Democrats sending Joe Biden into battle against Donald Trump next year. A three-hour debate can be tiring. But a 14-month campaign would seem considerably more so. If Biden can’t keep his talking points straight for an entire evening, what shape will he be in after running the gauntlet between today and his televised showdowns with the president next fall? And if a pointed question from an ABC News anchor can reduce him to spasms of anxious blather, how well will he hold up when Trump comes after his family?
But then, I may just be a biased coastal elite who doesn’t get it. Maybe my perception is so distorted by infatuation with unelectable socialists that I have been hallucinating a senescent old codger where a spry elder statesmen actually stands. After all, I thought Biden manifestly disqualified himself at the first debate, when each of his canned lines tumbled out his mouth in haphazard fashion, forming befuddling Dada sentiments like Biden’s promise to help America’s poor by “replacing them with the dignity they once had.” At the second debate, I thought I saw the former vice-president tell Americans who shared his vision for the country to “go to” his first name and then five random numbers.
But voters ostensibly saw something different. Because nothing that befell Biden’s campaign at the first two debates — nor before or after — has prevented him from retaining a healthy lead in Democratic primary polls, or the strongest numbers of any Democrat against Trump in hypothetical general-election surveys.
So maybe I just can’t see straight on this subject. To my eyes, the following exchange between Biden and ABC News’ Linsey Davis on the question of our collective responsibility for slavery reads like dialogue from an obscure Beckett play — but to an objective observer, perhaps this reads as a thoughtful, cogent answer from a man manifestly equipped to be the next president of the United States:
Linsey Davis: Mr. Vice-President, I want to talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” You said that some 40 years ago, but as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?
Joe Biden: Well, they have to deal with the … Look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where — Look, we talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title 1 schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the equal of … A raise of getting out of the $60,000 level.
Number two, make sure that we bring in to the help with the stud — the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need … We have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are required — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them.
Make sure that every single child does, in fact, have three, four, and five-year-olds go to school. School! Not daycare, school. We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not want they don’t want to help. They don’t know want— They don’t know what quite what to do. Play the radio. Make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. The phone — make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — er, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.
Davis: Thank you, Mr. Vice-President.
Biden: No, I’m going to go like the rest of them do, twice over, okay? Because here’s the deal. The deal is that we’ve got this a little backwards. And by the way, in Venezuela, we should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela. I know Maduro. I’ve confronted Maduro. Number two, you talk about the need to do something in Latin America. I’m the guy that came up with $740 million to see to it those three countries, in fact, change their system so people don’t have to chance to leave. You’re all acting like we just discovered this yesterday! Thank you very much.
In all earnestness, I do think Donald Trump is an unusually weak incumbent. And it’s quite plausible to me that in our modern, polarized era, campaigns just don’t matter very much. So, maybe now that Democrats understand Trump really can win the presidency, they will mobilize behind any standard-bearer, no matter how bizarre his or her syntax. Meanwhile, low-information swing voters may never tune into the debates; or if they do, they may not take any exception to Biden’s stumbles. His aura of moderation, personal familiarity, and “return to normalcy” message may be more appealing to such Americans than his ineloquence is off-putting.
But that strikes me as a needlessly risky bet to make, given the party’s myriad other options. Polling continues to indicate that, contrary to conventional pundit wisdom, Bernie Sanders is a formidable general-election candidate. Elizabeth Warren’s favorability has steadily increased throughout the duration of her campaign, as has her standing against Trump in the polls. But if you are more moderate in your ideological sympathies, or nervous about nominating someone “too progressive,” there are plenty of sharper centrists you can back. Cory Booker is a gifted orator. Amy Klobuchar is good at winning elections in the Midwest. Beto O’Rourke is tall.
Before Thursday, none of Biden’s ideologically sympathetic competitors had dared to explicitly sell themselves as a more mentally “with it” alternative to Uncle Joe. But after Julián Castro (clumsily) went there during the debate, Booker embraced the “many people are saying Joe Biden’s lost a few steps” line of attack.
If Biden does fade over the course of the campaign in a manner analogous to the way he’s been fading over the course of each debate, then I think Booker’s argument should prove potent. But that might just be because I’m an out-of-touch “woke millennial.”