Joe Biden (almost certainly) had a better week than you did. Over the past seven days, the ramblin’ septuagenarian has seen his two top rivals for the Democratic nomination focus their fire on each other, his poll numbers in Iowa jump, his final debate before the the Hawkeye State’s caucus go off without hitch (or, at least, with no more than the normal number of hitches), and his former boss do his campaign a big favor.
The Democratic front-runner was already doing perfectly fine last Friday. But his campaign still faced the looming threat of Tuesday night’s oratorical smackdown in Des Moines. At the last two debates, Biden’s top rivals had largely held their fire, ostensibly calculating that it was better to avoid going negative on the former vice-president if at all possible; maybe the old man would find a way to beat himself. But now, with Biden’s lead in national polls sturdy as ever — and Tuesday’s debate, his adversaries’ last, best chance to bloody him before the first ballots are cast — surely Uncle Joe was going to take some fire.
After all, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had both previewed new, anti-Biden attack lines in the run-up to the event. The Vermont senator began sewing his many substantive critiques of Biden into a larger narrative challenging the front-runner’s electability. Warren, meanwhile, released a bankruptcy reform plan that was clearly intended to function as a jumping-off point for a searing indictment of Biden’s work on the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill — a piece of legislation that had privileged credit companies over consumers to such an egregious extent, it had radicalized a humble legal academic who had once considered herself a conservative.
And then, Warren learned that the Sanders campaign was (somewhat gently) challenging her electability in a call script. And then CNN reported on a private conversation Sander and Warren had apparently had. And then the rest is (disputed, incredibly stupid) history. On Tuesday night, both Warren and Sanders seem to have become too preoccupied with their feud to properly execute their hits on Biden. Sanders did dig into Uncle Joe for his positions on trade and the Iraq War. But he never tied those together with Biden’s past support for Social Security cuts into a resonant warning about the front-runner’s inviability in a general election. Warren, meanwhile, completely neglected her bankruptcy plan.
Biden’s own performance at the debate was among his worst yet. There seemed to be a vacuum behind his mouth that sucked the energy out of the hall every time it opened. Each sentence was a journey, and most did not end at their intended destination. But he made it through without producing any incriminating sound bite, or taking any viral blows. Shortly thereafter, Warren’s Twitter mentions became infested with snakes, and CNN broadcast the Massachusetts senator and Sanders calling each other liars on national television.
Meanwhile, a Monmouth University poll found Biden leading the field in Iowa by six points — an advantage large enough to make him the Democratic front-runner in that state, according to RealClearPolitics’ poll of polls, for the first time in months.
To top it all off, Biden secured the pseudo-endorsement of the most popular man in the Democratic Party. No, Barack Obama has not expressed a public preference for his former wingman to win the primary. But many Iowa voters will soon believe that he has. In a new ad, the Biden campaign intersperses clips from Obama’s January 2017 speech presenting his vice-president with the Presidential Medal of Freedom with images of the candidate, in a manner that makes Obama’s words sound like an endorsement. According to Politico, Obama “was made aware of the ad beforehand” and raised no objections.
To be sure, Biden’s week wasn’t entirely flawless. On Friday, the New York Times published the vice-president’s interview with its editorial board. And in that extended conversation, the Democratic front-runner proved himself every bit as incapable of expressing his thoughts coherently as he has been at the debates, suggesting his difficulty is not rooted merely in nerves about public speaking. His explanation of why he does not support the legalization of marijuana is representative of his broader remarks:
Because I think science matters. I mean one of the reasons I’m running against the guy I’m running against is science matters, not fiction. Now nobody says, I’m not arguing, and Senator Booker acknowledged, I wasn’t arguing that we should in fact, it was a gateway drug. What I’m arguing is there have been studies showing that it complicates other problems if you already have a problem with certain drugs. So we should just study it and decriminalize it, but study it and find out. Get the medical community to come up with a final definitive answer as to whether or not it does cause it. If it does cause other problems, then make it clear to people. So that’s a place you don’t not engage in the use of it.
But, by all appearances, the fact that Biden is no longer capable of speaking in proper English sentences will be no impediment to his political success — in the Democratic primary, anyway.