The iconic moment for Joe Biden in the New Hampshire candidate debate was during a relatively early discussion of impeachment, when the former veep, after mentioning impeachment witness Alexander Vindman’s firing by the White House, suddenly started exhorting the audience to stand up for Vindman, stand up for Vindman, STAND UP FOR VINDMAN! The debate crowd at St. Anselm’s College, perhaps half of whom were familiar with Vindman’s name, dutifully started standing up. Perhaps a few were old enough to remember that this was the signature stunt of another veep who ran for president, Hubert H. Humphrey, way back in 1968 (as recorded by Theodore White in The Making of the President 1968):
In good form…he could lift the evangelist’s voice and declaim for the rights of blacks and white Americans as well: “I stand on human equality, on equality of opportunity for every American, regardless of race, color or creed. Stand up, I tell you, stand up for human rights, stand up, STAND UP”–and the entire audience, carried away by his concern, rose and gave him a standing ovation.
To understate things significantly, STAND UP FOR VINDMAN lacks some of Humphrey’s eloquence. But it fit right into a Biden debate performance that despite its occasionally solid moments was an ongoing demonstration that the man is a living relic.
Style isn’t everything, but in Biden’s case, the first thing you notice in a debate is how old he looks, and soon enough, how old he sounds. He started off speaking rapidly, as though he had been wound up, and at odd moments he began shouting. Even early on, there was the odd phrase: “I was busting my neck” in helping enact Obamacare. Almost immediately, he began drawing attention to his long, long record on health care and guns and other issues as though viewers doubted he was experienced enough.
By the second hour of this three-hour debate he was beginning to trip over words and shift topics unpredictably in mid-sentence. He grew manic in screaming “I’m the guy who…” so often that it was easy to miss what, exactly he was talking about. There was another iconic moment when Tom Steyer, who is obsessively trying to chip into Biden’s African-American stronghold in South Carolina, challenged the former veep to repudiate one of his key supporters in that state, Dick Harpootlian (nearly as much of a political warhorse as Biden himself), for his suggestion that one of Steyer’s black supporters had been bought. Biden did nothing to explain or defend the comments or tell the audience who the hell Harpootlian was. It was like he was in his own bubble, trying to remember his talking points.
Perhaps this unfairly emphasizes aesthetics and appearances. But it’s important to understand that Biden came into this debate in deep trouble, after a fourth-place finish in the Iowa Caucuses and currently running fourth in the polls in New Hampshire. He needed to show the energy and confidence he lacked in Iowa, and the coherence he has often lacked in all the debates. Yet he began this crucial event for his campaign by volunteering that he figured he’d lose in New Hampshire. This was not the tonic his troops were looking for. And many Democratic opinion-leaders who backed Biden as the safest bet are undoubtedly are hedging them now.