Joe Biden seems well on his way to locking up the Democratic nomination. His 16-point win in Tuesday’s Michigan primary knocked his rival Bernie Sanders’s best chance for a comeback off the board. He scored three additional victories in Idaho, Mississippi, and Missouri, to Sanders’s one in North Dakota. (With 67 percent of precincts reporting, the Vermont senator is ahead in Washington by 0.2 points, according to the New York Times.) All things considered, Biden has set himself up nicely to guarantee a November showdown with Donald Trump. His next test will be Sunday’s debate against Sanders in Arizona.
The problem for Biden is that his debate performances have uniformly been a disaster. His senescence is glaring whenever he appears onstage next to more lucid speakers. He leaves thoughts half-finished and stumbles over his own arguments, often cutting himself off unasked and subjecting audiences to brief but awkward silences in lieu of full sentences. He’s set the bar so low in past debates that his livelier-than-expected showing in South Carolina’s was heralded as a triumph, paving the way for his eventual victory in the state’s primary.
It’s no exaggeration to say that onstage sparring is the forum where Biden’s electability argument is the most likely to implode. Where before he’s benefitted from sharing the platform with multiple challengers and could fade into the background, Sunday marks the first time that most exchanges will unfold between two interlocutors. It’s a lot of spotlight for a man whose campaign, according my colleague Olivia Nuzzi’s reporting, views his off-the-cuff remarks as regrettable occurrences worth “preventing at all costs.” By some accounts he’d be better off not having to defend his ideas in public at all. Representative James Clyburn had a similar thought. From NPR on Tuesday:
I think when [Tuesday] night is over, Joe Biden will be the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination, and quite frankly, if the night ends the way it has begun, I think it is time for us to shut this primary down, it is time for us to cancel the rest of these debates — because you don’t do anything but get yourself in trouble if you continue in this contest when it’s obvious that the numbers will not shake out for you.
The “trouble” to which Clyburn is referring gets clarified later in the segment. He notes that George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad, which was seen as instrumental in his 1988 general election defeat of Michael Dukakis, originated not with GOP oppo researchers but with Al Gore’s primary campaign. The South Carolina congressman is arguing that the DNC should end the election early to avoid similarly irreparable damage to Biden’s prospects against Trump. “People will say things that you cannot overcome,” the congressman and vocal Biden ally noted.
Of course, doing this would be a clinic in anti-democracy. It would pervert the electoral process by invalidating thousands of American votes before they’re even cast, including those of the disaffected young people who support Sanders by huge margins but whom the party’s old guard seems bent on alienating — despite their crucial importance to the Democrats’ electoral relevance moving forward. But it would certainly play to Biden’s strengths. The former vice-president’s greatest asset is that he’s a known quantity. His decades-long ties to the party Establishment and goodwill generated by serving as VP to the most popular living Democrat has helped him coast to front-runner status — despite raising and spending vastly less money, and generally running less of a campaign, than many of his leading competitors.
Biden is winning in large part because of what he represents to voters: a return to the sociopolitical norms that Trump’s election rudely upended. It hasn’t mattered so far that this perception clashes with what he’s demonstrated himself to be capable of. By any reasonable measure, a 77-year-old who opened his Super Tuesday victory speech by confusing his wife for his sister is a far cry from the conquering hero that his supporters seem to be projecting. Yet the obvious ravages of age have failed to deter them. People have flocked to his campaign despite compelling evidence that he’s barely lucid enough to run one. Flagging faith in Biden’s abilities left him with such a depleted war chest that he couldn’t set up offices in Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma, or Tennessee. He won all six states on Super Tuesday anyway.
But if voters are so committed to supporting a version of Biden who no longer seems to exist — and are so impervious to his dogged efforts to disabuse them of their preconceived notions about his capabilities — it reaffirms what’s fast become a 2020 truism: It doesn’t matter all that much what the former vice-president does. From his history of reactionary alliances to thwart school integration and escalate mass incarceration to his general incoherence — none of it seems to be changing their minds. There’s at least as strong a strategic argument for keeping him hidden from the public until November as there is for him to continue campaigning. To do so would be an anti-democratic atrocity. Then again, as Clyburn makes clear, not even democracy is more important than ousting Trump.