Joe Biden’s most effective campaign strategy has been to lie low and let people vote for whatever imagined version of Joe Biden congealed inside their heads. On Friday, he went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to discuss the Tara Reade allegations. It was not a good argument for changing this strategy.
For the most part, the interview with Mika Brzezinski held few surprises: Biden denied the allegations that he assaulted Reade in 1993, when she was on his Senate staff, while maintaining that women who make such allegations should be heard and have their claims investigated seriously. He declined to speculate as to Reade’s motives and called on the secretary of the Senate to search for her complaint in the National Archives — the “only … place a complaint of this kind could be,” Biden said. Less surefooted than these broad strokes were their substance and delivery. Soon after Biden called for the search, a National Archives spokesperson told Business Insider that they do not hold the records to which he referred, which, if true, means the vice-president directed the inquiry toward an easily verifiable dead end. More predictably, Biden proved to be an uninspiring spokesperson for himself, fumbling his words at times and cutting himself off mid-sentence, unprompted.
It vividly distilled his party’s bigger plight. With the general election looming, Democrats have organized, rationalized, and voted themselves into the unenviable but richly earned position of having a presumptive nominee who’s at his best when he’s neither speaking nor appearing in public. While other campaigns busied themselves with big plans, stirring rhetoric, and disruptive ideological positions, Biden’s candidacy has been judged by one criterion to the exclusion of all others: whether it’s up to the task of beating President Trump. Poll after poll has shown that Democrats privileged this metric in an outsize manner when winnowing the primary field, which included contenders who diverged negligibly from Biden in both demographic and ideological terms. But what the other candidates lacked has proved to be determinative: a career long, resilient, and ideologically contortive enough to have produced allies and admirers at every level of American politics, and the imprimatur of serving under the party’s most mythologized figure, President Obama. The persuasive heft this combination gave Biden’s pitch as a proven winner and America’s best bet for a return to normalcy — meaning the pre-Trump status quo that gave us Trump — was such that being the prohibitive front-runner where some candidates had campaigned for months merely required him to show up.
He proceeded to test voter goodwill at every turn. He reminisced fondly about working with segregationists, even as his record as a busing opponent, “tough on crime” zealot, and architect of punitive criminal-justice policy came under fire. He joked glibly about asking permission to touch his supporters, shortly after more than half a dozen women came forward with accounts of him touching them inappropriately. Perhaps most damning to the prospect of his running a presidential administration come January, to say nothing of four to eight years from now, the 77-year-old proved to be senescent, leaving thoughts unfinished in his public remarks, going off on tangents from which there was little hope of returning, and stumbling through debate appearances while his opponents ran roughshod over his stream of gaffes. It didn’t matter. His lead in the polls collapsed only briefly when Bernie Sanders’s momentum heading into the Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada primaries — contests that Biden had largely dismissed as lost causes anyway — suggested a general-election viability to rival his own. But a livelier-than-usual debate performance and endorsement from Representative Jim Clyburn cemented the vice-president’s South Carolina firewall and restored his winner’s sheen. He won that election in a landslide, prompting several challengers to drop out and endorse him. His victories on Super Tuesday and beyond left Sanders with little choice but to do the same.
This all happened despite Biden getting out-organized, out-debated, and out-spent by one or more of his opponents, sometimes several at a time, most glaringly in states like Alabama, Maine, and Minnesota, where the vice-president had no field offices but won anyway. That voters in these states could crib together their champion from fragments of a comparatively nonexistent effort to win them over suggests it hasn’t mattered much what Biden says, does, said, or did, as long as he can win — an endeavor aided immeasurably by the fact that everything else he does seems immaterial. The result is a national campaign to elect someone who exists largely in the minds of Biden’s supporters. Luckily for the real Biden, nobody to whom he’s inclined to listen is asking him to be anything more.
Nor, it seems, has his MSNBC appearance given them a good reason to. Quite the contrary: In the face of mounting evidence that Reade’s allegations are more than the baseless smear his campaign has dismissed them to be, Biden has mostly faded into the background while his surrogates, supporters, and some pundits went to bat for him, deploying timeworn canards about sexual assault victims and what circumstances justify disbelieving them, or dismissing Reade outright before a fuller picture sees daylight. When pressed on the latest developments — that Reade told a neighbor and a former co-worker about her assault shortly after it’s alleged to have happened, according to Business Insider — columnists from the New York Times to the Nation stepped up to discredit her, and politicos from Stacey Abrams to Nancy Pelosi reaffirmed their support of the vice-president. Even Kirsten Gillibrand, who drew ire from within the Democratic Party when she pushed for Al Franken to resign after evidence of his misconduct surfaced in 2017, doubled down on her support. (That it’s fallen mostly on women to speak for Biden when he’s hesitant to speak for himself — and will likely continue to be — indicts both his strategy and the sexist standards from which it profits.)
We’re now at the point where corroborating testimony supporting Reade’s allegations meets or exceeds the threshold established by those made against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and President Trump. Many of their defenses are now being deployed to protect a man whose efforts to nullify the former’s power and depose the latter are being framed by his supporters, and even some of his skeptics, as America’s best alternative to catastrophe, moral and otherwise. Opportunism guides political behavior as much as cynicism and hypocrisy shape it. That’s about as involved an explanation as this reversal merits, I think. More striking is that Biden hasn’t had to do much of the defending himself. Mounting evidence supporting Reade’s claim makes things harder, but he’s largely staying true to the strategy that’s guided his campaign since early on, which holds that the winningest Biden is one to be imagined, not seen, heard, or even thought about too hard. His staff recognizes that the less its candidate speaks, the less opportunity his supporters have to neglect evidence that undermines their faith — in his competence, his election odds, and, increasingly, his innocence. If there’s one thing for which the Democrats have yet to punish Biden this cycle, it’s his silence in the face of lingering doubt. To change that now would be to change the very foundation of his campaign’s success.