Joe Biden was recently asked why he didn’t agree with Bernie Sanders that “Medicare for All” is the only way to ensure that all Americans have basic healthcare services. Biden’s reply began as a semi-coherent restatement of his talking points, but around 40 seconds in, it devolved into a rambling word salad:
I think he’s wrong and I’m I don’t know anybody who has the same position I have. The position I have is to rebuild Obamacare, provide for public option, and increase the subsidies to get in the marketplace so that you don’t pay any more than a thousand dollars in a copay if, if, if that occurs and uh, um, and allow anybody who wishes to have the policy they have with their employer if they like it, to be able to keep it, if the employer keeps it, and or if they don’t, they can join the alternative we provide for the Medicare option. And so anybody who is in a position where they’re on a, uh, uh, on Medicaid, they automatically be enrolled with no cost. In addition to that, we also have a mechanism to control drug prices. You know the, it’s not more, we’re no longer using chemical based things. All this thing we’re dealing with cancers and other issues related to the immune system are bio-oriented. There are very expensive and we should set up a system as I proposed, which I will if I’m elected president, that allows the folks at HH, the folks that health, and, uh, the, the health department in the United States, HHS, to be able to go out and bring in again outside experts and make a judgment when there’s a patent being sought by a drug company. What that patent what what what it’s worth. What the range is. Set that number, and then you’re not able to raise that drug price unless beyond the cost of inflation and healthcare. So there’s a lot of things we can do, but you know, and it costs a lot of money. It costs around $750 billion. And I’m talking about over 10 years, but it’s not $30 trillion. And it is, we’ll cover everybody and we’ll do it quickly and there’ll be nothing lost between the cup and the lip.
It was not the only time in recent days that Joe Biden’s speech has been of questionable lucidity. His campaign has been full of verbal slip-ups, from directing people to “go to Joe 30330,” to calling someone “my long friend time friend and she’s a friend she’s been my friend” to claiming that “poor kids are just as bright and talented as white kids.” Biden even appeared to forget Barack Obama’s name, calling him “president… my boss.” In the span of less than 10 days, he also managed to confuse Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher, said Martin Luther King was assassinated in the late ’70s, incorrectly suggested he was vice president during last year’s Parkland shootings, and got the locations of two recent mass shootings wrong.
Biden’s “gaffes” (for want of anything better to call them) have at times descended into sheer farce, as when he recently told an elaborate and impeccably-stylized tale about visiting Afghanistan as vice president to recognize the heroism of a Navy captain who had rappelled down a 60-foot ravine under fire to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade. “This is the God’s truth” Biden declared, adding “My word as a Biden.” The story reportedly left the audience of 400 in stunned silence but, as the Washington Post reports, it turns out to be entirely untrue:
…Almost every detail in the story appears to be incorrect. Based on interviews with more than a dozen U.S. troops, their commanders and Biden campaign officials, it appears as though the former vice president has jumbled elements of at least three actual events into one story of bravery, compassion and regret that never happened…The upshot: In the space of three minutes, Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony.
It is not fair or justified to speculate on Biden’s health, but the man who has spent the past several months committing error after error and tallying up a mountainous quantity of verbal gaffes and flubs is visibly different from the one chosen as Barack Obama’s running-mate in 2008. True, the old Biden had the same objectionable politics. True, Biden’s 1988 run for the presidency proved disastrous thanks to the same cavalier relationship with the truth (culminating in an absurd plagiarism scandal that saw him copy an autobiographical speech by British Labour Leader Neil Kinnock almost word-for-word). But clips of him facing off against Paul Ryan a mere seven years ago still show a much more lucid politician, quick on his feet and reasonably effective at the art of political debate. Biden was always “gaffe-prone,” and has even made his “off the cuff” speaking style part of his branded persona. But there is a difference between being “relatable and unpolished” and “literally incompetent.”
Even putting aside the inadequacy of his politics, Biden’s inability to articulate a clear or legible Democratic message—even on his own terms—means that he cannot be put forward as a candidate against Donald Trump. The stakes are simply too high.
Donald Trump is a more formidable political opponent than many Democrats want to acknowledge. Though transcripts of Trump’s speech can be even more meaningless than Biden’s healthcare monologue, Democrats made an error in 2016 in dismissing Trump as incompetent and bungling. He can be incredibly effective at attacking political opponents, especially tired representatives of the political establishment, as we saw in his one-by-one elimination of Republican primary competitors followed by his vanquishing of Hillary Clinton. This magazine warned in February of 2016 that Trump had unique advantages against an “establishment” candidate like Clinton, because he could run simultaneously to her right and to her left, criticizing her over her record on the Iraq War and Wall Street. Because these criticisms were accurate, they proved difficult to respond to.
The same dangers apply to a Biden candidacy. Biden is not well-positioned to attack Trump on Trump’s plutocratic agenda, given his own ties to the banking industry, which Trump will not hesitate to bring up. Nor will Biden be able to effectively criticize Trump’s reckless foreign policy when he himself helped agitate for the single most reckless and deadly policy decision of the 21st century. Trump is excellent at preying on personal weaknesses (e.g., mocking Elizabeth Warren’s silly ancestry claim) and will not hesitate to portray Biden as senile and out of touch. Unless Biden becomes far more energetic and cogent than he has thus far been, his responses will only confirm the charge. It’s easy to imagine Trump responding to Biden in a debate: “I don’t understand a word Joe just said. Are you okay, Joe? I like Joe, I like him, but I think he may have something wrong. That’s why Barack Obama didn’t want him to run.” People will laugh and the attack will be effective, because it will sound true.
Though the Democratic field is much larger this time around, Biden has played the role of establishment frontrunner the same way Hillary Clinton did in 2016: running as a standard-bearer for the status quo with the aim of offending as few elites as possible. And, as we saw four years ago, what passes for “pragmatic centrism” in Washington can often fail to galvanize the voters—particularly in swing states—that Democrats need to capture the presidency. Trying to apply the same formula again could very well end up guaranteeing Trump’s reelection.
Even putting aside his innumerable gaffes, flubs, and untruths, the substantive case for a Biden presidency is incredibly thin. He speaks in glittering generalities. He makes nostalgic appeals to a vague and idealized past where Washington elites cooperated and “got things done,” a habit which has found him praising segregationists on more than one occasion. In an era where millions of Americans are hurting, frustrated, and angry, his policy agenda is visibly and deliberately unambitious—eschewing big and transformative ideas in favor of minor technocratic fixes designed not to antagonize anyone with wealth or power. Biden said as much himself when he promised a room full of well-heeled donors in June he wouldn’t “demonize the rich,” adding that, were he to be elected president, “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.” The attack ads practically write themselves. He has also been blunt in telling millennials that he has “no empathy” for them and does not care about their problems, which raises the question of why a single one should come out and vote for him.
The case for Biden, in other words, closely resembles the unsuccessful case made for Hillary Clinton only a few short years ago, with the added problem that there’s nothing novel about him at all. (Clinton, her shortcomings notwithstanding, would have been the first female president, though a Biden presidency would finally shatter the glass ceiling for white guys from Delaware…) Biden also suffers from what pollsters have euphemistically called an “enthusiasm gap,” which is another way of saying that no one seems particularly excited to vote or campaign for him (Biden’s donations bear this out: With 256,000 individual donors, he boasts well under half the number mobilized by Bernie Sanders). In the words of Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth Polling Institute “I did not meet one Biden voter [during a recent visit to Iowa] who was in any way, shape or form excited about voting for Biden.” According to Murray: “They feel that they have to vote for Joe Biden as the centrist candidate, to keep somebody from the left who they feel is unelectable from getting the nomination.”
It’s surely not a sign of Biden’s supposed “electability” that even those currently committed to him feel compelled to do so out of necessity rather than enthusiasm. It’s also yet another indication that the way mainstream pundits and strategists believe elections are won is fundamentally misguided. In 2000, 2004, and 2016 Democrats nominated elite-friendly candidates with middle of the road politics—supposedly the secret formula for electoral success —and lost entirely winnable elections. Yet the myth persists that “centrism” and “pragmatism” are synonymous, that there is something more appealing about having less ambitious politics. This was the case Jill Biden tried to make when she suggested that even if other candidates have better platforms than her husband, he remains the best option for fighting Trump.
The more we see of 2020 Biden, the less plausible that seems. In fact, it’s beginning to look like it would be a colossal struggle to push Joe over the finish line. Trump remains unpopular, but Biden looks like an incredibly risky gamble, a man who will find it impossible to stay on-message, who could flounder and forget his lines at critical moments, and who will be pushing an agenda very few Americans feel remotely enthusiastic about. Even Barack Obama seems to wish Biden wasn’t running!
And if the case for Biden is thin and flawed, the case against him could fill volumes. Throughout his nearly five decades in American politics, the former senator from Delaware has been on the wrong side of issue after issue, often playing an active role in pushing the most unpopular and destructive policies ever concocted inside the Beltway. From his unreliable record on reproductive rights to his zealotry for militarism abroad and his championing of overtly racist mass incarceration and “tough-on-crime” policies, Biden has long embodied Washington’s bipartisan consensus at its absolute worst.
And even if he were, somehow, to defeat Trump, it remains to be explained why anyone would choose him when there are other candidates with better plans for addressing the serious crises urgently facing the country and the world. Does anyone have any confidence in Joe Biden to effectively tackle climate change? Can anyone, reading the soup of half-remembered healthcare talking points above, seriously believe he will push substantial improvements to the American medical system through the U.S. congress? Even if hatred for the current occupant of the White House manages to put Biden over the top, we are in for four years of fumbling inaction—followed, quite possibly, by a reactionary backlash superseding even the horrors of Trumpism.
There is simply no good or compelling case for a Joe Biden candidacy, let alone a Joe Biden presidency. In every sense imaginable, both represent a terrifying and irresponsible gamble with the future.