He was a study in stumbles. He blamed trees for air pollution, could not remember the basics of his tax proposals, claimed to have witnessed the liberation of concentration camps, told an affecting story of World War II heroism that was in fact a scene from a movie. And this track record was so devastating that in November 1980, he won 44 states and 489 electoral votes against an incumbent president.
Joe Biden might take comfort from Ronald Reagan’s invulnerability as he contends with political reporters who have made his slips of the tongue and memory a near-daily story. No, he wasn’t vice president when he met with survivors of the Parkland shooting; yes, he confused former Prime Minister Theresa May with Margaret Thatcher; no, the shootings he talked about did not happen in Houston and Michigan; yes, he conflated several different medals ceremonies into one moving, inaccurate account. Maybe all this will matter to the Democratic voters—and to the general public—as little as Reagan’s confusions and misstatements mattered 40 years ago.
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So the logical question for Biden’s campaign is: Why didn’t Reagan’s stumbles matter? After all, when he ran in 1980 his age was a significant issue. At 69, Reagan was running to be the oldest president ever inaugurated (how times change!). The key for Reagan’s success was that by 1980, the Republican Party knew and embraced him as the campaign of their conservative beliefs. He’d come onto the national stage 16 years earlier with a memorable TV speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater. He’d served for eight years as governor of the most populous state in the nation. He’d nearly unseated the Republican president in 1976 with a challenge from the right that came within a few dozen delegates of success. In the simplest of terms, they knew who he was.
A faulty statistic, or a slip of the tongue, or a memory lapse wasn’t going to change their minds about their political hero. And by general election time, the combination of inflation, an industrial recession, and the American hostages in Iran was more than enough to persuade the broader electorate to vote for change.
As the 2020 campaign begins in earnest, it’s not at all clear that Biden fits this pattern. He has certainly been around long enough for Democrats to find him a comfortable fit. His “blue-collar Joe” demeanor, his affinity, his empathy with the victims of life’s hardest blows are considerable assets. But there is one significant difference: Reagan embodied the Republican Party’s values and ideology in 1980.
If you’re a Democratic Party foot soldier in the progressive camp in 2019, you’ve got serious problems with Biden on everything from health care to immigration to his work on the crime bills of the 1980s and 1990s. In a time when the Democratic Party is considerably different from what it was in the era of Bill Clinton or even Barack Obama, the inclination among Democrats to brush aside slips on the campaign trail is, to put it mildly, limited.
That, in turn, raises the possibility that Biden isn’t Reagan. What if he’s Al Gore?
In 2000, Vice President Gore sailed to the Democratic nomination. After a fairly close win in New Hampshire, Gore saw his only rival, former Senator Bill Bradley, more or less disappear. With nearly a quarter century in public life, including eight years as vice president, Gore was a known commodity. But as the campaign progressed, Gore became pilloried by a press corps that subjected his every statement to a withering examination of its accuracy.
As columnist Paul Waldman would later write in The American Prospect, “With the possible exception of Barry Goldwater 36 years before, no presidential candidate in the television age has been treated with the kind of naked contempt reporters heaped on Gore during his 2000 run. While they portrayed George W. Bush as an honest and genial fellow who was ‘comfortable in his own skin’ if not the sharpest tool in the shed, Gore was ridiculed as a liar and a phony whose very desire to be president was disqualifying in and of itself.” He was ridiculed for having claimed to “invent” the Internet. (He hadn’t said that, though he did say he “took the initiative in creating it” while in Congress.) He was attacked for claiming to have discovered the Love Canal environmental disaster. (He hadn’t, though he did say that his congressional hearings on the event, which were the first, “started it all.”) He’d claimed to have traveled with the Federal Emergency Management Agency director to storm-ravaged Texas (He’d been with him on a different trip).
What drove this intense criticism was more personal than mere truth-squadding: It was a sense that there was something arrogant, even supercilious, about Gore’s demeanor, and it made the press anxious to knock Gore off his pedestal. In drawing a distinction between the two candidates in 2000, it has been frequently said, “Bush speaks English as if it’s his second language; Gore speaks English as though it’s your second language.” (And it didn’t help that Gore, unlike Reagan, was not beloved by his party’s most ideological members.)
Political reporters don’t seem to loathe Biden, even if they do tend to think he’s a blowhard. But even when a candidate isn’t hated by the press, enough misstatements can begin to form a template for coverage. It happened to George Romney as the 1968 campaign began, when he explained his change of heart on Vietnam by stating he’d been “brainwashed.” Romney quickly became the target of relentless coverage that focused on every plausible inconsistency. The quip among the press was that every story contained a paragraph beginning, “Romney later explained … .” And it happened to Dan Quayle, whose deer-in-the-headlights debut as a vice presidential candidate in 1988 defined him as a not-ready-for-prime-time player. (Misspelling “potato” at a spelling bee in a New Jersey public school did not help).
The impulse to define the 76-year-old Biden by his verbal slips hasn’t become the dominant theme of coverage, and his appearance at CNN’s climate-change town hall this week and at ABC’s debate next week could go a long way to lessen—or strengthen—that impulse. But the danger is there for his campaign, especially if the press begins to try to find a stumble even when there isn’t one. At a town hall in Hanover, New Hampshire, late last month Biden asked the younger members of his audience to try to imagine how they would have felt if President Barack Obama had been assassinated. It was an attempt to explain to them what it felt like to lose Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy in an eight-week span in 1968. The New York Times in particular seemed to treat the comment as something close to bizarre.
And this raises a perhaps more serious danger for Biden. Should he win the Democratic presidential nomination, his missteps may serve to lessen the impact of President Donald Trump’s manifold falsehoods. In a sense, they would serve the same political role that Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct did in 2016 in saving Trump from the full consequences of his language and his conduct. There is no equivalence between Biden’s words and Trump’s relentless outpouring of falsehoods and outright lies, but if enough of the voting public sees such an equivalence, or if the press begins to regard them similarly, it could make a profound political difference.
It would be unfair, but as JFK once said about life, politics is unfair. And if Biden wants his mistakes to fade into Reagan-like irrelevance, his most important task is to give Democratic voters a reason beyond his political longevity to support him.