With his Iowa and New Hampshire thumpings etched into the record books, it’s finally safe to say that Joe Biden's deepest problem as a candidate is that he can neither be taken literally nor seriously.
I’m not talking here about Biden’s career-long talent for the gaffe, annotated most recently by Time, the New York Times, New Yorker, POLITICO, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and just about every other publication. Losing track of his place in a sentence or mistaking which decade he’s talking about in a story or starting to say Afghanistan when he means Ukraine have been embarrassing for Biden, but in no way should they disqualify him from the presidency. Getting lost in a thought is just Joe being Joe and we shouldn’t hold it against him anymore than we should have held sweating against Richard Nixon or lip biting against Bill Clinton.
When journalist Salena Zito first noted that Donald Trump’s ability to connect with his followers was based on them taking his outrageous comments seriously as opposed to literally, she captured the essence of his popular appeal. Trump’s followers didn’t mind that their man exaggerated, lied or threatened people in his scattered oratory. Fretting over the surface meaning of his ugliest words was something only literalists—primarily the press corps—concerned themselves with. What galvanized Trump’s followers was the submerged, emotional truths his speeches conveyed. The promise of Biden, some thought as his campaign started, was that his similarly disjointed speaking style would somehow excite a similar vision in the Democratic faithful, stirring a parallel emotional response that would carry him past Trump to victory.
But Bidenspeak has proved to be a colossal failure, imparting no punch, either literal or serious, on Democratic voters eager for a uniting figure. Despite his name recognition, pedigree, legislative acumen and campaign cash, Biden finished near the New Hampshire cellar behind Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobachar and Warren with one of the drabbest, most purposeless campaigns since Harold Stassen flew his colors. My gleaning from reviewing Biden’s speeches and interviews is that he seeks to return the nation to 1985 when life was simpler and politics were not so contentious. That’s a great premise for a Fox sitcom, not a presidency.
You can scroll through Biden’s position papers until you fry your mouse and still not find anything edgy enough to pull for or push against. It’s a vast river of slow-moving tapioca. A ditto-head of a candidate, Biden has produced no signature issues on which to campaign. He calls for the study of reparations, the boosting of teacher pay and the expansion of debt-relief programs for students in debt. Will somebody pour me a coffee? Joe says yes to gun buybacks, yes to universal background checks, yes to citizenship for “Dreamers,” and yes to a capital gains tax increase. Snore. Biden diverges from his fellow candidates on only a couple of substantive issues—new nuclear technologies (let’s try it) and abortion (let’s accept some restrictions)—but neither position is likely to serve as a tentpole for him.
The Biden campaign is a three-stage missile that carries no payload. Roaring, crackling and rising on a tail of fire, it landed in the first two states with no real purpose. In the final days of his dismal New Hampshire campaign, the Biden campaign went on the attack, blasting Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, but the gun was shooting Nerf bullets. The best it could do was mock Buttigieg’s lack of experience and Sanders’ inelectability, unaware, perhaps, that the voters might be repelled by Biden’s experience and all too aware of his own inelectability.
Speaking of inelectability, sometimes it seems like Biden has been running for the White House for the past 33 years. Wait a minute. He has been running for the White House for the past 33 years. One would think that having spent eight years in the White House as Barack Obama’s first lieutenant, Biden would have sated his hunger for power. Instead, the position seems to have only enlarged his lust for the top job. As Jeff Greenfield recently wrote in these pages, voters disdain candidates like him and Hillary Clinton and Dan Quayle and Bob Dole and Al Gore and Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey who run on the premise that it’s “their turn” to be president. But being the ultimate vice president, as you could argue Biden was, isn’t sufficient to promote him to the top job. Voters need a better reason for casting their ballot than, “I’m Joe Biden; you know me.” So far, Biden hasn’t given it to them.
The only campaign muscle that Biden has flexed that the other candidates haven’t is his superhuman capacity for empathy. His personal testimonies of loss and grief, his ability to connect with others who have suffered, are great enough to move even the hardcore cynics in the house. But unless we’re electing a national therapy dog, which we’re not, Biden’s emotional intelligence isn’t a good enough reason to send him to the White House.
Biden has worked long and hard in public service and if he needs a prize before he’s willing to take permanent retirement in Delaware, will someone please issue him a plaque and a medal? The saddest thing about the doomed candidacy Biden is piloting is that nobody—outside his family and paid staff—will weep the day it sputters and falls back to earth.
Have any of the Delaware banks issued a Biden affinity card? And why not? Send therapy dogs to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts worked on the Quayle for president campaign. My Twitter feed’s least favorite baseball stadium of all time was the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. My RSS feed insists that its turn will return.