The Biden Paradox
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On a blistering afternoon in the courtyard of the East Las Vegas Community Center, former Vice President Joe Biden steps to the lectern. With white hair and aviator glasses, he looks like he wandered off the set of an Invisible Man remake.
“How’s he going to hold up in this heat?” whispers a middle-aged white woman in the crowd to her husband. The latter keeps eyes forward under a golf visor, as if attention might keep the 76-year-old Biden upright.
If Donald Trump is expanding with age, Baron Harkonnen-style, like a giant zit, Biden seems to be shrinking. Always a verbal loose cannon, he goes blank now with regularity, lacing every minute of every appearance with the threat of media calamity.
Biden and Trump appear destined to be linked, by age, social media heat (#BidenGaffe will rival #CatsofTwitter if Biden wins the nomination), and now, the exploding Ukraine scandal. Las Vegas is the former vice president’s first event since Democrats announced plans to push impeachment proceedings against Trump, who is accused of pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son.
All year, Trump has displayed an almost gastrointestinal eagerness to face Biden in the general election. He alerts to Biden’s name like a spider to an earwig, pounding the theme that the ex-senator is too old and too punch-drunk to hold up in the internet blood dojo that is modern presidential politics. “I like running against people that are weak mentally,” Trump said of Biden in June.
Since Ukrainegate broke, a furious Trump has stepped up such attacks on “our not very bright vice president” and “Sleepy Joe.” Will this abuse help or hurt the Biden campaign? How will the candidate respond? In Vegas, a large press contingent waits for a sign.
“Look,” begins Biden in a quiet voice, “in the weeks and the months to come, it’s the Congress’ job to pursue the facts, and, uh, to hold Donald Trump accountable.”
Cheers. The “I Will Kick Trump in His Tiny Balls” preamble is a mandatory element in 2020 Democrat stumpery.
Biden goes on, seeming on the verge of settling into rhythm, when a heavyset man with a blond Prince Valiant haircut jumps up.
“Joe Biden is a predator!” he screams, dropping into a weird power pose while flashing a #MeToo sign. “The media is covering it up!”
The sign might reference Nevada’s former candidate for lieutenant governor, Lucy Flores, who last spring described being creeped out (“What in the actual fuck?” she wrote) by Biden kissing her head and sniffing her hair before a speech in 2014. It’s one of many tales that have bounced off Biden. If enough people think you’re the best hope to beat Donald Trump, it turns out, a lot of warts disappear.
“Let him go!” Biden pleads.
The heckler is ushered toward the door, to chants of Bi-den! Bi-den!
“That’s how far we’ve fallen!” snaps Biden.
People keep telling Biden he should just go away, but he takes the abuse and keeps soldiering on, like a stray dog following a hiking party. It’s working, or it was, anyway, until he recently began sinking in the polls.
Biden is a man from another time, marooned in a public sphere that has passed him by. His speeches about tax credits, “investing in ourselves,” and building “cutting-edge infrastructure” feel like echoes of “pro-growth” Democrat speeches from the Nineties, just returned to Earth after a journey around the sun. Along with a history of questionable ties to campaign donors, he’s also an old white man with a history of wandering hands and problematic utterances, which would seem to disqualify him these days for a post as an adjunct lit professor, let alone the liberal party’s nominee.
Everything seems like it should be against Joe Biden: #MeToo, age, a radicalizing Democratic base, calculated attacks from a huge field of primary opponents, an iffy past on racial issues, a Google-searchable mother lode of verbal boners, and a dozen other things.
But no one who is familiar with Biden’s past would ever write him off. He lost his grown son Beau to brain cancer in 2015, and his first wife, Neilia, and daughter Naomi were killed in a car accident in 1972. Unspeakable loss has become intertwined with his political persona, so much so that current Delaware Sen. Chris Coons once called grief Biden’s “superpower,” in the sense that it aids his ability to connect with voters. Bill Clinton said he felt your pain — with Biden it’s the opposite, voters feel his.
As great as Biden’s personal tragedies may be, though, he’s also suffered significant political losses, and here we come to the first quirk of Biden’s bizarre career: He has a rare ability to convert disaster into opportunity.
The Ukraine story might sink his campaign, but it also may help. Trump occupying the other side of an all-consuming media apocalypse may garner sympathy, while solidifying the impression that Biden carries the flag for Democrats. Could a scandal propel Biden upward? It wouldn’t be the first time.
The Biden paradox: One could make an argument he’s building a legacy as the most comically maladroit national political contender in American history. At times, Biden 2020 has been more like an MTV blooper show than a presidential campaign. Here’s a rundown of what should have been a sleepy August campaign:
August 1st: “Poor kids are just as bright and talented as white kids.” August 4th: Expresses sorrow over “tragic events in Houston today and also in Michigan,” i.e., mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. August 8th: “We choose truth over facts!” August 16th: Confuses Burlington, Vermont, and Burlington, Iowa. August 21st: “Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King had been assassinated in the Seventies.” August 24th: In Keene, New Hampshire — “I love this place. Look, what’s not to like about Vermont?” August 26th: Forgets which Dartmouth College building he just visited, telling the crowd, “I’m not going nuts.”
From there, Biden drove into telephone pole after telephone pole. He told a story about braving “Godforsaken” country in Afghanistan to pin a medal on a soldier’s chest that turned out to be an amalgam of multiple tales. He called Bernie Sanders the president (he’d already called Cory Booker the president). Then, in front of 14 million TV viewers for the third Democratic Party debate, he turned a question about the legacy of slavery into a rambling diatribe about how inner-city parents should leave a “record player” on at night, a line that was somehow both parody of right-wing paternalism and outdated by about 30 years.
Yet Biden still could win the Democratic nomination. One can almost hear party figures trying to work out the riddle: Should there be an urgent examination of this candidate’s flaws before it’s too late? Or should they circle wagons early, and start trying to force attention on Biden’s bright side heading into next year?
Biden has strengths. While he endures near-constant ridicule for tortured verbiage and inappropriate statements, he rarely gets credit for his tenacity. No matter what else this older, perhaps diminished version of Biden might forget onstage, he always stays on script. Along with his ability to connect emotionally with audiences, it’s his greatest asset.
In Vegas, he continues his campaign-long habit of avoiding mention of “impeachment,” a word that has helped fuel rival Elizabeth Warren’s rise up the Democratic primary polls (Warren was the first Democrat to unequivocally endorse impeaching Trump), but efforts to oust the president have a less certain prognosis for the general election. Biden clings, instead, to phrases like “holding Trump accountable.” This restraint takes discipline, given that impeachment is on the entire world’s lips.
He reminds the crowd that his “job” is not fighting the impeachment battle, but remaining electable against Trump, whom he claims to have bested in 70 head-to-head polls. “My job, our job,” he says, “is to make sure above all else … we … beat … Donald … Trump!”
There’s a workmanlike, industrial quality to the way Biden doles out salvos, like a man unloading boxes of frozen fish. He’s unafraid of redundancy and reaches with awe-inspiring frequency for certain words. He says America 30 or 40 times per appearance — literally — getting there with heavy use of related constructions like the United States of America, the American people, and the story of America.
The perfect Biden rhetorical devices are metronome tautologies like those used in Vegas: “This election is about the American people, here in Nevada and throughout the United States of America. … The American people, and this is not hyperbole, have never, ever, ever let the American people down. … This is the United States of America!”
Biden moves through the first part of his Vegas speech in low tones, at times turning sideways and whispering, like he saw someone over a wall in the distance. Then he hits an applause line (“You know what Donald Trump has done. I’m here to tell you what I will do!”) and begins speaking in Loud Voice. The ex-veep’s emotional attitude in this campaign can switch from distant to troubled to lucid and defiant and back again, in the space of minutes.
Still, when he rolls, Biden’s voice crackles with energy, and with his blue shirtsleeves and swept hair, he looks like Politician Clip Art. His tepid unoriginality on the policy front is in this sense a positive. In the Trump era, many voters have had enough kink — they’re looking for the absence of something — and few politicians can say nothing quite like Joe Biden. Listening to one of his speeches all the way through is like being beaten with a cliché hammer:
“I was proud to serve as Barack Obama’s vice president. … We have to make health care a right, not a privilege. … You can sign up for a public option. … Increasing subsidies for the middle class … Their debt will be forgiven. … Ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump inherited a strong economy from us, just like he inherited everything in his life!”
While Biden talks constantly about Trump, he does so in a way different from Hillary Clinton, who spent a whopping 90 percent of her advertising attacking Trump as an individual. Biden has tweaked that message, ironically using Trumpian themes to sell an anti-Trump message. Biden, like Trump, relies on American exceptionalism but in a different construct. Trump argued America had lost its exceptional status and he, Trump, would single-handedly fix it. Biden argues America was always exceptional, but lost its status because of Trump. He volunteers as the experienced old alley fighter willing to go down into the labyrinth to slay the Orange Minotaur.
The logic of the Biden campaign, at least up until the Ukraine story broke, had been avoiding hot takes, focusing on this elemental tale tailored for the general-election message. This “above the fray” approach was described by The Washington Post as trying “to avoid the political spasm in which he is now the central figure.”
For a long time, it worked. After Biden announced his candidacy in April, he surged to a huge poll lead and joined Sanders as one of two Democrats to consistently poll well in head-to-head surveys against Trump. Commentators said he offered voters “normalcy” and scored particularly well with the blue version of the Silent Majority, the “Hidden Democratic Party” of less-progressive, older voters. When California Sen. Kamala Harris assailed him for his past support of school busing in the first debate, she temporarily became a “top tier” candidate while Biden dipped, prompting predictions that he would slide among voters seeking a “fresh” face.
But Harris cratered soon after and Biden rebounded, seeming to validate his “above the fray” strategy. He took working-class voters from Sanders and retained enough support from major donors to stall the momentum toward Warren. The problem is, Ukraine makes staying out of the “spasm” impossible. When the news broke that a CIA whistle-blower launched a complaint about President Trump’s apparent request that Ukraine investigate Biden and his son Hunter’s ties to Ukrainian gas giant Burisma, Joe had no choice but to respond.
His initial strategy, after Trump released the rough transcript of his call to Zelensky, was to go full-on Liam Neeson and pitch Ukrainegate as a home invasion requiring urgent vengeance. He said Trump “abused his power to come after my family,” describing the implication that he or his son had done anything wrong as a “malicious conspiracy theory that has been debunked by every independent outlet that has looked at it.”
But Hunter Biden’s acceptance of a $50,000-per-month position with Burisma while Daddy was a sitting vice president with a foreign-policy brief is not conspiracy theory, but fact. It’s an automatically gruesome look. The Ukrainians were almost certainly looking to create the “perception that [Burisma] was backed by powerful Americans,” as The New York Times put it. This is before we get to the question of whether or not Hunter actually did anything to earn the money (unclear) or whether Joe Biden knew about the arrangement (father and son have told different stories).
The standard media take on Hunter’s no-show Burisma job has been “Sure, it looks completely like shit, but is it illegal?” (“Of course there’s an appearance problem,” a “former adviser” told The Washington Post, before adding quickly that there is no evidence of “wrongdoing.”) Regarding Biden’s awareness or lack thereof of Hunter’s job, the standard line has been “no evidence of criminal wrongdoing,” the word “criminal” being operative.
There are other angles on the Ukraine story that seem destined to remain problematic, like Biden’s visit to Ukraine as vice president in December 2015. Uncle Joe delivered a Kneel Before Zod dictum to then-President Petro Poroshenko, declaring he would hold up a billion-dollar aid package if the country’s general prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was not fired immediately. “I’m leaving in six hours,” he later recounted saying. “If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.”
This incident would look Trump-level terrible if it were to come out that Shokin was investigating his son’s company. The Biden campaign, and most American news agencies, have insisted such investigations were “dormant.” However, multiple foreign news reports, including an early-October exposé by noted Russian opposition paper Novaya Gazeta about Burisma’s ties to a Russian fugitive named Sergei Kurchenko, have insisted there were in fact open investigations of the Ukrainian gas firm in late 2015. (The Biden campaign did not comment on the record about this story.)
Part of the problem is that this is not the first time Hunter Biden has been caught in a compromising position. In 2008, reports surfaced that Hunter had been retained as a consultant by the credit-card company MBNA while his father was on his way to voting for the infamous bankruptcy bill, which made it harder for debtors to declare bankruptcy.
The Obama campaign insisted “[Hunter’s] work had absolutely nothing to do with the bankruptcy bill,” but it sure didn’t look good. It likewise looked horrible when Hunter got a seat on the board of another major employer of Delawareans, Amtrak, with Sen. Tom Carper offering what feels like a sarcastic anti-recommendation of Joe’s son, saying he was qualified because “Hunter Biden has spent a lot of time on Amtrak trains.”
This is in addition to Joe Biden in 1996 having sold his Delaware house to an MBNA executive for $1.2 million — six times what he paid for it — in what The New York Times described as a word-of-mouth transaction.
Even if there was nothing shady in any of this, Democrats have to ask themselves if they want to return to parsing the not-wrongness of a nominee’s head-scratching financial relationships. The Biden family’s history of confusing entanglements would represent a déjà vu return to the 2016 campaign, which saw a Democratic candidate having to spend nearly two years explaining why it was OK to make $225,000 per speech to Goldman Sachs executives. Why revive the soft-corruption argument?
The Ukraine story by its very nature will — and possibly should, depending on your view of Hunter’s Burisma job — dog Biden for as long as his campaign continues. The increased scrutiny and Trump’s direct assault on his family have forced Biden into a more combative mode on the trail. In one 24-hour span, he attacked the New York Times coverage of his campaign as “journalistic malpractice” while endorsing impeachment, saying Trump was “shooting holes in the Constitution.”
Impeachment does commit Democrats to a strident defense of Biden and his son, even if, or perhaps especially if, there’s a real problem that needs regular PR response. There are already reports that major party donors are “weighing” whether to set up a Super PAC to “independently” defend Biden.
These include Julianna Smoot, who led Obama’s campaign finance team, Democratic consultant Mark Riddle, and others. The Washington Post reported the group is concerned a pro-Biden PAC may trigger attacks from primary rivals Warren and Sanders that he is “being bankrolled by wealthy interests.” This comes as word leaked out that Biden has cut back on digital ads after posting just $15.2 million in money raised in the third quarter of the 2020 race, a dramatic fall from his second-quarter number of $22 million. He is far behind both Warren ($24.6 million) and Sanders ($25.3 million), so a sudden surge in PAC money would be a potential campaign saver.
In other words, the fact that Biden has political vulnerability on Ukraine may end up pushing more institutional support his way. Again, this wouldn’t be the first time a Biden political weakness became an asset.
The notion that the former vice president is the perfect person to take on schoolyard-bully Donald Trump is not entirely unsupported by the evidence, even if the evidence comes from Joe Biden.
Biden’s autobiographical works, Promises to Keep and Promise Me, Dad, tell the story of a man who overcame stuff. The Pennsylvania and Delaware native reports he was nicknamed “Dash” in high school, not because he was fast (although he is quick to remind readers, “I was fast”) but because of a stutter. “I talked like Morse code,” he recalled. “You gu-gu-gu-gu-guys sh-sh-sh-sh-shut up!”
The story of “Joe Impedimenta” journeying from a high school exemption to public speaking to America’s second-highest office earns him a deserving spot on an inspirational list next to James Earl Jones, King George VI, and others who’ve overcome a stutter (that’s the word Biden uses) to make history with speech.
It’s impressive and speaks to an indefatigability that friends and colleagues insist is one of the best arguments for electing the man: He doesn’t give up. Biden by his own account ate buckets of shit just to survive high school. This prepared him for a career in the U.S. Senate, which is basically a meaner and more corrupt version of high school. It also provided at least some psychological practice for a potential general-election contest against a man who routinely calls him a “loser” and a “dummy” who was picked “off the trash heap” to be Obama’s vice president.
Beating his speaking demons, plus the experience of moving to the “moonscape” of a working-class neighborhood when his high-school-educated dad fell down on his luck, are central tales in Biden’s legend:
“My dad would say, Get up!” he wrote. “You’re lying in bed feeling sorry for yourself? Get up . . . ! Kids make fun of you because you stutter, Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-Biden? Get up!”
You can hear the echo of his father’s tirade in Biden’s current stump speech, delivered in the form of his own paternal directive to a moribund (or maybe hypersensitive/overwoke?) nation: “We’re walking around with our heads down, like ‘Woe is me!’ What’s the matter with us? We’re the United States of America!”
Unfortunately, Biden is such a cliché-spewing, idea-borrowing goof, you can’t help but wonder if he borrowed the “Woe is me!” theme from one of the “Get up!” speeches in the Rocky series (specifically, Rocky’s “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit!” rant to pre-millennial loser son Robert in 2006’s Rocky Balboa).
Carve the policy bits out of Biden’s stump presentation and what you get is something as trite as a Rocky movie, only with less-convincing action scenes. Although he rode this legend of a boiler-cleaner’s son who kept throwing punches all the way to the Senate, it’s not surprising it couldn’t carry him further. Biden’s first two White House runs were launchpad explosions.
In August 1987, at the Iowa State Fair, Biden delivered a stirring speech about the difficulty of rising above working-class origins. “Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?” he asked. “Why is it that my wife, who is sitting out there in the audience, is the first in her family. . . ?”
Unfortunately, British Labor Leader Neil Kinnock had asked the same thing months earlier, in May 1987: “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to a university? Why is [wife] Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations. . . ?”
Biden had been caught not just lifting, but morphing, to the point where he seemed to believe new life details. (He did this with the medal story this year.) He wasn’t the first person in his family to have gone to college. He started saying he came from a family of coal miners, going so far as to claim a relative who would “come up after 12 hours [in the mine] and play football.” The New York Times even reported Biden began using Kinnock’s “gestures and lyrical Welsh syntax intact.”
He dropped out of the 1988 race under a cloud, but never corrected the record. Decades later, he was still using constructions like, “No Biden I ever knew went to college” (the collegians in his family tree were Finnegans, on his mother’s side).
In 2008, Biden again led with his face when he decided to run for the White House at the nadir of public confidence in an Iraq War he backed.
He not only commenced what seemed like his last big run at power at a time when 84 percent of Democrats believed the biggest decision of his career was a mistake, he did so when a generational Democratic Party superstar was centering his own campaign against the Iraq consensus Biden helped build. Biden called Barack Obama the “first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean,” one of a growing pile of unfortunate comments The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen was soon describing as the “Himalayan barrier” of Biden’s mouth.
Stomped in the Iowa caucus, earning less than one percent of the vote, Biden exited in January 2008, vowing, “I ain’t going away.” Nobody much believed him. The general consensus was “Scranton Joe” was a half-bright anachronism who could move the chains in Congress, but was no longer a viable archetype for national contention.
Obama and then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson were believable leaders of the party’s new multicultural coalition; Hillary Clinton offered excitement as a possible first female president; John Edwards spoke to a nascent class-based progressive movement. What did Biden represent that meant a damn thing anymore?
A lot, as it turned out. The perception that Biden killed his campaign with inappropriate remarks about Obama, Indian Americans (“You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent”), and other groups, in addition to an iffy history on racial issues like busing, was offset by Obama’s naming of Biden to be his running mate. Pundits believed the move was designed to “reassure white voters” in “economically strapped” areas.
This year, as Biden’s campaign gained momentum, The New York Times reported that Biden’s relationship with Obama was a marriage of racial convenience. Obama told Virginia’s Tim Kaine in 2008, “You’re the pick of my heart, but Joe is the pick of my head.” Obama wanted “someone with gray in his hair,” because he, Obama, was “deeply worried about a backlash against a black man at the top of the ticket,” and believed an “older white running mate would ease fears in battleground states.”
Thus Joe Biden earned a place in history books at center stage of a great moment of racial healing, walking into the White House as the partner of America’s first black president, precisely because his own political career had foundered on a bed of Archie Bunkerisms. He won by losing.
This was an insane (but also darkly funny) piece of luck, but Biden by all accounts made the best of it. He reportedly won Obama over with his dedication to family and with the effort he put into his role as running mate, which included learning to “shut up,” as former Obama aide David Axelrod recalled.
In 2020, the calculus is similar. Biden in almost every respect is a flawed politician. For progressives, he offers little, especially given his history supporting policies like the Iraq War and NAFTA, while not only opposing Medicare for All, but regularly dissembling about it (“Medicare goes away as you know it!”). Past support of legislation like the 2005 bankruptcy bill highlight his unfortunate ties to corporate interests like the powerful credit-card companies in Biden’s home state of Delaware.
Those who are hoping for a quick-thinking zinger machine who’d shine in a campaign against Trump can’t take much solace in the face-plant-a-day pattern of Biden’s run to date. A general election pitting an angry, feces-hurling Trump against this version of Biden has awesome disaster potential.
To all of these objections, there’s basically one response: He’s better than Trump. Even if he’s losing faculties, has a few objectionable character quirks, and is too cozy with financial interests, the argument goes, Biden is at least not a terrible human being.
Biden does have a talent for connecting and projecting “authenticity,” a concept of dubious value in someone 46 years into a political career, but still. Many see in his incautious statements realness absent in slicker internet-age politicians. In this sense — and this shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a negative — he shares an electoral strength with Donald Trump, whose tweeting habits get him in deserved trouble but also rally fans who appreciate being able to access a politician without barriers. The Biden effect is similar: About once a day, you can peer directly into his cerebral cortex.
Former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, who first met Biden back in 1987, says all “authentic” candidates have this problem: They mangle words, not being afraid to say what they think. In the case of Biden this year, Trippi says Democrats will not only have to ask themselves if they can get past that problem to focus on the bottom-line character proposition, but also if they should.
“Is he a guy stuck in his ways, still able to connect, still mangling unapologetically but prepared to be president who can read a teleprompter and talk to us sincerely in most moments?” Trippi asks. “Or is it something a lot more? I have no idea.”
It may not come to this. Biden is no longer the clear front-runner. The health problems of Sanders have coincided with a surge in support for Warren, and even apple-cheeked South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is out raising him. Some commentators are noting similarities between Biden’s campaign and that of Jeb Bush, another early front-runner and “invisible primary” winner whose campaign collapsed amid a long-term dearth of small-money donations. It’s not as bad as being compared to Mike Dukakis, the campaign-journalism-cliché equivalent of circling vultures, but Jeb comparisons aren’t a good sign, either.
After the event in Vegas, crowd members almost all say the same thing. They like the way Biden has handled the beating he’s taken all around, from media jerks like me, from Democratic rivals, and especially from Donald Trump. “Class,” says Alicia Tarr. “Goes nose to nose with someone, doesn’t put him down.” “Experience,” says a local print-shop owner named Richard. “Not too radical.”
Ellen Vernon, a kindly Belize native, wanders out of the community center last of all the audience members, wearing a smile. She’s a fan of Obama’s, and predisposed to Biden, but his forbearance this campaign season in the face of constant attacks added to her admiration.
“He never gets mad,” she says. “Now that is a man.”
I ask her how she thinks a candidate with so many issues could prevail in a general election.
“People,” she says with a sigh, “have soft hearts.”
This might be true. But while there’s still time to pick a different nominee, should they? It’s a tough question, and Democrats are running out of time to answer it.