Joe Biden rambled and stumbled during the third Democratic presidential debate in Houston Thursday night. Somehow, he still managed not to lose it.
Biden is a weak frontrunner, and his greatest weakness was on full display in Houston: His age has caused him to lose a step since the blustery-yet-effective debate performance he gave against Paul Ryan in 2012.
He was less lucid and articulate on Thursday night than he was during his clear victory at the last Democratic debate in July. Some of his verbal mistakes in Houston were slight — confusing “billions” with “trillions,” and “councilman” with “congressman,” and talking about “record players.” At other times, his errors were more substantive. “Nobody should be in jail for a non-violent crime,” he said, likely meaning “a non-violent drug crime.” “We didn’t lock people up in cages, we didn’t separate families,” he said of the Obama administration. (Fact check: They did.)
His comments on Afghanistan were at times incomprehensible. At one point, his dentures appeared to slip. “There are definitely moments where you listen to Joe Biden and you just wonder,” Cory Booker told CNN after the debate.
But despite it all, Biden didn’t lose the debate, because the other candidates failed to capitalize on his weaknesses. At one point, Julian Castro even seemed to inoculate Biden from criticism about his age by pressing the attack too forcefully, making the former vice president seem sympathetic.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro asked, taunting Biden during an exchange on health care. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.” (The Castro brothers are apparently not big fans of subtlety.)
Biden also managed to win some key exchanges on matters of substance.
ABC moderator David Muir said to Kamala Harris:
In recent days former Vice President Biden has said about executive orders, “Some really talented people are seeking the nomination. They said, ‘I’m going to issue an executive order.'” Biden saying, “There’s no constitutional authority to issue that executive order when they say ‘I’m going to eliminate assault weapons,'” saying, “you can’t do it by executive order any more than Trump can do things when he says he can do it by executive order.”
Does the vice president have a point there?
“Well, I mean, I would just say, hey, Joe, instead of saying, ‘No, we can’t,’ let’s say ‘Yes, we can,’” Harris replied, before laughing uproariously at her own zinger as is her wont. She utterly failed to provide any constitutional argument in favor of banning assault weapons by executive fiat, and Biden stuck to his guns. “Let’s be constitutional. We’ve got a Constitution,” he shot back.
Biden also got the better of his opponents during the discussion of Medicare for All, the most important policy debate in the Democratic primary. He contrasted his $740 billion plan with the $30 trillion Medicare for All plan of Warren and Sanders early in the debate. “Thus far, my distinguished friend, the senator on my left, has not indicated how she pays for it,” he said, referring to Warren, while Sanders has only gotten “about halfway there.”
Later, Biden hit his rivals for proposing grand Medicare for All plans that would take years to implement. “We’re talking four, six, eight, ten years, depending on who you talk about, before we get to Medicare for All,” Biden said. “Come on. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. You know what it’s like. People need help now, hope now.”
Finally, he ended on a memorable high note. Asked what his greatest “professional setback” was, the former vice president had the good sense to collect himself and explain that any professional setback he had ever suffered didn’t come close to the personal suffering he’s experienced.
“I lost my faith for a while,” he said of his experience losing his wife and daughter in a car crash. “It came back.” Losing his son Beau to cancer, Biden added, was “like losing part of my soul.”
“The way I’ve dealt with it is finding purpose. And my purpose is to do what I’ve always tried to do and stay engaged in public policy,” Biden said, before connecting his suffering to “a lot of people [who have] been through a lot worse than I have who get up every single morning, put their feet one foot in front of another, without the help I had. There are real heroes out there. Some real heroes.”
Biden is polling low enough that it’s easy to see another candidate overtaking him at some point. But it’s hard to see how anything that happened on Thursday night will diminish his coalition or dislodge him as the race’s front-runner.