Four years ago, I believed that Joe Biden had missed his opportunity to be president. He would have matched up well against Trump in 2016 for several reasons: He had more appeal than Hillary Clinton to voters who swung from Obama to Trump to avoid her, and a kind of lightness of spirit she could never approach.
At the start of this election cycle, I believed that Biden would have difficulty winning the primary but still would match up well against Trump. I no longer believe this. I’m a conservative, and you can discount my assessment on those grounds if you like, but watching him campaign, I’ve concluded that Joe Biden is unfit for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
When we talk about “fitness” for the office of presidency, we usually have in mind a combination of a few characteristics. On the one hand, we have physical and mental competence, the first most definitely playing a key role in supporting the second. On the other, we have moral and ethical qualifications: Does this man have the good of Americans at heart?
George W. Bush and Barack Obama cared deeply about their physical fitness as a part of their mental preparedness, and we should thank them for that. The office hours, travel, and weight of responsibility that come with the most powerful office on Earth are grueling; it’s no accident that presidents have routinely gone gray by the time they leave the White House. (Donald Trump is, in this respect as in so many others, an outlier: He takes ample “executive time,” plays lots of golf, and instead of worrying about the political situation at hand often impulsively intervenes in it through Twitter. Yet if nothing else, he’s always been able to make himself appear energetic when he needs to.)
Having seen Biden on the debate stages, in campaign appearances, and in news clips that have gone viral for all the wrong reasons over the early stages of the 2020 race, I no longer think he is a safe bet for the Democrats. Could he beat Trump? Perhaps. Anyone sitting at the top of the Democrat ticket could wind up winning the general election. After all, Hillary Clinton won more votes than him last time. The free-floating anxiety about his presidency means that all bets are off, and many possible events between now and November could end up gifting the Democrats the White House.
But if they do win the White House, I highly doubt it will be behind Biden. All he’s shown so far in this race is his age. There is a revealing pattern in which he comes out of the gate looking sharp in debates, but then within 30 minutes his speech patterns degrade. He leaves half his thoughts unfinished, and his sentences become messier until he starts shouting at the end of them, as if that constitutes a recovery. He’s rambling and uncontrolled in his town-hall appearances. He’s irritable and not infrequently makes headlines for yelling at audience members.
What’s more, Biden is an even worse fit for the Democratic-primary electorate of 2020 than we thought. What are younger Democrats supposed to think of a man who called a woman a “lying dog-faced pony soldier” when she said at a New Hampshire event that she has participated in a caucus? Why in his right mind would any presidential candidate do something so weird? Anyone living in New Hampshire now who lived in Maine previously might have participated in a caucus. (Biden claims the insult is a reference to a John Wayne movie, but this has been disputed. And either way, it is very difficult to parse for anyone below the age of 60, which is to say, most Democratic primary voters.)
Now, you might think to yourself, Trump is no great shakes in the anger department himself, and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. But Trump’s supporters and many reporters think that he is in control of his anger, or at least makes good use of it. Since at least the era of George H. W. Bush’s reelection, Democrats have sought the mantle of youth, energy, preparedness, and coolness under pressure. They portrayed Bush as baffled at bar-code scanners and themselves as burning the midnight oil to craft policy proposals over boxes of takeout. Biden has instead been making the kind of experience-centric pitch we’ve traditionally seen from Republican presidential candidates. It’s Bob Dole’s case from 1996, and it isn’t appealing to Democrats so far.
Considering that Bernie Sanders is winning a quarter of support in the early states, and that Sanders’s supporters often think of Elizabeth Warren, the candidate nearest to them ideologically, as a sellout, Biden has a tremendously difficult task ahead. Even if he somehow wins the nomination, he will struggle mightily to unify the party and energize its young activists. He has been running on a campaign of nostalgia for the Obama years, but many young Democrats see those years as a time in which their innocence was lost and the party’s power was wasted on half-measures. Remember, many of the features of America’s health-care and housing markets got progressively worse under Obama for those younger voters.
So there it is. Joe Biden isn’t a good campaigner. He looks sluggish on the stump and lost on a debate stage. He is prone to bizarre viral mishaps with reporters and supporters. He doesn’t represent the cutting edge of the Democratic Party, has no sense of how to make himself acceptable to those who do, and isn’t terribly interested in trying. If I really wanted to beat Trump, the electability arguments presented by Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg would seem like better bets to me. Biden is not fit to lead his party in what will be a very trying and high-stakes election.