The Morning Jolt

Elections

How to Think about Biden’s Gaffes

Joe Biden speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)

Making the click-through worthwhile and wrapping up your week before Labor Day weekend: the worst-case scenario for Democrats if they nominate Joe Biden; a lesson about money in politics that needs to be taught and retaught, seemingly endlessly; a shocking poll up in Massachusetts; and a whole bunch of Hillary Clinton fans suddenly like leaks from the former FBI director.

The Worst-Case Scenario for Democrats with Biden

Joe Biden is probably mentally and physically fine — or within the parameters of fine for a man who turns 77 in November and who never had the greatest verbal discipline at the height of his career.

When Biden tells a story where he gets just about all of the details wrong, when he mixes up New Hampshire and Vermont, or calls former British prime minister Theresa May “Margaret Thatcher,” or when he says, “those kids in Parkland came up to see me when I was vice president” or when he mangles the address of his campaign web site at the end of a debate, it’s probably just a normal man in his mid-to-late 70s behaving like a normal man in his mid-to-late 70s.

I believe that if Biden were genuinely mentally or physically unwell and incapable of handling the duties of the presidency, his family and friends would sit him down and make him withdraw from the race. No one would want their loved one to go out into the national spotlight and stumble and be embarrassed. Watching a loved one succumb to age and gradually lose their mental acuity and memory from Alzheimer’s is an extremely painful process.*

(In a strange way, “I want to be clear, I’m not going nuts,” is kind of a cute and charming unofficial slogan. With the news being what it is these days, Mr. Vice President, we’ve all felt the need to reassure others and ourselves of that fact.)

But even assuming that these are just normal septuagenarian memory lapses, it’s more than a little uncomfortable to watch Biden appear to forget Barack Obama’s name, saying during a recent appearance, “he’s saying it was president . . . (pause) My boss’s, it’s his fault.” If part of the reason to vote for Biden is his superior experience and knowledge in foreign policy, it’s a little unnerving to hear Biden say, “I don’t know the new prime minister of England. He looks like Donald Trump, I know that.” Really? Does the former veep need glasses?

The problem for Biden and his campaign is that nothing gets easier from here. Running for president consists almost entirely of long days of extemporaneous speaking in front of cameras and getting asked difficult questions from both reporters and voters. It is physically and mentally grueling marathon even to the healthiest and youngest candidates. Sure, the Biden campaign can rely on ads where Biden barely speaks and try to get him to stick to a prepared script as much as possible. But we know this man. Biden likes to talk. He likes to tell stories. He will tell stories where he doesn’t really remember the details, fills in the blanks with how he wanted it to have happened, and insist, “this is the God’s honest truth.”

We’re going to get more implausible claims like the idea that Seattle was a hotbed of homophobia five years ago. We’re going to get more impossible-to-check but credulity-straining stories, like the idea that Biden and his father saw two men kissing in the street in Delaware in 1961, and that his father taught him, “It’s simple, Joe. They love each other.”

Jonah writes that Biden ought to run an old-fashioned “front porch campaign”, declaring, “while he may be showing signs of age, the truth is that he’s always been prone to gaffes, malapropisms, exaggerations, and misstatements. Every time Biden opens his mouth in an unscripted situation, there’s a chance he’ll say something goofy that undercuts his elder-statesman status.”

It’s entirely possible that Biden’s gaffes never amount to much during the primary. So far, they haven’t caused enough concern to eat into Biden’s lead. The former vice president had a lousy first debate but generally pulled it together in the second one. Biden’s memory, mental acuity, and age are probably only going to be issues if he has an absolutely terrible lapse on camera during a debate, or if one of the other candidates decides to make it an issue. And the candidate who brings it up will be playing with fire. Make no mistake, a lot of voters will see “you’re too old to be president and your mind is failing you” to be a mean, nasty, personal attack.

But the general election is going to feature an incumbent who specializes in mean, nasty, personal attacks.

The worst-case scenario for the Democrats is that Biden rides to the nomination on a combination of voter familiarity and comfort, his usual empathy and goofy charm, and carefully managed appearances . . . and then Biden’s memory lapses and brief moments of confusion become too prominent to ignore after he’s the nominee. We know the Trump campaign will not ignore them, and gleefully contend that Biden is indeed losing his mind. (Oh, what about Trump’s gaffes, you’re asking? Have you noticed the president’s Infinity Gauntlet of Shamelessness that makes him immune to all accusations of hypocrisy?)

In fact, if Biden’s memory is going to be an issue, it would be better for Democrats if his lapses were so glaring and troubling that they generated a broad consensus within the party that he had to be replaced for the nominee. The worst range would be that if the problems were frequent and persistent enough to make voters doubt he could handle the job as president, but not quite frequent and persistent enough to convince Biden friends and allies that he should probably head for a quiet, well-earned retirement.

The whole thing is vaguely reminiscent of the questions about Hillary Clinton’s health during the 2016 campaign. The good news is, it is the end of August 2019 and Hillary Clinton is still alive and, as far as we know, in good health for a 71-year-old woman. But at an absolute minimum, when she was having intermittent coughing fits during her speeches, she had pneumonia and a sinus and ear infection, all while her staff insisted to the press that her health was fine. (Why would we be surprised that political candidates, who shake hands with strangers all day, would catch colds and other infections?) That video of her staff trying to get her into the van at Ground Zero was scary stuff. Maybe that incident added to voter doubts about her health, or maybe it just added to voter doubts that she and her campaign were being honest about her health.

Democrats would be fools to repeat that pattern of indignantly insisting the nominee is fine, right before something happens that shows the country that the nominee is not fine.

I hope Joe Biden is fine. He’s probably fine, or about as fine as he’s ever been. But if elected, on inauguration day 2021, Biden would be 78 years, 61 days old, the oldest sitting president. The second-oldest president at their inauguration was Trump at 70 years, 220 days; the third-oldest was Ronald Reagan at 69 years, 349 days. Questions like this about the condition of Biden’s body and mind are inevitable — and fair.

*You want to know which movie has an absolutely beautiful scene, out of nowhere, about living with someone with Alzheimer’s? Friends With Benefits, an otherwise mostly forgettable romantic comedy with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. Timberlake has a father whose Alzheimer’s is getting worse, and at one point he’s called to the airport, where his father has taken off his pants and is sitting at a restaurant table in his underwear. The other patrons are embarrassed and giving him awkward stares. Timberlake knows that telling his father to put on his pants on will just create a scene, and there’s no point in arguing with him. So he takes off his pants as well, sits down and orders a steak.

Now They Tell Us!

A CNN headline that ought to be remembered the next time someone proposes campaign finance reform to “get big money out of politics”: Tom Steyer learns, again, that money doesn’t always matter in politics. You would think high-profile examples like H. Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, and Michael Huffington would have taught people that spending a lot of money doesn’t always translate to a win in a hard-fought campaign.

Here Come the Kennedys, Yet Again

A little while back, I said that the Kennedy family might be better off if their members took a break from running for office. With a new survey showing Congressman Joe Kennedy ahead of Senator Ed Markey, 42 percent to 25 percent (!), it is unlikely that Kennedy will resist the temptation to run.

How can you be a relatively boring, not particularly controversial, loyal party man incumbent senator and be polling at just 25 percent in a primary poll? What, did Markey put a Yankee cap or something?

ADDENDA: It’s kind of amazing; people who are big fans of James Comey and big foes of President Trump think “Comey didn’t leak classified information” is all they need to say in response to yesterday’s IG report. That report was pretty damning! If you’re FBI director, you don’t get to pick and choose which Bureau rules and regulations you follow, but some people seem to believe that it’s okay for the FBI director to leak sensitive but unclassified information if he has as sufficiently low opinion of the president.

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