Biden's Unforced Errors Keep Piling Up

by Neil H. Buchanan

In a surprise only to people with no memory, Joe Biden is turning out to be a very clumsy (at best) presidential candidate.  It is obviously far too early to say that he will definitely lose the nomination, but only a couple of months after presenting himself to America as the candidate who can assuredly win the election, he is flailing in ways that seem all too familiar.

For those of us who view Biden as unshakably tied to the triangulating business-chummy recent past of the Democratic Party, this ought to be good news.  As I wrote not long ago, even though Biden pretty much seems now to agree with the more liberal policy views that have come to define the party over the last few years, he will almost certainly end up arguing as president that "we can't go too fast, guys," and he would be likely to slow-walk policies and doom business-unfriendly ideas to paralysis-by-analysis (e.g. appointing presidential commissions or using other old political tricks).

Or, as I put it in that column, conservatives prefer Biden because, even if he sometimes talks like a liberal, they "know he will fold immediately if ever confronted by the business establishment."  And he surely will.  Liberals will vote for Biden in a general election only because years of listless timidity are better than Trump.

That is, if Biden truly is the Democrat most able to beat Trump in 2020 -- the "electable" candidate -- then all of those policy differences should melt away, and it would be truly bad news if Biden's current stumble-bum follies meant that he would never get the chance to save the world from Trumpism next year.

Yes, I am among the legions of liberals who have been skeptical of the electability trope all along -- and certainly the idea that Biden is obviously the most electable candidate -- but it is at least worth thinking about what we now know about Biden as a candidate.  What we already knew from previous campaigns is coming into better focus, and what we did not know about Biden is in many ways even more confounding.

And it is not just the tone-deafness and lack of intellectual sharpness that are at issue (although both ought to worry Biden's supporters).  As I will explain below, Biden has over the past few years even undermined his working class credentials.  One cannot help but wonder again and again: What is he thinking?

Although it turns out that Biden's history of touching women -- or what a piece on "The Daily Show" once referred to as "the audacity of grope" -- did not have the devastating effect on Biden's candidacy that many people thought it might, it is still a problem for him.

For one thing, his supporters' efforts to describe him as "too tactile" or "literally a hands-on politician," or other euphemisms, do not hold up to the facts that are available or to the accusations against him.  He has not been merely "handsy."  He somehow developed the ability to touch women in highly personal ways without seeming sexually predatory -- yet still very creepy.

"Yes, he's a groper, but he's not a perverted groper" is not exactly a great defense.  And Trump has already indicated that -- hypocrisy be damned -- he will highlight Biden's problems with women in a general election campaign.  If the press and many voters fell for the line that Hillary Clinton was corrupt and dishonest in a race against the most corrupt and dishonest politician in memory, then we can certainly expect allegations of rape against Trump to continue to merit barely a mention while every Biden shoulder squeeze is analyzed like the Zapruder film.

The bigger issue raised by the creepy-not-perverted touching, however, is Biden's failure to "get it" even when he tried to respond to the issue.  Biden has shown a Trump-like stubbornness about ever admitting that he has been wrong.  Even when he changes his position (such as on the Hyde Amendment), there is a frostiness in him that springs from an obvious sense of self-righteousness.

And I do mean Trump-like.  When Biden went on his deeply misguided recent trip down memory lane regarding his work with bigoted Southern Democratic senators, Senator Cory Booker demanded an apology.  When Biden responded by saying that Booker is the one who should apologize, I could only think of the 2016 debate during which Clinton referred to Trump as a puppet of Vladimir Putin.  (Good call, Hillary!).  Trump sputtered: "No puppet.  No puppet!!  You're the puppet!"  Biden surely felt that Booker was being unfair to him (although I think Booker was right), but the problem is in responding to any attack by making things worse.  You attacked me?  You're the jerk!

The most searing moment of the campaign so far, however, was Senator Kamala Harris's memorably effective take-down of Biden over his stance on school busing in the 1970's.  Harris continues to give me reason to put less weight on very real concerns about her days as a prosecutor, and that take-down was brilliant not only because it came across as so personal and unaffected but because it turned out that it was, in fact, planned well in advance.  She did her homework, worked out her strategy, and carried it off with passion and humanity.

Again, however, the bigger problem for Biden is not that he had done something that he ought to regret but that he still refuses truly to regret it.  Faced with a prosecutorial tour de force, Biden became a hack defense lawyer, searching for some distinction to save himself.  In this case, Biden decided to say that he was not against busing per se, but only forced busing.

Harris showed her chops once again by immediately -- and I do mean immediately -- exposing the emptiness of that defense.  Biden argues that local groups that were willing to desegregate themselves were free to do so but that segregationists should not have been forced to stop oppressing minorities?  Harris retorts that the whole point of the civil rights movement was to move to higher levels of government when local bigots refused to act.

Indeed, that basic truth -- that localism had to give way to national standards of decency -- continues to be the driving factor behind our national politics.  As Lyndon Johnson predicted when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the vicious bigots that Biden remembered fondly soon became Republicans, and even though the federal government's taxing-and-spending mechanisms very effectively transfer resources into red states from blue states, white resentment of civil rights laws and enforcement run deep.

One might hope that Biden already knew this, but here we are in 2019, with the Democrats' frontrunner telling a woman of color that because she happened to be in one of the few places in the Sixties where a local government did the right thing, he was right to oppose a federal school integration policy.  Nimble he is not.

Although it did not receive much play, a report last week in The Washington Post exposed a very different way in which Biden is showing his cluelessness.  It turns out that the former Vice President has been living in the lap of luxury, hanging out with big-dollar donors and giving $200,000-a-pop speeches.  The article pointedly notes that Biden "appears to have taken care to avoid the backlash that haunted Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Democratic primary, as she faced questions about her private speeches to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street interests. He appears to have limited his appearances to less politically sensitive venues, public documents show."

Forgive me for my cynicism, but if that is the way that Biden has "taken care to avoid the backlash," then he is in for a rude awakening.  He is renting a $20,000-a-month mansion in the DC suburbs (five bedrooms and ten bathrooms), even as he owns two other large homes.  What is he thinking?

I should confess here that I am currently ill-positioned to criticize others for being "over-housed," because I just bought a house in Gainesville as part of my move to the University of Florida's Levin College of Law this Fall.  I still own my house in the D.C. area, so I am among those people who have to decide which of more than one structure is my principal residence.  (In my case, it is easy: Gainesville.)  So I am not criticizing Biden for having more than one place in which to live.  Sometimes, that makes sense, at least temporarily.

What I am saying is that Biden has known forever that he wants to be president, so why do any of this?  If I were trying to be a man of the people -- and by the way, it "appears that Middle Class Joe is a name he bequeathed to himself," per that WaPo article -- and thought that I might run for office one day, I would be pretty careful to own only one home at a time.  And again, how can one come out of 2016 and not think that big-dollar speeches are a bad look for a presidential candidate?

When I was in graduate school, I heard about a Harvard undergraduate student who openly told his dates that he would not have sex with them lest they be able to derail his planned political career.  Giving up adolescent sex for political viability seemed crazy to most of us, but the guy was not wrong that politicians have to worry about appearances.  Yet there is Biden ...

But the larger point is not only that Biden makes mistakes but that he never quite gets what he did wrong.  His self-regard is such that he thinks it obvious that his motives are pure, so when he faces a flap (or worse), he apparently believes that all he has to do is explain why his heart was in the right place.

Again, Biden might survive all of this, win the nomination and the election, and finally deliver on his promise of enlightened bipartisanship.  Yet for a man who spent his entire life in public office, he is showing himself to have very bad political instincts.