Democrats and election watchers are asking questions about Joe Biden’s viability as a presidential candidate following a series of gaffes earlier this month.
It began on Aug. 5, when Biden got the locations of the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, wrong, calling them “the tragic events in Houston today and also in Michigan.” The following Thursday, at the Iowa State Fair, he screwed up the “choose truth over lies” refrain he’d been using since April, declaring instead, “We choose truth over facts.” That evening, he confused—for the second time—former British Prime Minister Theresa May with her long-dead predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, and misattributed a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. to Barack Obama, and followed that up by saying, “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” Two days later, Biden claimed to have met with the student survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, when he was still vice president.
Biden, 76, has long been known for gaffes. But moments like these are a mounting source of anxiety for many liberals and progressives and are fueling a creeping discussion about the former VP’s advancing age.
“Joe Biden is senile. Time to deal with reality,” tweeted Daily Kos contributing editor Armando Llorens following the news of Biden’s Parkland mistake. Llorens, who is supporting Sen. Kamala Harris in 2020, told Paste that these incidents differ from Biden’s past gaffes in that they involve remembering things. “This isn’t even really gaffes,” he said. “Gaffes were calling Obama ‘clean’ and ‘articulate.’”
To Llorens’ point, the month before Biden’s no good, very bad week, the former VP made the claim that the 2016 Russian election meddling would not have happened on his watch or President Obama’s watch—when in fact, it had.
“Is he too old? That is a question Democrats need to ask themselves. Donald Trump is certainly going to ask,” Llorens said darkly.
His sentiments echoed an earlier tweet by Matt Stoller, a Fellow at the Open Markets Institute and former Senior Policy Advisor and Budget Analyst to the Senate Budget Committee. “The Democratic primary basically boils down to the question, ‘Will Democratic voters eventually notice Joe Biden is senile?’” he wrote.
Two days before Stoller, Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara tweeted something similar: “Joe Biden is too senile to be in office.” Speaking to Paste, Sunkara explained that he has “less problems with Biden’s age than his alacrity,” comparing him to Sen. Bernie Sanders, 77, whom he said seems “much sharper and more capable at the moment.”
When Biden first announced his candidacy, many election watchers didn’t expect much. It wasn’t long, however, before he shot straight to the top of the polls, riding 100 percent name recognition, his association with Barack Obama, and perceptions about his electability.
But even early on, there were warning signs that these perceptions might be incorrect. It was only about a month into his candidacy, for example, that Biden first confused May with Thatcher. Perhaps the biggest red flag, however, was the completely avoidable controversy he stirred while speaking at a fundraiser on Juneteenth. The former VP did the unthinkable and waxed nostalgic about the good old days working with virulent segregationist James O. Eastland, the former Senator from Mississippi who in life referred to black people as an “inferior race.”
“He never called me ‘boy,’” Biden remarked. “He always called me ‘son.’”
Biden’s aides had specifically warned him against mentioning Eastland, given his history, but the former VP would not be dissuaded. Making matters worse, he seemed angry and confused at the backlash, telling reporters that he’d done nothing wrong and, in a tone-deaf move, demanding an apology from rival Sen. Cory Booker, who’d weighed in.
“Apologize for what? Cory should apologize, he knows better,” Biden said with a grimace. “There’s not a racist bone in my body, I’ve been involved with civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”
Despite these early mistakes, Biden’s poll numbers remained strong, allowing his campaign to keep public appearances limited through May without risking too much ground. But the debates put an end to that by forcing him into the public eye.
That’s really when the trouble began.
This past June was the first time in years that Democrats got to see the former VP face off in a debate setting. Visibly aged and subdued, this Biden was a far cry from the man many Democrats remembered trouncing Paul Ryan in 2012. When he spoke, his voice strained and he appeared to have difficulty choosing his words. When Harris took the predictable shot at him over his Eastland comments and past opposition to federally mandated school integration busing, the visibly uncomfortable Biden struggled to articulate an answer despite having weeks of preparation time. He ended up simply doubling down on his decades-old position, arguing that integration should have been left up to localities before cutting himself off.
“Anyway, my time is up,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
The second debate went even worse than the first. Biden began the evening with a smiling appeal to Harris to “go easy on me kid,” setting off a mini-storm on Twitter. He didn’t do himself any favors with the Latinx community either, echoing Republican talking points about migrants needing to “get in line.” In terms of his delivery, Biden wasn’t any sharper, again struggling with word choice and cutting himself off repeatedly in the middle of answers to conform with time limits.
Biden also frequently confused the details of his own policy proposals. At one point, he claimed his healthcare plan would cover every American, seemingly unaware of the fact that his own campaign website acknowledges that three percent of the population would be left out.
Harris didn’t miss the opportunity to call him on the discrepancy.
“By your staff’s and your own definition, 10 million people—as many as 10 million people will not have access to healthcare,” she said. “And in 2019 in America, for a Democrat to be running for president with a plan that does not cover everyone, I think is without excuse.”
Later on, following a back-and-forth between Biden and Jay Inslee over climate change, moderator Dana Bash asked the former VP if there would be “any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking” in his administration. Biden’s response in the negative was once again belied by the plan on his campaign website, which contains a provision about “[r]equiring aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations.”
The low point of the night, however, came durimg closing statements. Biden bungled his sales pitch, directing supporters to a nonexistent website.
“Go to Joe 3-0-3-3-0,” he said with staccato uncertainty.
Since that second debate, Biden has maintained a slim polling advantage nationally, but his lead is fragile and the gaffes surely aren’t helping. An Economist/YouGov national poll from last week had him with a one-point advantage over Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a four-point advantage over Sanders.
While the Biden campaign has written off his recent missteps, not everyone is convinced. According to a report from The Hill released last week, some of the former VP’s allies have noticed that the gaffes tend to happen late in the day after campaigning and are discussing once again scaling back his public appearances to compensate.
“[Biden’s allies] say something needs to be done to give the candidate more down time as the campaign intensifies in the fall,” it reads.
This was not welcome news for Democrats. Donald Trump, 73, has already branded Biden “Sleepy Joe,” and told reporters last Wednesday that the former VP had “truly lost his fastball.” David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist to both Obama campaigns, tweeted The Hill’s report, warning against cutting back Biden’s schedule.
“You can’t cloister the candidate and win,” wrote Axelrod. “He either can cut it or he can’t, and the only way he can prove he can is to be an active and vigorous candidate. He’s running for president of the United States, for God’s sake!”
Democratic strategist Rebecca Katz, of the firm New Deal Strategies, told Paste she has been uneasy about Biden’s light campaign schedule and “would like to see him out there more.”
“Being a great campaigner has never been Biden’s signature strength, but he’s also never been a front-runner before,” Katz explained. “That takes on a whole new level of work. It’s on him. He has to prove that he can take on the load.”
Adam Green, the founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee which has endorsed Warren for president, was of a similar mind, telling Paste, “The main question for many Democratic primary voters will be ‘is a candidate electable and ready for the fight both ideologically and how they campaign against Trump?’”