Americans may not get along all that well these days, but on this much we should find common cause: Biden would be a terrible president.
Weird Uncle Joe isn’t just a decades-long punchline and perpetual-gaffe machine—his political ideas are even older than his advanced years (he’s 72). Whether it’s plumping for unsustainable old-age entitlements or leading the charge on the drug war, Biden represents the past, not the future.
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have a real shot. A poll taken the day before the first Democratic debate found half of Democrats want him to run, versus just 30 percent who want him to hit the showers. His public mourning after his son Beau’s recent death earned rave reviews and President Obama practically endorsed him during last Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview, calling him “one of the finest vice presidents in history.”
Hillary Clinton’s good-but-not-great debate performance hardly silenced all questions about her inevitability and Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism” simply doesn’t play well with anything approaching a majority of Americans.
Which makes Biden viable, at least as a phantom menace to Clinton and Sanders, even though his odd behavior and logorrhea are legendary. Last year, The Daily Show went to town on “creepy” Joe’s semi-chokehold on Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s wife during a swearing-in ceremony; the veep pulled the same trick on various pre-pubescent daughters of random senators too. Fully half of the Internet is taken up with lists of Biden gaffes, which range from the bizarre (“You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent”) to the more-bizarre (Obama, he averred, is “articulate and bright and clean and a good-looking guy…that’s a storybook, man”) to the please-god-make-it-stop (“I’d rather be at home making love to my wife while my children are asleep”).
Beyond the eww factor, his loose talk about “Shylocks,” “Orientals,” and disgraced sexual harasser and former Senator Bob Packwood during a commemoration of the passage of The Violence Against Women Act is difficult to simply laugh off. As is his truly disturbing record of plagiarism and lying.
During his failed presidential campaign in 1988, Biden had to cop not only to getting an F during his law school days for cheating but to having ripped off speeches by John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey. Even more amazingly, Biden cribbed biographical details from British Labour politician Neil Kinnock, including lines about ancestors who “would come up [from coal mines] after 12 hours and play football.” What kind of politician plagiarizes not simply other people’s word but other people’s lives? That’s not a storybook, man, that’s a nutjob.
Then there’s his actual politics, which are stuck in the past. During the 2012 campaign, Biden told every audience of seniors he could find, “There will be no changes in Social Security.” The problem with that—and his similar promise regarding Medicare— is that such programs are flatly unsustainable absent massive infusions of payroll tax dollars, most of which will inevitably be paid by the relatively young and relatively poor.
Then again, Biden has never been a particularly good friend to younger Americans, even back when he was one of them. Certainly, he’s always despised drug culture, even marijuana, which he believes is a gateway drug. In the 1980s, Biden was instrumental in creating the office of the drug czar and called for nothing short of total war on pot and pills. “Mr. President,” he raged, outdoing even Ronald Reagan in just-say-no bellicosity, “you say you want a war on drugs, but if that’s what you want we need another D-Day. Instead you’re giving us another Vietnam—a limited war fought on the cheap, financed on the sly, with no clear objectives, and ultimately destined for stalemate and human tragedy.” Give Biden bonus credit for chutzpah in invoking Vietnam—like Dick Cheney, he managed to snag five deferments from the military draft his college days.
In the early 2000s, when raves and Ecstasy were driving legislators to distraction with visions of young people getting high and fucking, Biden emerged as the champion of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, which also went by the god-awful acronym The RAVE Act (for “Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act”).
The kink in the RAVE Act was that it not only stiffened all sorts of penalties for making or selling drugs but also for allowing them to be used. The law prohibited “knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.” If you owned a club or a house or even an open field and enough high kids showed up, you’re screwed.
The ironic-yet-entirely-predictable twist? By criminalizing any knowledge of drug use, the RAVE Act actually increases the likelihood of bad outcomes. If event organizers acknowledge drug use and try to pass around harm-reduction literature or staff intervention services, they’re putting themselves at risk. “Promoters,” wrote Tammy L. Anderson in the journal Contexts, “even told me that “rave” language on flyers or other promotional materials could serve as evidence of a legal violation. If they offer drug intervention services, such as drug testing and education, promoters may be at even greater legal risk.”
But forget all that, and the gaffes and the plagiarism and the refusal to admit that entitlements need to be overhauled. In the words of a Facebook page begging him to run, “Biden would bolster the field w/ his ‘extensive public service record’ and his ‘deep relationships’ in Washington.”
Such is the state of 21st-century American politics that he might just have a shot at becoming the oldest president ever sworn into office.