Wilmington, we have a problem.
It appears that this election is Joe Biden’s to lose. His last hurdle is a low one: demonstrating that he is, in fact, still alive and up to the task. All he has to do is show that this isn’t a “Weekend at Bernie’s” scenario, and he’s golden. But can he do it?
The verdict is still out. On Thursday night, Biden was forced to issue an apology. “Earlier today, I made some comments about diversity in the African American and Latino communities that I want to clarify,” he tweeted. “In no way did I mean to suggest the African American community is a monolith—not by identity, not on issues, not at all.” Except, the thing he’s saying he didn’t mean to suggest is, quite literally, what he said.
If past is prologue, this gaffe will be forgotten soon enough, overshadowed by some even crazier, creepier or crueler Trump statement. The problem isn’t this particular incident or the previous one when he told Black voters “you ain’t Black” if you’re not voting for him, but the lingering perception that Biden has (a) lost a step, and is (b) hiding it. To correct this impression—to clear this last hurdle—Biden is going to have to actually demonstrate his fitness. He will have to emerge from his man cave and prove he’s up to the challenge.
This will require a paradigm shift. To everything, there is a season. Back in March, I argued that Biden should embrace the basement—that the shutdown and social distancing might play perfectly into his hands. What now has become conventional wisdom was, at the time, a somewhat risky strategy. After all, Donald Trump would be getting nonstop (earned) media coverage while leading the charge against a global pandemic. The president would be utterly relevant, and Biden would look impotent and ineffectual in comparison.
But the quarantine turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for Uncle Joe. For one thing, cash-flush incumbents generally use the months between the primary and the official nomination to attack and define challengers (who tend to be broke and helpless until their party convention), but that was impossible in a pandemic. And while Trump did soak up TV time, that time turned out to be a disaster for him, as well as the country, while Biden (who had just fended off numerous Democratic rivals) was afforded the opportunity to catch his breath. I reasoned that Biden could resurface, tanned and rested after Labor Day, without missing a beat. And then he could sprint to election day.
So far, so good. But about that sprint…
I’m not so sure the plan is for Biden to fully resurface, much less do more than a slow jog to Pennsylvania Avenue. (God forbid he breaks a hip!) As we enter the final stretch of this never-ending 2020 election, a prudent argument might be that Biden should keep doing what he’s doing. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Recent reports indicate he will not physically appear at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. Instead, he will opt to accept the nomination in Delaware. (At a Wilmington rally? On Zoom from his house? It’s unclear.) After that, there are three debates scheduled with Trump, though some Biden-friendly commentators are urging him to skip them.
In my opinion, there are two reasons Biden has to come out of hiding: principle and politics.
Let’s start with principle. At his advanced age, Biden is obligated to demonstrate that he is still up to the physical and mental challenges required for the job. It seems clear that Biden has lost a step, but so has Trump. We saw that in his embarrassing interviews this week on HBO (where Trump couldn’t handle tough questions) and Fox News (where he rambled endlessly in response to obsequious questions). But at least Trump was willing to go into the lion’s den, and let us see for ourselves. Biden needs to do the same, regularly, so that Americans can judge his fitness under that mild stress test for themselves. Indeed, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who recently grilled Trump, is challenging Biden to submit himself to the same sort of interview.
I don’t think Biden has deteriorated so much as to be disqualifying, but his basement campaign—something that the press would never have tolerated from a challenger pre-COVID—allows doubts to linger.
Earlier this spring and summer, Biden took about three months off from fielding any press conference questions from reporters. His most recent press conference, on July 28, was described by the AP as “just his third extended news conference in four months.” Biden, of course, has continued doing remote interviews, but they haven’t always gone according to plan.
During a recent interview, Biden scolded CBS correspondent Errol Barnett for asking if he has taken a cognitive test, which he evidently has not.
“That's like saying to you, before you got on this program, you take a test where you taking cocaine or not. What do you think? Huh? Are you a junkie?" Biden shot back.
This leads us to the second reason Biden needs to come out of hiding: politics. It might seem counterintuitive to stop doing something that has worked, even if only a little bit. But think of it this way: If Biden does have something to hide, it’s unethical and irresponsible to conceal him. And if not, then you are effectively eliminating what is probably the only legitimate argument Trump can make down the stretch (the notion that Biden will be an “empty vessel” to be manipulated by progressive advisers and aides).
No, I’m not suggesting he should go 96 hours without sleeping (like Bob Dole’s final stretch) or try some gimmick like trying to walk across America. Some more press conferences where he takes tough questions from real reporters and speeches in front of a (socially distanced) live crowd would go a long way, along with three solid debate performances. Can he pull that off?
That seems like the least to ask from a man who would be president.