Joe Biden: What was that?
That went about as badly for the frontrunner as it could have gone. He came out all right, mentioning Donald Trump in his first comment. Fifteen minutes in, Eric Swalwell went at him by throwing that quote in his face about it being time to pass the torch. Biden did not exactly handle that with the greatest of aplomb, but “I’m still holdin’ on to that torch” was… fine.
Over the course of the next 45 minutes, nothing terrible, nothing great. Looked a little old, seemed a little tired. But I remember seeing some people on Twitter ranking him, oh, third. Then came the moment. I’d been taking notes on my computer and then, at some point, without even quite knowing it, I stopped. A half an hour later, I looked back at those notes and saw that the last thing I wrote was:
“Anyway, my time’s up, I’m sorry.”
I stopped because after Biden said that, there seemed no point in keeping score anymore. We had a winner, Kamala Harris. And we had a loser.
And it got worse for Biden from there. The Iraq answer was a big whiff. Rachel Maddow gave him a chance to say he’d learned. She all but begged him to say he’d learned. Here’s her question: “You voted for the Iraq War. you said you regret that vote. Why should voters trust your judgment when it comes to making a decision on taking the country to war the next time?”
The answer to that question is obvious. I did, Rachel, and I was wrong. I couldn’t believe a president would deceive us about a casus belli. Whatever. Something like that. And then pivot to the grave lesson you’ve learned from that humbling error. Simple.
Biden’s answer was rambling and evasive. “Because once we… once Bush abused that power, what happened was, we got elected after that, I made sure, the president turned to me and said, ‘Joe, get our combat troops out of Iraq’…” No! Do the mea culpa. That’s what Maddow, and the whole room, and the whole TV audience, wanted to hear.
The thread that ties together the Harris disaster and the Iraq answer is obvious. He can’t admit a mistake. He doesn’t seem capable, so far, of saying he got something wrong. Sort of on Anita Hill. But even that was…inartful. He wishes he could have done more for her? He chaired the committee. Two women were sitting in a nearby hotel ready to corroborate what Hill said about Clarence Thomas. He didn’t call them to the hearing room.
On the busing thing, he should have been far readier. There’s obviously an important distinction in his mind between locally decided busing and busing that was enforced by the Department of Education, and between de facto and de jure busing. But in the debate, it was all muddled.
In an interview with MSNBC after the debate ended, Biden was a little clearer. He said—and of course he grabbed interviewer Garrett Hake on the shoulder as he spoke—that he was the deciding vote in the Senate on some amendment sponsored by Senator Edward Gurney of Florida in the 1970s that supported busing. For his sake, that better be true.
So now we’re going to relive the busing controversy of the 1970s. If you weren’t alive—it was quite possibly the single ugliest chapter in recent American history. I know that’s saying something. But think: People get insane about race. And of course people get insane about their kids. Combine them. Got it?
I’ll go back and research this in the coming days. My memory is that it took an extraordinarily brave white politician, or one who represented a reflexively liberal district, to support busing in real time. But that’s not going to wash with many people in 2019, especially with Harris bearing such persuasive emotional witness to the other side of the argument.
So maybe standing 40 years later by that position will be enough to bring him down. About that, we’ll see. But on this night, it wasn’t really about positions. It was that he seemed slow and past his prime. His NRA comment—“our enemy is the gun manufacturers, not the NRA”—was evidence of that. Yes, it’s the manufacturers. But it’s the NRA, too, and the unholy relationship between the two. The gunmakers, who have their own lobbyists, need the NRA as their lightning rod, and the NRA needs their funding to maintain its power.
And that’s the stuff he did. Just as damaging, in my view, is the stuff he didn’t do. He’s in the race, and is leading, because there was a hole: There was no candidate who seemed like the obvious choice to win back those Obama-to-Trump voters in the three or four key states where they need to be won back.
But he said almost nothing to those voters. It is not, to be fair, that he has nothing to say to them. He has positions that speak to the middle and working classes, some of them a little more left-leaning than you’d think. But he didn’t communicate any of that until his closing statement.
Will he lose ground in the polls? One thinks yes. But he might not. Although this busing story is going to spin out over the next several days, or week, even, and it could hurt.
But the other thing that could hurt is this: His wobbly performance in this debate may get people wondering whether he’s really the soldier the party wants to send out to fight Trump. That he was that soldier had been accepted, even to some extent by people for whom he was not the preferred candidate.
It’s not so accepted now.