Joe Biden's record — not his gaffes — is dooming his campaign

Joe Biden's record — not his gaffes — is dooming his campaign
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Joe BidenJoe BidenUkrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' Warren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll MORE finally got some good news this week: The latest Investor’s Business Daily/TIPP poll, one of 2016’s most accurate pollsters, shows the former vice president trouncing Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE by a staggering 12 points in a head-to-head presidential match-up. That’s four times what Democratic primary competitors Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll Warren avoids attacks while building momentum Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE can boast.

It also raises a sensitive question about Biden: Has anyone seen the Democratic frontrunner?

For the past few days, Biden has been caught in an unenviable trap. Biden has always massaged his stories to craft simple, teachable moments from the often-complex fabric of real life. For the most part, voters and the media have been charitable to these slight exaggerations of fact. Not so with Biden’s most recent attempt to combine several different personal experiences into one tall tale of an Afghan war story.

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Fudging the truth is a risky gambit for any politician; doing so with war stories risks doing serious and lasting damage to the tale-spinner’s credibility. Biden’s response, that “the details are irrelevant” when trying to teach a moral lesson, was a textbook example of how not to climb out of a hole.

Biden’s war story mix-up comes as his own staff considers limiting the public events where Biden routinely makes news more for his stumbles than for any new policy proposals. Beltway conventional wisdom says Team Biden is hedging against future gaffes by pulling Biden away from unscripted events.

There is little evidence to show that gaffes move poll numbers in any meaningful way. A look back at Donald Trump’s rambling, error-saturated 2016 campaign (and nearly every day of his presidency since) shows how little gaffes register when voters assess whom to support at the ballot box. Biden’s team knows that.

Biden’s senior team isn’t – and shouldn’t be – concerned about misspeaks. They’re concerned about Joe Biden’s ability to defend, or even convincingly explain, some of the more challenging aspects of his long legislative career.

When confronted with concerns about Biden’s strength as the Democratic standard bearer, party insiders turn to the comforting myth of “electability.” Joe Biden can appeal to centrists, the logic goes, even though Biden provably failed to ignite the passion of this much-fetishized voter bloc during his 1988 campaign or two decades later in 2008.

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Now the Biden-as-electable mythos is taking its first major blows. His campaign staff are already working the media to lower expectations for his performance in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Just yesterday, three senior Biden staffers floated the idea that Biden would remain the most electable Democrat even if he failed to win over Democrats in the first three major contests.

It’s awfully early to lower expectations so dramatically, and it’s anyone’s guess whether the coalition Biden has assembled can survive successive rounds of underperformance. For all of Biden’s focus on his electability in a head-to-head matchup with Trump, no one seemed to ask if Biden was electable enough to survive the most diverse, talent-filled Democratic primary in modern memory.

Biden’s numbers are already softening as Elizabeth Warren rises to second place in Iowa on the back of an unapologetic progressive message. In New Hampshire, Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding MORE has been wowing crowds and packing larger and larger barns, diners and convention halls with engaged listeners. In Nevada, Julian CastroJulian CastroUkraine could badly damage both Donald Trump and the Democrats 2020 Democrats defend climate priorities in MSNBC forum Williamson: Climate change result of an 'amoral' economic system MORE’s numbers bounced after rediscovering his voice on issues of immigration, climate and health care. 

Misspeaking about a war story doesn’t damage Democratic faith in Joe Biden’s integrity. Misleading voters about his support for the Iraq War does. Momentarily forgetting you’re in New Hampshire doesn’t make Democrats in Concord question Joe Biden’s credentials. Defending the ruinous 1994 Crime Bill even after its societal harm has become clear does.

Joe Biden may reduce his gaffes by limiting his exposure and maintaining message discipline. Hiding his shortcomings as a legislator is a much more daunting task.

Shrugging off questions on school integration, the Hyde Amendment and the Iraq War might have worked for a stronger frontrunner in a less diverse primary. But the 2019 Democratic field doesn’t look or sound or act like any before it. It is a more progressive, more demographically representative portrait of the American people than any primary field in our political history. Biden’s struggle to grapple with this shift shows how ill-prepared he is to stand a thorough re-examination of his record.

In a Democratic primary field flush with accomplished, forward-looking talent, Democratic voters in the early primary states are already beginning to ask: Does Joe Biden represent me? If Biden’s worrying polling average is any indication, Democrats aren’t sure.  

Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He regularly makes appearances on Fox News, Fox Business, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns.