Biden makes supporters nervous; his gaffes could derail him
Last week seven politically connected acquaintances, five Democrats and two anti-Trump Republicans offered identical observations: They hope Joe Biden gets his party’s presidential nomination as he’s best positioned to defeat the president.
And every day, they add, he makes them nervous.
For instance, the former vice president’s campaign urged a vote for him — even if people like other candidates more — because he’s the most electable.
He speculated on how awful it would have been if Barack Obama, who tapped him to be vice president, had been assassinated.
He suggested his support for women’s rights once raised suspicions he might be gay.
Later he assured New Hampshire voters he’s not “nuts,” prompting the ultra-weird Newt Gingrich to call that the strangest campaign comment ever.
All within a week. Ouch.
At this pace, Biden threatens to be one of those rare candidates brought down by gaffes. In 1967, when Republican George Romney complained about the “brainwashing” he’d endured from the Lyndon Johnson Administration on Vietnam, his presidential campaign effectively was over. (Democrat Gene McCarthy bitingly cracked a “light rinse” would have sufficed.)
In the 1976 general election, President Gerald Ford’s late momentum stalled when he mistakenly said Eastern Europe then wasn’t under the control of the Soviet Union. It may have cost him a close election.
These are rare. In 1980 Ronald Reagan, a man more gaffe-prone than Joe Biden, claimed Alaska had more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, and mixed up Pakistan and Afghanistan. (As President he said trees cause more pollution than auto emissions promoting one critic to hang a sign on a tree, “Stop me before I kill again.”)
In a 2008 campaign fund-raiser, Barack Obama suggested embittered rural voters clung to guns, God and opposition to immigration.
For both Reagan and Obama these were mere blips. Both won huge election victories.
One of Biden’s supposed mistakes was getting ahead of the president in 2012 by embracing gay marriage. The White House initially was furious, but Obama soon went along, presaging a profound and positive change in public attitudes.
Biden’s miscues in this campaign might be blips taken in isolation. Most have a point. In the 1970s Senate most liberals had to work with right wingers to enact moderate measures. Given that over the last 75 years, two presidents have died of natural causes while in office, one was assassinated, and two others were shot, it’s a legitimate concern. Polls still indicate the former vice president today is the most electable candidate against Trump.
These all are left better unsaid or said by others; for the candidate himself, it comes across as more than clumsy.
An accumulation of these gaffes serves to underscore Biden’s age issue; the now 76-year-old would be the oldest President in the history of the Republic.
Some Biden followers say his solid support among African-Americans, who know there’s far more at stake than silly comments, is a firewall for Obama’s vice president. The early primary in South Carolina with its huge African-American vote, will demonstrate that, they say.
But this pace of blunders will cause problems in the first two tests in the overwhelmingly white Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. If the Vice President doesn’t win one of those, or at least be a strong runner-up, it may be too late for a South Carolina rescue.
The tenuous front-runner has delicate lines to walk. Part of his charm is his warmth, openness and spontaneity. Yet when he talks or reacts before he thinks — not uncommon — it blurs those attributes. This isn’t an easy balancing act.
On substance he has to better articulate a vision, at least a sense, of the future. And he must fully embrace Obama, a critical credential for him and a risk for his opponents if they continue to trash the policies of the enormously popular 44th President.
Joe Biden probably is the most electable Democrat, and probably has the best chance to govern with a modicum of effectiveness. If, however, he continues to make a series of gaffes those opportunities will vanish.
Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.