“We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are created, by the…you know…you know the thing.”
On the eve of Super Tuesday, Biden gave a speech before a massive crowd in Texas. Riding high off the momentum of his big win in South Carolina and a wave of last-minute endorsements from his erstwhile primary opponents, he finally had his chance to seize the mantle of frontrunner from Sen. Bernie Sanders. He needed to say something rousing and patriotic, so he went with an old standard: The Declaration of Independence.
But he struggled to recite the words every child in America memorized in grade school: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are created, by the…you know…you know the thing.”
Lesser missteps have killed whole presidential bids in the past—the textbook example being the “Dean scream”—but there was a near-total blackout among center-left outlets like CNN and MSNBC. Conservative media ran wild with it, foreshadowing the kind of attack ads that will appear in the general if Biden should get the nomination.
The only mention in mainstream media the Daily Show, which showed a clip of it along with several of the former vice president’s recent “gaffes.” It was played for laughs, with host Trevor Noah mugging at the camera comedically, but with so much on the line right now, this is no joke.
Sure, politicians are under a lot of stress and they occasionally make some egregious flubs, like the time Obama said he had been to 57 states. But when it’s happening with great frequency to a politician pushing 80 who previously had surgery for a brain aneurysm, maybe it’s a sign of something more serous.
These aren’t just gaffes. So far Biden has:
If these were just isolated incidents, perhaps they could be chalked up to lack of sleep or the side effect of some medication. But there’s a pattern here and we need to confront it if we’re going to put our faith in this man to not only beat Trump but also govern the country.
With all four remaining contenders over age 70, the candidates’ health is a legitimate topic to discuss, but so far the focus has overwhelmingly been on Bernie Sanders, who had a stent procedure last fall. Debate moderators have quizzed him about it. His health has been the subject of countless articles. He’s almost daily being hounded to release more medical records, which his campaign has likened to “birtherism.”
If Bernie’s heart is fair game, then so is Joe’s brain.
The mainstream media tells on itself with this double standard. From James Carville calling Sanders’ Nevada win a “victory for Putin” to Chuck Todd likening Bernie’s supporters to Brownshirts—outlets like MSNBC and CNN have shown a naked hostility to Sanders.
Since Biden represents the establishment’s best bet to deny Sanders the nomination, the centrist media will go to great lengths to downplay his cognitive decline while presenting Bernie as knocking on death’s door.
This is a political contest, not a marathon. The more relevant qualification here isn’t whether your ticker is in top shape but whether you have the mental acuity to appear in public on a daily basis and coherently make the case for your platform.
Sanders hasn’t fallen ill since his procedure. He has, however remained mentally sharp, maintaining flawless message discipline. He’s prepared for every question and always expertly pivots with grace to his core issues whenever there’s a risk he might falter.
The same can’t be said for Biden. Even his own campaign staff has little confidence in his ability to communicate with the public. The Hill reported back in August 2019 that they were “nervous” about his “verbal flubs” and that he tended to make them more often “later in the day.”
Handlers can often be seen pulling Biden away when he gets into tense confrontations with ordinary people. He has repeatedly told voters to “go vote for someone else.”
So far, his campaign has preferred small, intimate events to the kind of gigantic rallies Sanders has staged. The rationale is ostensibly strategic—“retail” vs. “wholesale” politics—but there is another explanation, i.e. that they’re trying to limit his exposure.
As Politico notes, his campaign hopes to avoid damage caused by Biden’s “longstanding penchant for going off-message in unscripted environments,” which is a diplomatic way of describing his rambling diatribes and extended anecdotes that don’t seem to go anywhere.
But when the general election comes, it will be harder to stage-manage Biden. He’ll have to do more and larger events. It will be harder to contain him once he’s facing the press every single day. The facade of basic competency won’t stand up to scrutiny once the spotlight is on him twenty-four seven.
He’ll likely face more questions about his son Hunter and his relationship with the Ukrainian company Burisma, which nearly 60 percent of independent voters consider a scandal. If he responds to these questions with anything other than a concise, calculated answer, he’ll be perceived as crooked.
Of course, Trump is most likely suffering from some kind of dementia as well, but he’s better at managing it. Trump’s ability as both showman and conman enables him to mask his incoherence or transform it into an entertaining spectacle. Biden tries to come off as presidential—to project gravitas—which is hard if you’re having trouble stringing sentences together.
Aside from his dubious claim to electability, Biden’s selling point is supposedly his political moderation, but Trump has already started to use his condition to construct a different narrative. He told a crowd at his North Carolina rally this week that Biden actually won’t be running the country—he’s too senile. Instead, his Marxist handlers will be in charge.
I honestly don’t think he knows what office he’s running for. He’s not going to be running it. Other people are going to. They’re going to put him into a home and other people are going to be running the country and they’re going to be super left radical crazies.
As ridiculous as this attack is, it will be effective on some. If not, Trump will use a different smear. He’ll say Biden is corrupt— ex. the “Senator from MBNA”—or that he represents the liberal elite. Biden needs to be able to manage his own personal narrative or else Trump will create it for him, and he can’t do that if he isn’t quick on his feet.
Sanders has proven much better at this. In the debates, he has deftly redirected the many redbaiting attacks against him from his Democratic opponents. Most recently, he was accused of being soft on leftist dictators for saying positive things about Cuba. His response was to point out that Obama said similar comments and then shift the focus to Michael Bloomberg’s dealings with Saudi Arabia and China.
So while all candidates have liabilities, Biden’s are all compounded by his biggest: his mental decline.
The Democratic establishment could make an issue out of this if they chose to. It’s not a matter of ableism or tact. There were no qualms about using Trump’s mental fitness (or lack thereof) as a pretext to get him removed from office.
Instead, great pains are taken to minimize or obfuscate Biden’s cognitive decline. It speaks to the establishment’s priorities that they are willing to overlook a catastrophic fault in their preferred candidate. It’s not that he’s their best chance to beat Trump but rather that he’s their only chance to defeat Bernie Sanders.
Justin Ward: Radical journalist. Writes about extremism, politics, class, labor, history and media. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler & ArcDigi.
Follow him on Twitter @justwardoctrine