Eons ago, when it looked like there was still a contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, I tackled the question of whether Biden or Sanders would be the stronger candidate. I concluded in favor of the former. One reader, however, observed that my post was unbalanced: while I focused on Sanders’s’ liabilities, I didn’t direct the same kind of scrutiny to Biden. The question might seem academic at this point, but I still want to correct that imbalance: since Joe Biden now is the only alternative to four more years of Trump, it behooves us to be clear-eyed about his weaknesses as well as his strengths. I’m going to discuss Biden’s vulnerabilities under two broad headings: style and substance.
I’m using the term “style” to refer broadly to Biden’s public personae—how he comes across to the general public as a potential President of the US. Is he “presidential”? This, of course, is tricky, subjective stuff. My own view is that this is Biden’s greatest area of weakness. After all, it’s not for nothing that his candidacy was tanking until it was resuscitated by the African-American voters of South Carolina. Biden’s performance in debates averaged somewhere between fair and poor. (Again, this is my subjective impression—do others disagree?) Trump is as dangerous as he is because—let’s face it–he is a powerfully charismatic political personality. Would anybody call Biden that?
Maybe this problem isn’t as serious as I think. Here’s Ezra Klein on Biden’s stylistic weakness:
[O]ver and over again, we’ve seen that voters just don’t care that much about malapropisms and meandering rhetorical styles…Journalists who’ve based their professional lives on clear, crisp, stylish communication find it shocking when candidates get lost in rhetorical mazes of their own construction. But both Bush and Trump won the presidency. And Ronald Reagan won reelection in a landslide, even though he couldn’t recall what city he was in during the first presidential debate and admitted to being “confused.”
Biden’s most visible weakness in day-to-day campaigning, in other words, is a weakness the media consistently overrates, at least when it comes to election outcomes.”
I hope Klein is right. I’m not entirely convinced.
Some Biden foes on both the left and right go as far as to suggest that Biden’s verbal infelicities reflect cognitive impairment, if not incipient dementia. Some cognitive decline is a natural function of aging, so it is legitimate to be concerned about the mental sharpness of a 77-year old man running for the presidency. But Trump is 74, and Democrats can—and already have—trotted out examples of Trumpian verbal incoherence that rival anything the GOP can pin on Biden. And, there is a sufficient explanation for Biden’s problems—his continuous struggle to overcome the stutter that has afflicted him since childhood. Unfortunately, most people aren’t aware of that challenge when they watch Biden speak.
So, I do consider Biden to be a weak candidate, stylistically speaking. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to be done about this. We can only hope that it won’t amount to that big a deal.
Substantively, there is much to criticize in Biden’s record. The problem for Trump and the Republicans is that most of the valid criticisms only have force if they come from the left. Sanders has fairly criticized Biden for his past willingness to trim social safety net spending. But the big push for cutting Social Security and Medicare has always come from the Republicans—they can hardly criticize Biden for being too accommodating to their own demands. Especially since Trump’s 2020 budget includes cuts in Social Security and Medicare spending. Trump has tried criticizing Biden for his leading role in the 1994 crime bill, but without any apparent impact–unsurprisingly, given Trump’s own blatant racism. Anyway, that bill had overwhelming bipartisan support, including from a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus. Would Trump dare criticize Biden for his poor handling of the Anita Hill hearings? He very well might, but no one is going to take Trump seriously as a defender of women’s rights.
Do I need to mention Ukraine? I don’t think Trump is going to sell many voters outside of his hardcore base on the phony claim that Joe Biden did anything wrong with regard to Ukraine. And the unseemliness of Hunter Biden’s trading on his father’s name pales next to the globetrotting profiteering of the Trump children, from which Trump personally benefits. Again—those who live in glass houses….
The one area in which Trump can credibly attack Biden’s record is international economics. Trump’s attacks on both parties’ support of “free trade” agreements probably helped him with working class voters in 2016. Biden supported NAFTA; otherwise he has a mixed record on trade agreements. But Trump most likely has already made all the inroads he can on this issue. I don’t think Biden will lose any more votes on trade than Clinton already lost in 2016.
In sum, Biden is a rather weak opponent for Trump, far more because of style than substance. But Trump, let’s not forget, is a uniquely weak candidate, who has never had a net positive public approval rating despite a robust economy. Trump narrowly won in 2016 because he faced an unusually vulnerable opponent. He was critically aided by the media, which vastly overinflated the trivial issue of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Trump is the same man he was in 2016, but he’s not facing the same opponent. All things considered, I think Biden is a stronger (i.e., less weak) candidate than Clinton was, or than Sanders would have been this year.