We Need to Talk about Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about responses to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic at an event in Wilmington, Del., March 12, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

It may be uncomfortable to bring up the former vice president’s visibly diminished mental capacities, but it’s vital that we do.

Democrats showed us a surprising amount of cohesion and coordination, when, collectively, they took action to turn Joe Biden’s strong finish in South Carolina into a romp through Super Tuesday. But they may regret this decision sooner than they think — and we may come to despise them for it.

Already there is an effort underway to protect Biden from any possible damage that Bernie Sanders could do to him in the remainder of the Democratic primaries. Leading Democrats such as James Clyburn have argued that it would be useless to hold more debates, because the party already has a strong front-runner, a prohibitive favorite if polls hold up.

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Really? The whole point of elections is to see if polls hold up. Biden currently has 867 delegates. Sanders has 711. It takes 1991 delegates to win the nomination. The last televised debate was before the South Carolina primary, and it included Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Mike Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Steyer, Biden, and Sanders. We haven’t seen Biden take on someone one on one, though he does threaten random people who question him at his rallies. Shouldn’t he have to close the deal with voters?

Leaving aside those procedural questions, already there is another effort underway to impose a taboo against saying the following: Joe Biden is clearly not well. The comeback front-runner for the Democratic nomination hasn’t lost a step; he’s lost the plot. You’re not supposed to diagnose or psychoanalyze people from afar, I know. It is rude. Having any conversation about the frailty of an elderly public figure always feels rude. Such conversations are difficult to have even about elderly family members, behind closed doors.

But this subject needs to be broached right now. Accusations that Hillary Clinton was unwell were treated as a conspiracy theory up until the moment she seemed to collapse at a 9/11 memorial and was pushed into the side of a van like a sack of meat. Though that viral clip surely hurt Clinton, it was a one-day story and she performed reasonably well on the campaign trail afterward. Biden is amassing a series of viral clips that are much worse. He’ll forget the name of former president Barack Obama, or the state he’s in, or stock phrases of American oratory: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women created by . . . you know . . . you know the thing.” He’ll announce to a baffled crowd that “I’m Joe Biden’s husband and I work for Cedric Richmond” (Richmond is a congressman, in case you were wondering.)

Yes, we need to make room for verbal slip-ups among people who are tirelessly barnstorming around the country and giving public speeches. But any look at a video of Biden in a previous campaign for president shows that the former vice president has diminished. If he has one of these moments in a debate with President Trump, it could be fatal for his campaign. In that sense, he should be anxious to debate Bernie Sanders this weekend and prove that he has what it takes.

None of this should be construed as a pass to ignore the deficiencies of Trump’s character and state of mind, or questions about Bernie Sanders’s age and health. But America seems to pick the more energetic candidate when it can, and right now Joe Biden seems to be putting on a show of having vim and vigor without actually possessing it. He looks like a hostage to his age and the needs of his party — and hostage situations tend to seem stable right up until the moment they go sideways.

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