When former Vice President Joe Biden took the stage Monday afternoon for the first official rally of his 2020 run, it didn’t take him long to remind the nation of something it once knew but has seemingly forgotten.
Biden is extraordinarily bad at running for president.
He was a terrible candidate in 1988, and no better in 2008. That does not, in this odd rendition of the United States, guarantee he won’t be president. It does suggest we’ll get some fascinating bloopers. And I wonder: If this guy who generated as much love as a viral infection in two past runs is now such a front-runner, is it because our options have gotten so much worse, or because Biden is now better?
Biden’s rally was delivered in Pittsburgh in front of an adoring crowd. The 76-year-old’s presentation should have been as smooth as similarly aged Scotch. He had time to work on the message, and should not yet be ragged from campaigning.
But he stammered. He tripped. He wandered through a goofy name-check of places he loves: Pittsburgh, Scranton, Wilmington, Claymont, Pennsylvania, western Pennsylvania, northeastern Pennsylvania. He called federal tax loopholes expenditures, and promised to send both everybody in America to a community college for free, then to send 6 million people, by “cutting college costs in half.” Then “Regular Joe” notched the record for wonkiest aside in a campaign kickoff when he swerved into a bit on how stepped-up value on assets that are inherited is figured vis-à-vis capital gains taxes.
That’s our Joe, God love him.
For those who have forgotten Biden’s previous presidential runs or never knew of them, it’s worth peering back.
In 1988, Biden’s effort imploded after the campaign of eventual nominee Michael Dukakis released a video of a speech Biden plagiarized interspersed with that of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock delivering the original. Other similar accusations followed, and Biden left the race before the Iowa caucuses.
In 2007, on the day Biden filed paperwork to enter the race, he said of Barack Obama, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy, I mean that’s storybook, man!” Having so efficiently offended most black people and many white ones, Biden rang up 4 percent support in Iowa and quit.
Then, after Obama chose Biden as his running mate, Joe unleashed perhaps the greatest gaffe of his career, imploring then-Missouri state Sen. Chuck Graham, who uses a wheelchair, to “Stand up Chuck, let ’em see you,” before realizing his error and adding, “Oh, God love you. What am I talking about?”
You can argue that Biden is the Democratic front-runner now after two disastrous campaigns because he was such an amazing vice president that the nation’s fell for him, but . . . how so? What did he really do? And why didn’t that supposed boost make him the front-runner over a never-beloved Hillary Clinton in 2016?
It’s more likely that Biden is so far ahead of the competition because he radiates a caring, gracious decency that contrasts so clearly with the unkind and bullying nature of President Donald Trump. That’s legitimate. Anything is better than unkind and bullying.
But in his own unique way, Trump has proved he is fantastic at running for president. Biden has shown he is terrible. And it’s a little weird that hardly anyone one, inside or outside the party, seems to be talking about that track record.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.