After three rounds of Democratic presidential debates, months of campaigning, and two dozen candidates pressing their case, it’s probably time to admit the obvious:
It’s all about Joe Biden.
That’s not a lament, though it might sound like one, it’s just what is. The former vice president stumbles, shines, plods, charges and stumbles again, and he still sits comfortably atop most polls.
Because of that, he’s going to continue to receive more scrutiny and face more attacks than his opponents. His viability might not be so much a matter of how he holds up as how those who support him hold up in the face of increasing criticism. The litmus test for them will not be whether he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue. It’s much more pedestrian: Is he still the Joe we once knew?
One rival, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, told CNN after Thursday’s debate in Houston that people are “concerned about Joe Biden’s ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling.” Fair enough. But whom do they see as most likely to successfully avoid being tackled by Donald Trump?
For better and for worse, after nearly a half-century, voters know who Biden is. They know he’s like a gymnast doing a floor exercise, full of dizzying flips and spins and rolls. And though he occasionally botches the footwork, he ends up on his feet and in bounds. They also know he has trouble answering questions about race, but no one comes close to his polling status among black people. They know his heart.
Older people do like Biden, but not because he’s older. It’s because he’s not pushing anything crazy, not messing around too much with their health care, not making promises for all kinds of free stuff, and because he’s been around. He knows things, knows people, and they think he can put back together what Trump has broken.
Young people typically place Biden on a scale that ranges from eye-roll to anathema. They want big change, now, and don’t see Biden as a vehicle for that. Three years ago, when their passion led many to stay home or vote for Jill Stein, they got big change. Trump moved into the White House. Now they might face a similar choice in 2020.
The full Biden, flubs and all, was on display in Houston. Sometimes it seemed he was so determined to be more aggressive, more vital, more a man on his game, that his mouth was moving faster than his brain or his brain was outrunning his mouth. I love the Allman Brothers but Biden does a better version of Ramblin’ Man.
But when former housing Secretary Julián Castro tried to hit him for that in a conversation about health care, asking Biden three times whether he remembered what he had said only minutes before, it backfired. It was Castro who hadn’t remembered what Biden said, and his hectoring turned the older man into a sympathetic figure. The same thing happened when hecklers interrupted Biden’s closing remarks, as he was talking about resilience after the deaths of his first wife, his young daughter and his son, Beau. “Faith sees best in the dark,” he said, borrowing from Kierkegaard. It was a moving thought to leave voters.
It’s often said that recent Democratic presidents were cut from the younger, more inspirational mold — Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, JFK. But maybe a comfortable sweater is the fashion this season.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.