Joe Biden needs to withdraw – the latest Democratic debate proved that

He may be the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination but even at this early stage there are reasons to believe he doesn’t have what it takes

David Maclean
New York
Thursday 01 August 2019 09:58 BST
Democratic debate: Booker points out how Biden's invocations of Obama are conveniently selective

If Joe Biden wants to end his distinguished career with dignity, he ought to withdraw from the race first thing on Thursday morning.

He won’t, of course. Heavyweight brawlers always think they’ve got one big win left until they’re utterly humiliated in the ring, and we caught a glimpse of the brutal potential endgame this evening.

Biden wasn’t taking on just one strong challenger in the form of Kamala Harris on Wednesday evening - the entire undercard surged through the ropes to take shots.

And while Harris used some clever political alchemy to turn jibes from outsider candidates into jabs against her main rival, many of the zingers from the cheap seats landed like body blows on the former vice president.

His performance was not disastrous. There are no clips of him floundering that are bad enough to go viral. But the frontrunner should not look this uncomfortable at this early stage.

This is only the second debate. He’s up against some people who are so obscure that people Google their names in their droves when they utter a half-decent line. He should be able to phone this stuff in.

Kamala Harris did; when no-hope candidates threw barbs at her, she deftly responded before quickly pivoting to attack Biden.

The former vice president appeared to have no such agility, and became a punchbag for Corey Booker, Bill de Blasio, and at one point Kirsten Gillibrand.

If his performance doesn’t improve, he’ll become America’s punchline.

There are four glaring issues with his debating technique.

He’s clearly made a conscious decision to avoid getting into brawls with his rivals. Presumably his team sees it as statesmanlike, and the route that’ll see him coast to the nomination.

But that’s not how it comes across to viewers at home; when an entire stage of people are pointing out Biden’s faults and none of his rivals are being challenged, he doesn’t look presidential, he looks weak. Barack Obama always had a strikingly presidential quality about him long before he won the Oval Office, but he was not above hitting Hillary Clinton with a low blow during the bitter fight for the nomination.

The second is his willingness to be quiet when told to do so.

He’s a politician. He should have things to say. He should have so much to say that it’s near impossible to shut him up.

People want ideas, plans, next steps. A picture of how America would look with each candidate sat in the Oval Office.

But Biden has this bizarre habit of shutting up the instant a moderator asks him to. He’s the only candidate that consistently does this, and while on the surface it seems minor, it’s so unnatural for a politician that it’s utterly jarring.

The third is that he’s rarely on the front foot.

He made a half-decent attempt at responding to the abundance of criticism against him, but that’s not the role of a leader. He never managed to steer the debate or set the agenda. He should be framing, driving and controlling the debate on his own terms.

In the post-debate scrum, David Axelrod – Obama’s former adviser – said that it was in fact Booker who managed to spin a narrative and a story throughout the night. That’s a man who was barely on the radar going into tonight’s debate.

The final major issue is how he deals with his record. No, not the very chequered part that dates back decades – the eight-year period he spent as Obama’s deputy in the White House.

He repeatedly and blatantly tries to bask in the reflected glory of the popular former president, but when it comes to the negative parts of Obama’s record he’s mute. It’s an issue which was deftly called out by Bill de Blasio and Booker on Wednesday night.

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All of these things are fixable - for some candidates. But Biden is 76 and has his tried-and-tested playbook. He’s not moldable, this is who he is. Was he a charming, dedicated senator with a distinguished record? Yes. Was he the perfect foil to a professorial history-making president? Yes. But he’s failed in his bid to become president twice before because, for this job, he’s simply a weak candidate.

So far he’s only had to deal with one strong candidate in a debate, and still struggled.

Imagine him versus Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, all on the same stage. It won’t be pretty. It’s time for his curtain call.

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