Why Can’t Joe Biden Win a Debate?

He beat Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, but facing multiple candidates who are out for blood is something he’s never dealt with before.

9/12/2019 8:30:00 PM

Analysis: Tonight’s debate is Joe Biden’s best chance to refute questions about his age and capacity — or to make them bigger dangers to his nomination

He beat Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, but facing multiple candidates who are out for blood is something he’s never dealt with before.

Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.On paper, it should not be all that hard for Joe Biden to make a forceful case at tonight’s debate.He can make the “let’s get real” argument that sweeping progressive New Deal and Great Society policies have been enacted when Democrats held landslide majorities in Congress; that without such power, even less ambitious efforts, like the Affordable Care Act, face serious headwinds and can come at a political price.

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Story Continued BelowHe can argue that a health care proposal that takes away private plans is simply asking too much of a populace whose distrust of government is at record levels. He can adopt a version of Bill Clinton’s 1992 method, showing that Democrats win “when people believe they can trust us with their safety and their money.”

There’s one problem, though: Debates do not happen on paper. A candidate and staff may have artfully constructed strategies and arguments, but without the ability to summon them in real time, they are useless if not dangerous. (Recall Rick Perry in 2012, unable to remember which three federal agencies he was going to abolish, or Marco Rubio in 2016 robotically reciting an indictment against Barack Obama even as Chris Christie was ridiculing him for that very soundbite.) In the debates thus far, and in his climate change town hall, Biden has run into more than his share of awkward moments: He was unprepared to defend himself against a pointed critique of his work with segregationists, unprepared to explain a fundraiser hosted by a fossil fuel investor, and frequently unable to complete a thought or to respond directly to a question.

At first glance this is odd; why, after nearly half a century in public life, after decades spent in debates on the Senate floor and in committee, is Biden struggling to deliver a forceful, coherent performance? The surprising answer is, he has actually not had that much experience in televised debates with multiple candidates. Indeed, his best performances have come in his two vice presidential debates; one-on-one contests with a single adversary whose arguments were familiar, and with plenty of speaking time to flex his storytelling muscles. Until this year, he has never found himself in a crowded debate as a front-runner, where he is the clear target of opportunity. Thus far, he has seemed unprepared for the challenge.

When Biden first ran for president more than 30 years ago, a combination of missteps forced him out of the race a year before the campaign began. He never walked onto a debate stage. In 2008, he was out of the race a day after the Iowa caucuses; and through the 2007 campaign, he was a marginal figure, with a poll rating roughly equal to former Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich. No other candidate bothered to criticize him—the 2007 debates were models of civility in any event—and Biden’s comments, limited by the sheer number of candidates, focused on his work on the 1994 crime bill, his decades of experience and a view of Iraq that minimized his support for the invasion—a portrait at serious odds with the record, as this RealClearPolitics

pieceillustrates. The political world took little note nor long remembered what he said, because he was a footnote in the Obama-Clinton-Edwards battle.The vice presidential debates were a different story. In his 2008 faceoff with Sarah Palin, Biden treated his cognitively challenged rival with respect, avoiding any direct attack on the governor, while aiming his fire at the GOP presidential candidate, John McCain, in measured terms.

“It was two Mondays ago John McCain said at 9 o’clock in the morning that the fundamentals of the economy were strong. Two weeks before that, he said George—we’ve made great economic progress under George Bush’s policies. Nine o’clock, the economy was strong. Eleven o’clock that same day, two Mondays ago, John McCain said that we have an economic crisis. That doesn’t make John McCain a bad guy, but it does point out he’s out of touch.” It was a workmanlike presentation in tone and substance.

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You can get a better sense of Biden’s debate style by looking at the 2012 vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan. Coming just days after Obama’s zombie-like performance against Mitt Romney, the Full Biden was on display.It was, as theGuardianwrote, “A high-energy performance—part angry bar-room debater, part condescending elder uncle, part comic mime artist—[that] frequently seemed to leave Paul Ryan overwhelmed.” There were frequent interjections of laughter, mocking smiles, exaggerated shakes of the head, and more than one assertion that his opponent was offering “a bunch of malarkey.”

More substantively, Biden managed to remind the audience of what the members of the Obama administration had encountered on Day One, and to contrast their actions with Romney’s self-inflicted wounds. “We immediately went out and rescued General Motors,” Biden said. “We went ahead and made sure that we cut taxes for the middle class. And in addition to that, when that—and when that occurred, what did Romney do? Romney said, no, let Detroit go bankrupt. We moved in and helped people refinance their homes. Governor Romney said, no, let foreclosures hit the bottom.

“But it shouldn’t be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. My friend recently, in a speech in Washington, said 30 percent of the American people are takers. These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my neighbors.”

Biden did effective work here, especially in rallying Democrats disheartened by Obama’s poor debate. But there’s a catch. This was a two-person debate with a flexible format permitting time to answer questions in some detail and a skilled moderator (Martha Raddatz) who knew how to guide a conversation. And since Biden was debating a Republican adversary, he was free to employ sarcasm, ridicule and an eyeball rolling response to Ryan.

Thursday’s debate is a 10-person affair, with a minivan-sized group of fellowDemocrats. Biden’s scorched-earth approach to Ryan would not be greeted warmly by a Democratic electorate still considering any of the 10 debaters as a potential rival to Donald Trump. And this time, unlike the 2008 race, Biden will be an obvious target.

Each of Biden’s rivals are aware that their fortunes depend on knocking the front-runner off his stride, and they may take cuesfrom what has already happened. Kamala Harris effectively knocked Biden back on his heelsin a June debate when she took him on for opposing school busing. Biden was better at July’s CNN debate, but at the town hall on climate change, after a single well-prepared hostile questioner demanded to know why Biden was attending a fundraiser hosted by a fossil fuel investor, Biden’s distinction between an “investor” and an “executive” was less than decisive. Further, there were several nonhostile questions where Biden seemed to lose his train of thought, pivoting from one assertion to another.

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For some, the explanation was age. But it may just be that Biden’s strengths as a storyteller and a conversationalist simply do not play well in the rapid-fire, truncated Q&A format of a primary debate. Biden is best when a format allows for the “Scranton Joe” anecdotes, the humorous asides, slips of the tongue that can be waved aside, the one-on-one interchanges with a single adversary. Biden will have none of those advantages tonight.

All of which raises another question: How much do debating skills matter? They can sometimes undermine a campaign, as with Rick Perry and Marco Rubio, and sometimes sustain them, as with Newt Gingrich through much of 2012. We have also seen in the past that (to paraphrase financial company ads) poor past performance is no guarantee of future results. Ronald Reagan had a dreadful first debate in 1984 that raised questions about his faculties; he went on to win 49 states. Obama was missing in action in 2012’s first clash with Romney and won a reasonably comfortable reelection. And however uncertain Biden was in that first debate and at the town hall, most polling has him remaining atop the Democratic field.

Read more: POLITICO »

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It seems so crazy that people mention Biden’s age but not Bernie’s. I’ve seen Biden on the campaign trail jogging but I’ve never and can’t imagine Bernie jogging. I just can’t figure why this happens. Because he is senile Only interested in what marwilliamson has to say. Marianne2020 democrats will self destruct...you can see it coming...they all have such a lust for power, that they are turning on each other like a pack of hyenas....sad.

You mean he’s not 77? Just say NO!!! to old pale stale males. Because his positions aren't popular. Biden is the comfortable candidate. People know him and he’s been around for a long time. I’m not sure what he has really accomplished on his own during those years. He seems to be a decent person. A team player, very supportive but lacking the ability to stand out and lead!

KamalaHarris2020 Biden is 76 Sanders is 78 lose the smile that makes him look like the Joker character in a Batman movie. It’s creepy. Biden needs to be very strong and clear be himself and fight back hard SymoneDSanders schultzohio AndrewBatesNC You mean to tell us black people, poor people, underprivileged people, disenfranchised people, people of color, ADOS , give a damn about this frivolousness? I’ll be watching a candidate who has PLANS for these groups instead. We need bigtruth marianne2020 BoringWithoutHer

Cause he’s tired Looking for unity tonight.......not the free-for-all circus we saw in the 2016 Republican debates. Once it turns into a shouting match I'm using the remote. Too bad everyone will be watching football Oooh, let's wager, i bet goawayjoe will make things worse... JoeBiden nojoe bidenbyebye

TheDemocrats have already chosen ewarren. SenSanders is saying the craziest things so Warren's crazy is hidden. Scary! I'm more worried about his being beholden to the Chinese. Senile Will everyone just talk about climate change all night to avoid more inportant issues

Why the Pragmatism of Black Voters Will Define the 2020 ElectionWhite voters threw a tantrum in 2016. Black voters are responding with pragmatism. zakcheneyrice writes zakcheneyrice Ugh. More mainstream media peddling of Biden as the only “pragmatic” democratic choice. zakcheneyrice Leftists have been throwing tantrums since Trump won and leftists will continue to throw them when Trump wins again in 2020 - Trumponomics is working, the economy is booming and this of course helps 'ALL Americans' KAG2020 Trump2020 zakcheneyrice Silly white men and their childish angry voting.. Black voters always vote after deep philosophical quandaries ofc

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Why Russia And Saudi Arabia Secretly Want The Democrats To Beat Trump2020 Democrat candidates are calling for dramatically less oil production in the US. This is just what Russia and Saudi Arabia need. Fake news I’m sorry but this is a very simple minded piece. To think Dems will be good for Saudi and Russian businesses is wrong. These news wave of Dems have made it clear they won’t play nice with ruthless authoritarian regimes. Sanctions will come That’s fine...but Dems still don’t want their help.

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