The two most important roles for journalists during political primary season are to cull the herd of the weakest candidates and take their best shots at the frontrunner, to test his or her readiness for the general election. That's a public service for the political ecosystem.
So a profoundly weak frontrunner should be the ultimate in big game for our top political reporters.
Instead, mainstream journalists in the best positions to demand answers — during sit-down interviews and televised debates — have been remarkably gentle with Joe Biden.
They ask about his decision to authorize the war in Iraq, but not about the many documented times he has lied about why he made that decision, and when he first realized the war was a mistake.
They ask questions about his fitness for office, but let him off with glib answers about push-ups rather than assertively confronting him with examples of his consistent and troubling incoherence — even when he is in the process of giving them fresh examples.
They only lamely push back when he insists that he will be able to get Republican leaders to compromise with him — even when he cites examples that actually support the opposite conclusion.
They don't press him on his support for the 2005 Bankruptcy Act, which made it much harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy and get out of debt, and made it impossible to discharge student debt. Does he acknowledge it had devastating effects on the middle class? Have his views changed? They don't ask.
They don't question him about his long history of attempting to cut Social Security, or ask him whether and when he stopped being a centrist deficit hawk.
They let him associate himself with Barack Obama, but don't make him address the administration's many failures and betrayals, such as the way Obama embraced Bushism on matters of national security, and embraced neoliberal economics. Would he appoint the same roster of people to run his foreign and domestic policy? What reason is there to believe he wouldn't?
These top reporters don't hesitate to grill Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, often with gotcha questions and Republican talking points.
So why are they so easy on Joe? I can only speculate.
I think part of it is that they're a bit awestruck. ("Joe Biden commands a boardroom," the New York Times editorial board wrote about its collective interview with him.)
Part of it is that when Biden answers questions about his fitness by saying "look at me," our elite journalists are simply not rude or direct enough to say: "Yeah, we look at you, and what we see someone who often can't complete a coherent thought."
Maybe they just can't bring themselves to help Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Most likely, these journalists — the most elite of the journalistic elite — are just plain comfortable with Biden, and don't feel remotely antagonistic, because he reflects their centrist, Washington cocktail-party ideology.
He's not talking about rocking the boat. He's talking about going back to the way things were, and they were happy then.
By not actively asking Biden any hard questions, these top-tier journalists are offering de facto support for the pre-Trump status quo ante, without overtly looking like they are taking sides.
But if they allow a weak candidate to become the sole alternative to Trump, which appears to be the unacknowledged or unconscious goal, the net effect may be paving the way for four more years.
Biden and Iraq
Let me now expand on a few of the areas where Biden has avoided needed scrutiny and some recent missed opportunities, starting with Iraq.
Biden has repeatedly maintained that he was deceived into voting for the authorization to use military force in Iraq by George W. Bush, which is flatly ludicrous.
For a while, he insisted that he opposed the Iraq invasion as soon as it was launched, which is a lie. His comments are impossible to misinterpret.
From the Democratic debate on July 31:
Biden: From the moment "shock and awe" started, from that moment, I was opposed to the effort, and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress and the administration.
Biden also told NPR in early September that "Immediately, that moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment."
Since then, Biden has made some muddled attempts at clarification. But regardless, there is ample evidence in the public domain that he was a booster of the war both before and after.
As Tara Golshan and Alex Ward have written for Vox,
[H]is record, well documented in speeches on the Senate floor, congressional hearings, and press interviews from 2001 through his time in the White House, is that of a senator bullish about the push to war who helped sell the Bush administration's pitch to the American public …
Biden bought into the Bush administration's argument. He elevated the administration's concerns about Hussein in the press. And in the months leading up to the vote authorizing war, he organized a series of Senate hearings, in close coordination with the White House, during which he echoed the administration's talking points about weapons of mass destruction."
Soon after the invasion, Biden criticized the war effort for being underfunded. But that's a far cry from opposition.
He said in September 2003:
If the Lord Almighty had come down and said, "Look, we're going to go in, we're going to take out Saddam, but let me tell you this administration is really going to mess this stuff up, the aftermath," then, I think I still probably would have voted, because you I believe that you had to enforce those international agreements that Saddam made. But it's a much closer call.
And he added:
I think to make the case that the use of force against Saddam was unjustified is, I think, the wrong case to make.
In the Sept. 12 Democratic debate, Biden stumbled through an attempt to explain. All these Biden quotes are [sic]:
Biden: I said something that was not meant the way I said it. I said "from that point on." What I was argued against in the beginning, once he started to put the troops in, was that in fact we were doing it the wrong way; there was no plan; we should not be engaged; we didn't have the people with us; we didn't have our — we didn't have allies with us, et cetera.
Clearly, Biden still hasn't come to terms with his massive error in judgment regarding what Sanders correctly described in the Jan. 14 debate as one of "the two great foreign policy disasters of our lifetimes," both of which "were based on lies."
Letting him say he made a mistake and moving on is letting him off way too easy.
Biden's pattern of gibberish
If you expect a president to be able to speak coherently about the matters of the day — and that would certainly be a nice change — Biden is not your man, at least not consistently. That's simply a fact.
The bigger issue is whether his speech is a reflection of an increasingly disordered brain.
He interrupts himself in mid-sentence and goes on extended riffs, introducing new subjects that seem to have nothing to do with what he was just talking about. He is sometimes impossible to follow. And he can get quite irascible.
He is in some ways the absolute verbal opposite of Warren, who speaks in complete paragraphs and meticulously explains everything she says. Biden is more like Ronald Reagan, in that his answers can leave the impression that they make sense, even when the actual words suggest otherwise. But he doesn't quite have Reagan's talent for pulling it off.
One of his most famous servings of word salad came during the Sept. 12 debate, when Biden flailed in response to a question about segregation, suggesting, for instance, that black parents have their record players on at night.
In his interview with the New York Times editorial board, Biden was responding to a question about introducing a public option for health insurance, when he had this to say:
I came up here on the Empire State Building when I convinced the president we should spend $100 billion on climate change issues. And we're talking about new windows and all the things we could do to save energy for public buildings. And the one of the leaders of the business community was there said, "You know, my" — I think he said live-in help or wherever it was — "came up to me and thanked me for the raise." She said, "The raise is what you got, reduction in the take-home pay withholding." No one knew it was Obama, and no one knew what he did.
In a footnote, the Times did its best to explain what he was talking about, but that didn't really help:
The Obama administration proposed the Better Buildings Initiative to provide tax credits and other financing for building owners to retrofit to save energy. The Empire State Building did it before the program was passed, but Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden cited the annual savings of $4.4 million in energy costs from replacing all the windows.
Several interviewers have made token attempts — and sometimes more than that — to get Biden to address what they call his "gaffes." But even more troubling than his gaffes are those not-infrequent lapses into incoherence.
Interviewers also tend to ask their questions in the context of what impression his verbal slips make on voters, rather than what it means about Biden's fitness. And when he responds — often glibly, and sometimes unintelligibly — they move on.
Judy Woodruff interviewed Biden for the "PBS NewsHour" in November. She asked him whether his "uneven performances on the debate stage and verbal miscues as a campaigner" were preventing him "from presenting a strong and confident presence as a candidate."
Biden: Look at me. OK? The fact of the matter is that the people who — they went out and found people who said that. I don't doubt people said that.
But I have not — there's a significant number of people, the overwhelming number of people haven't worried about any miscue or not.
Look, this is for the voters to decide. Take a look. Look at me. See if I have the energy. See if I know what I'm talking about, and make their judgment.
And it's as simple and as complicated as that.
Woodruff moved on.
In August, Washington Post opinion writer and podcaster Jonathan Capehart asked Biden about "the so-called gaffes, where you have said things that weren't exactly right, mushed stories."
They had an extensive, if inconclusive, back-and-forth about a Post story by Matt Viser that described the way Biden appeared to have "jumbled elements of at least three actual events into one story of bravery, compassion and regret that never happened."
Then, unprompted, Biden started talking about an incident earlier that month, when he had said twice in one day that he met with students who survived the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, when he was vice president. "I met with them and then they went off up on the Hill when I was vice president," he said that day, and then again later: "Those kids in Parkland came up to see me when I was vice president." But the Parkland shooting took place in February 2018, more than a year after Biden left office. Here's what he told Capehart:
It's a little bit like a … I find it interesting that with the record that I have of… Like for example, the big thing was, Biden misrepresented, he spoke to the students from Parkland. Well, what I misrepresented was one word. I said when I was vice president I went up on Capitol Hill, and I met with the parents and these young students as they're about to lobby their congress persons. I did, but it was in '18, it wasn't '17, but we were out of office. I was the vice … I was vice president, but I wasn't the sitting vice president, but it happened.
I met with all of those people, and I was asked to meet with them, unlike other people who were asked to meet with them. And the point I was making was, they have the reason why we're gonna win this fight on guns and rational gun policy is they've energized the whole generation.
I watched what was happening as these parents and children were going to comment, to lobby, a congressman they'd run or hiding. I can't see him. I don't … because they know the pressure that puts on them. But the fact I said I was vice president. Well, I wasn't the vice president, I met them when I said I did. It was in Capitol Hill, on Capitol Hill. Everything I said was true, and I'm still called vice president, so I said, vice president. So the idea … and everybody goes, "Well, okay. Well, he didn't get the dates wrong. He did go up there after out of office. It was in Capitol Hill." What's the deal here, man?
What's the deal here, indeed?
Capehart, running out of time, moved on.
In the New York Times interview, deputy editorial page editor Kathleen Kingsbury asked Biden if he is too old to be running for president.
Biden: Watch me. Watch me. All this stuff about lack of energy. Come get in the bus with me, 16 hours a day, 10 days in a row. Come see me.
Much joking ensued about a push-up competition. After a while, editorial board member Binyamin Appelbaum asked Biden if there should be an upper age limit for the presidency.
Biden's answer was a great argument for it.
Appelbaum: Should there be a top? Why not?
Biden: Because why would you? Show me where it's been a problem….
Editorial board member Jesse Wegman: Well, President Reagan —
Biden: Well, look, guys. I think you guys are engaging in ageism here. Now look, all kidding aside, I don't think they're — the voters will be able to make a judgment. You'll make a judgment whether or not you think I have all my cognitive capability, I'm physically capable, and I have the energy to do the job. And so.
As if scripted, soon after that came a moment right out of a dotty-old-man skit on SNL:
[BIDEN'S PHONE RINGS]
Biden: What the hell is that?
Kingsbury: You're getting a call.
Biden and the bankruptcy bill of 2005
Journalists have long anticipated a major battle between Biden and Warren over the bankruptcy bill, which Biden has long considered one of his chief legislative accomplishments, and which Warren bitterly opposed. As David Dayen writes for the American Prospect, "Entire long features — lots of them! — have been penned in anticipation of the moment."
But journalists should stop waiting for Warren to fire. Finding out where Biden stands now is too important to put off any longer.
As Matthew Yglesias explains for Vox, it's not just that the bankruptcy bill "made it harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy and get out of debt, a legal change that credit card companies and many major retailers had championed for years." It also undercuts the fundamental principle "that people who fail or experience bad luck can move on with their lives."
As Adam Levitin writes for the American Prospect, it was "perhaps the most anti–middle class piece of legislation in the past century":
The result was greater profits for consumer lending businesses, many of which are based in Biden's state of Delaware. Not surprisingly, then, by lowering the risk of bad lending decisions, the Biden bankruptcy bill unleashed a glut of aggressive private student lending, which has contributed to the massive rise in student loan debt.
He voted against three amendments to ease bankruptcy requirements for consumers whose financial troubles stem from medical expenses. He voted against an amendment that would have helped seniors keep their homes. He voted against exempting servicemembers and widows of servicemembers killed in action from the law's eligibility restrictions. He voted against an amendment to exempt women whose financial troubles stemmed from deadbeat husbands' failure to pay child support or alimony. And Biden even voted against an amendment that would have ensured that children of debtors could still be given birthday and Christmas presents.
Does Biden have regrets? Does he acknowledge the damage the bill did? What, if anything, changed his mind? These are essential questions.
Biden's deficit hawkery
Biden now supports increases in Social Security but, frankly, it's hard to believe that he's sincere about it.
History says otherwise. Ryan Cooper writes in The Week:
In 1984 he proposed freezing Social Security benefits — that is, ending cost-of-living adjustments that boost benefits to keep up with inflation. In January 1995 he gave a speech endorsing a balanced budget amendment (an utterly lunatic policy) and boasted about his previous record of proposing "that we freeze every single solitary program in the government, anything the government had to do with, every single solitary one, that we not spend a penny more, not even accounting for inflation, than we spent the year before." In November 1995 he did so again, boasting that "I tried with Senator [Chuck] Grassley back in the '80s to freeze all government spending, including Social Security, including everything."…
In a 2007 interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" he said he would consider raising the Social Security retirement age (effectively a large benefit cut, as it would push back the age at which seniors can begin collecting benefits) and cutting cost-of-living increases. "Absolutely, you have to," he said. Sure enough, his campaign released a plan which included "options such as upping the retirement age[.]" He endorsed the idea again during a primary debate (to be fair, he also endorsed removing the payroll tax cap to add revenue).
And while Biden was vice president the Obama administration attempted to get a "grand bargain" with Republicans that would have traded massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare in return for some modest tax hikes on the rich, with the overall goal of cutting the deficit — just as Biden had been trying to do for his whole Senate career. (It only fell through because far-right Republicans refused to accept any compromise.)
Perhaps the most important part of all this is that it's very much in character for Biden – it's his recent statements that aren't. As Ryan Grim writes in the Intercept:
What Biden was expressing was a common sentiment among the centrist faction of the party in the 1980s and '90s — the belief that old tax-and-spend liberals were out, and that a type of "New Democrat" was needed, one who understood the necessity of fiscal restraint. Cutting spending was the only way, he argued, to salvage what was left of the Great Society and New Deal. The mentality of Biden-style Democrats — that the best the party could do was play defense — was dominant for a generation; it's now being fundamentally challenged not just in the presidential campaign but in congressional primaries across the country.
When someone changes their rhetoric that dramatically, you can't take it on face value. You have to make them explain.
Biden and Republicans
Biden insists he will be able to win over Republican support for his legislative proposals — but he has proven completely incapable of persuasively explaining how he could possibly believe that.
When he provides examples of cooperation from the past, more often than not they are of Democrats caving to Republicans, rather than the other way around.
The latest example came in the New York Times editorial board interview. Asked how he would get Republican support for a public option, Biden cited the Cures Act. He said he had convinced "over 200, and I think 398 folks in the House to vote for it, when initially it started with 119 as well as, what did get? Eighty-nine senators, 90 senators — don't hold me the exact number — when it started off with 48. It's called persuasion. Presidents are supposed to be able to persuade."
He got no pushback in the room, but the Times explained in a footnote:
The 21st-Century Cures Act was signed into law on Dec. 13, 2016. It was supported by the pharmaceutical industry because it sped up drug and device approvals. It provided (only) $6.3 billion in total funding. The Senate vote was 94-5. Among the opponents were Senators Warren and Sanders, because it was a victory for the big drug companies.
In a December interview, CNBC's John Harwood made several fruitless efforts to get Biden to offer a credible explanation for why he thinks Republicans would cooperate with him.
Harwood: Let me ask you a little bit about how you get your program passed. You've made the argument that Trump's an aberration. If you beat him, you can then bring things back to normal, implement your middle-class economic agenda in the way that we've become used to. We're now in a situation where Republican senators are repeating what is known to be Russian propaganda, including propaganda about you. How do you bring that back to normal?
Biden: Well, I don't hold grudges, for real. You've watched me a long time. I think a lot of Republicans in the Senate are really under enormous pressure. When you have a Republican Party and that old joke, this ain't your father's Republican Party, saying that a poll showing they think he's better than Abraham Lincoln, you know something's wrong. And so I think there's going to be a lot of people who are going to be prepared to deal with things that they know we should be talking about.
It simply makes no sense.
The gibberish continued as Harwood continued to push for an answer.
Biden: And here's the point, John. It is a political dynamic that allows the demagogues to go out and spread and split the country in two. It's not just we need a middle class… It's not just being fair. It's taking away the argument he's used so well: "The reason why you're not having your job is not paying as much because of all those immigrants. The reason why is …" and so on. And we've got to end it. And there's a way to do it. It's within our wheelhouse to be able to do it.
Biden: This is about how do we grow the economy. For example, it makes a lot of sense that we say that OK, why is it if you give a charitable contribution, I won't say you, I mean you editorially, someone in the 20% tax bracket gets to… take a 20% break for that. Well, somebody who is in the 40% tax bracket, they in fact get to deduct 40% of it. Well, why is that? What does that do? So I limit, for example, no tax break that you get. No deduction can you take that's more than what 28%. And we'll get it done. Because things have changed.
Credit Harwood for trying, especially since the conventional journalistic wisdom is that the question is a jump ball. In a September New York Times article, "Joe Biden Believes in the Good Will of Republicans. Is That Naïve?", Glenn Thrush wrote that "some Democratic rivals as well as ... the ascendant left wing of his party" think Biden is naive.
In reality, it's almost everyone else everywhere who thinks Biden is naive.
Biden and the New York Times
The most recently published interview with Biden was the one with the New York Times editorial board.
It's endless, but still worth skimming to understand that Biden never gets asked the really tough questions.
The most remarkable part about it, however, is that Biden apparently feels he has already been thoroughly tested and — despite having to hold back because some of the critiques came from women or people of color, and he couldn't appear "dismissive" — has come out stronger.
Editorial board member Michelle Cottle brought up his record, apologetically.
Cottle: And you've had in debates, a couple of times, you've had a little trouble answering for positions that you held decades ago, which I think is a bit ridiculous that that's an issue. But those questions aren't going to go away. So have you had time to figure out a strategy for just answering, kind of the basic approach to those?
Biden: The answer is yes. If you notice, they've hit me on every single thing I could be hit on so far. That's the good news. Every aspect of my record, period, has been hit. By Trump and by the people I'm running against. And I'm a big boy. My dad used to have an expression. Never complain and never explain. And so, and guess what? I'm still leading in all the polls. O.K.? That's number one….
And one of the things that I have to admit to you, I've had difficulty accommodating, is how do you turn to someone who is attacking you on something that I know they know is not true, and do it in a way that doesn't look like you're being dismissive? Particularly if it's a person of color or if it's a woman.
Later, he spoke again about how he has been tested:
Biden: I've been consistently leading in the polls after taking all the hits. I go down, and everybody who's hit me is out. They come back. I don't mean it's guaranteed, but look at all of the data.
And so I'm not saying that it's guaranteed I win, but name me a nominee who's taken as many hits from the beginning of them announcing, even I announced late, who has taken the hits. You all declare me, not you, editorially in a broad sense, declare me dead and guess what? I ain't dead. I'm not going to die.
Kingsbury, the deputy editorial page editor, interjected: "Everybody dies."
Biden replied: "I'm not going to die politically."