Biden Can Be a Good Debater, When He's Not His Own Worst Enemy

Joe Biden greets Sarah Palin after their vice presidential debate on October 2, 2008 in St. Louis. Credit - Win McNamee—Getty Images

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Joe Biden had the final word that August day back in 1987, delivering the final closing remark on a crowded debate stage in Iowa. There was just one problem: his best lines were cribbed. Biden and his team recognized the error instantly and wrongly bet that his intentions mattered more than the offense, that his reputation would overpower any stench of sloppiness.

Almost four decades later, that experience remains the most devastating flub of Biden’s long history as a debater, the one that torpedoed his first presidential bid. The moment is most certainly coloring his inner circle’s preparations for Thursday’s debate against former President Donald Trump. It’s not enough to own the higher ground if the presentation of the facts gives your opponent fresh ammunition.

A review of Biden’s performances on debate stages finds some standout moments, but none as consequential as that one 37 years ago ahead of the Iowa caucus. Seated at tables covered with red cloth and positioned on stage in front of garish yellow curtains, the seven Democratic candidates at that point in the campaign spent two hours fielding questions before an audience still shopping for a nominee. Most of the harsh rhetoric from a field known dismissively as the Seven Dwarfs was firmly directed at the wrapping-up Reagan administration, with a few jabs at the frontrunner, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, for good measure. But it was largely a familial event at that early leg of the campaign, and in an era before campaign hacks and flacks alike were chained to their smartphones, the stakes were relatively low. It’s tough to make something go viral when it’s on half-inch VHS tapes. Or at least that was the prevailing thinking as the day began.

Biden, then an ambitious senator and chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee that was considering the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, thought he had things under control. He was an only-in-Washington star of the Bork drama unspooling under his watchful leadership. But as he was returning to the campaign trail in Iowa, one thing stuck with him: he didn’t much like his closing remarks for that afternoon’s session at the state fairgrounds. A young aide (and future Democratic National Committee chairman), David Wilhelm, suggested Biden could swap in some language he’d been using for the last few weeks, part of a standard speech he borrowed from a British Labor Party Leader Neil Kinnock about breaking barriers. ("One of my great moments," Wilhelm later deadpanned.) Biden said he’d try it on for a test.

As soon as Biden climbed down from the debate stage and made his way to his team, he saw the anxiety on the faces of aides Larry Rasky and Tom Donilon. After some back and forth, the trio convinced themselves that reporters had heard Biden use the language before—with attribution—and would give him the benefit of the doubt. The New York Times, in its dispatch from the fairground, mentioned Biden in just one paragraph to note his idea to pay for expanded government programs with sin taxes on booze and cigarettes. There was no mention of any British-birthed phrasing.

From his perspective, Biden was already looking ahead to the next lines on his schedule. The Bork hearings had to be just right, Biden kept telling aides. Everything, including nascent queries about the Kinnock crib, was noise. Tanking the Reagan nominee had to be his priority. Instead, Biden tanked his own chase for the White House nomination.

At the time, Tom Donilon, whose brother Mike is now the chief strategist for the Biden bid in 2024, explained the Kinnock chaos this way: "He didn't know what he was saying. He was on autopilot." In other words, Biden was distracted and paid the price.

And that is often a problem for Biden: he has been doing this so long and at such a high level, he can sometimes be like the rushed student racing the clock on a math quiz. As long as the answer is right, showing his work can be fudged in his mind.

This was the case in 1987, and it took Biden two decades to rebuild his credibility, at which point he launched his 2008 bid with one of his cringiest gaffes—describing then-Sen. Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” His also-ran showings on the debate stages against the likes of Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards left Biden decidedly in the second tier and among the first to quit, although his barb against former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was first rate: “There’s only three things that he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9/11.” It was plucky language that most Democrats would not have dared to play, even seven years after the 2001 terror attacks.

Biden’s second bid failed but led to Obama tapping him as a running mate, setting up Biden’s lone 2008 vice presidential debate against Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. His performance that night was hardly a home run, but Biden’s tentativeness was understandable. Not only was his oldest child, Beau Biden, deploying to Iraq the next day, but the Obama campaign was sensitive to how Biden should handle himself against a female candidate, particularly after Obama’s own “likable enough” gaffe against Clinton earlier that year.

Four years later, a far looser Biden came roaring back when he faced GOP VP pick Paul Ryan. Unbridled from fears of coming off as a return of Rick Lazio—the Republican who ran against Hillary Clinton in 2006’s Senate race in New York and became an avatar for political misogyny—Biden didn’t have to worry about gender politics. “Malarky!” Biden erupted when Ryan tried to promote the GOP platform. And when Ryan tried to defend a proposal to lower tax rates by invoking John F. Kennedy’s balance sheets, Biden gleefully pounced: “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?” he demanded of Ryan, evoking Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s famous ding of Dan Quayle during the 1988 VP debate.

But that Biden boldness quickly falls away whenever he feels trapped, as was the case in 2019 in Miami. When then-Sen. Kamala Harris challenged Biden’s record on desegregation, Biden remembered all of the drills from 2008 about how to handle jabs from women on a debate stage and clammed up. “I did not oppose busing,” Biden said, keeping his words careful and tight. Elsewhere in that debate, he found himself cutting his own answers off: “My time is up. I’m sorry.”

It may not have been Biden’s strongest debate performance, but Democrats are hoping he can adopt that same discipline on Thursday against Trump. Discipline will be critical for Biden, who has shown he has little patience for his abrasive predecessor—and potential successor—in these settings. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden demanded with incredulity in response to Trump’s constant interruptions four years ago during one of their two debates. These days, Biden tends to avoid even saying Trump’s name, instead opting for “the other guy” as a go-to euphemism.

Despite all evidence, Biden continues to act as if his audience will be more forgiving of him than he has any reason to expect. That was the mistake in 1987, and it may be happening again this cycle amid concerns about the 81-year-old Biden’s ability to handle the job of President for four more years. Against a rival who never lets merit or facts get in the way, a long-winded Biden might be right 95% of the time, but it’s the 5% that will bring him the most troubles And in that sliver of events, the 2024 race may be decided, no matter how much of his decades of self-confidence he has at the ready.

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