By Kent R. Kroeger (May 2, 2020)
My disaffected Bernie Sanders-supporting friends (and other progressive Democrats abandoned by their party) are telling me Joe Biden is unfit for the Democratic presidential nomination due to an alleged sexual assault 27 years ago.
In the #MeToo-era, how can this accusation not be disqualifying for a Democratic candidate?
A fair question.
For me, however, the depth of my opposition to Biden is unaffected by a sexual assault charge that only now, as he stands ready to gain the party’s nomination, comes to light. No person can adequately defend themselves on a accusation that deep in the foggy past. I had the same opinion with respect to Brett Kavanaugh (and lost political friends because of that stance; many of whom now refuse to believe Biden-accuser Tara Reade despite considerably more corroborating evidence for her story than the allegations made against Kavanaugh).
No, my opposition to Biden is rooted in my direct experience with the man 33 years ago (and for which he is equally unable to defend himself).
That is the definition of a hypocrite and I plead guilty on that charge.
Nonetheless, here is my problem with Joe Biden…
I experienced Biden in the 1980s when he had abundant charisma and hair. In his best moments in the U.S. Senate, he was an inspiring orator — equal to Ted Kennedy — who willingly planted himself in the political center and had measurable influence on major pieces of congressional legislation, as many of his more senior, left-leaning colleagues were voted out of office during the Reagan Revolution.
Joe Biden is not blowing smoke when he says, “I’ve gotten things done.”
He really has. Not always good “things,” mind you, but he has a substantial record of legislative accomplishments. That is not my opinion. Look at his legislative record here. Contrast Biden’s lawmaking achievements to any other candidate in the 2020 Democratic nomination race and it is not even close (Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar comes in a distant second to Biden).
However, authoring substantive legislation doesn’t win presidential elections. If it were, Ted Kennedy’s 1980 and 1984 presidential victories would have been followed by Jack Kemp’s two-term presidency.
That didn’t happen.
In my research, I have found swing voters most often judge presidential on two factors: Likability and Trust. Competency plays a role in this dynamic, but mostly through its connection to trust.
In this world, Joe Biden should be the perfect candidate.
Until you actually encounter him, as I did during the 1988 presidential race.
In Fall 1987, I was starting graduate school at The University of Iowa. In a public policy class, taught by the late Professor Russell Ross, we were graced during one session with an actual presidential candidate: U.S. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.
Biden in 1987 was imposing, with an almost football player-like physique, whose informal rhetorical tendencies were also laced with good substance and meaty ideas. Among the 1988 Democratic Party presidential candidates, only Jesse Jackson was more impressive, and the two front-runners heading into the Iowa Caucuses, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Missouri) and former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, were proudly on the opposite end of the charisma scale.
In the first Biden campaign rally I attended, he didn’t disappoint. He spoke simply but eloquently on his disapproval of President Ronald Reagan’s Central American policies (Nicaragua, El Salvador) and transitioned effortlessly into a critique of Reagan’s confrontational approach to the Soviet Union (which he ultimately supported).
What I remember most, however, is that Biden was a natural public speaker: a loud, tenor voice (but not too loud) with expressive, disciplined hands. His signature hand move was to form a fist with his right hand and land an imaginary body blow to whatever point he was trying to emphasize. Biden might be Catholic, but in 1987 he spoke with a evangelical minister’s physicality and magnetism.
After over thirty years of studying the speaking styles and body language of political candidates, I still believe the Joe Biden of 1987 was one of the best public speakers I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t Jesse Jackson, but he was better than Ronald Reagan (and I’ll happily go to my grave defending that comparison).
In many ways, Biden was Bill Clinton before Bill Clinton: A centrist Democrat with an open hostility to New Deal-Great Society interventionism and a cagey acceptance of the liberal Democratic social agenda.
If you could have created the perfect centrist Democrat to beat the George H. W. Bush in 1988, it would have been Joe Biden.
Or, so I thought.
In the 30 minutes Biden commanded the attention of my public policy class, something weird happened towards the end — a personality trait that has become conspicuous in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Joe Biden has a hostility problem.
After he gave my class his standard stump speech focusing — as best as I can recall — on the damage the Reagan economy had done to “hard-working families” (as if to contrast with those lazy families), Biden took questions.
Q & As: The wheelhouse for any great politician (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, John Kennedy).
One of the last questions came from a female classmate who asked a straightforward question about Biden’s support for many of Ronald Reagan’s conservative legislative triumphs, such as the 1981 tax reform bill — that lowered income tax rates, but, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, did little for economic growth and productivity while disproportionately benefiting the wealthiest Americans — and the 1981 Reagan budget bill — that froze, cut and, in some cases, eliminated federal programs for health, education, and other social services. It was a budget that the Washington Post described as “the reversal of two great waves of government intervention, the New Deal and the Great Society.”
The question by my classmate was not overly hostile. “Do you consider yourself a Reagan Democrat?” was essentially her point.
It was the type of question Bill Clinton would have knocked out of the ballpark during his 1992 presidential campaign; and the 2008 version of Hillary Clinton, as prickly as they come, knew how to forcefully address unfriendly inquisitors without finger wagging or insulting their intelligence.
Not Joe Biden.
He bushwhacked his female inquisitor. The specifics of his verbal attack are now fuzzy, but I recall words and phrases like ‘naive,’ ‘lack of experience,’ and ‘live in the real world’ being directed at her.
The problem wasn’t him, it was her!
This answer shouldn’t have surprised me given that one the campaign themes tested by the 1988 Biden campaign was “Scold the Voter.” [I wish I made that up.] Political researcher Paul Taylor, in fact, documents the fratricidal warfare within the Biden camp that allowed such an titanically stupid idea to have life, if only for a brief moment.
Most shocking to me about Biden’s response to this young woman, however, was the personal nature of his answer. Joe went from zero to light speed on the ferocity scale…for no obvious reason! It was a softball question. I can still see her face, her mouth agape, staring at Professor Ross as though about to ask if she said something wrong.
To Biden’s credit, he admitted he had “been too harsh” in his response, which significantly defused the tension. But the damage was done for me.
A well-balanced politician should be able to explain their votes on major pieces of legislation, particularly complicated budget bills that are typically packed with goodies and pet agendas that politicians can sell to their constituents back home.
It was not a hard question — and certainly not personal in tone.
I left that class thinking Joe Biden was odd, in the scary sense. As if he could, in a moment of passion, kill someone and bury the body along the Rock Creek Parkway. [I’m not saying Joe Biden has done that, only that he seems capable.]
In observing Joe Biden’s career-spanning instances of public fury, often manifesting at the strangest times, it is impossible not to think of his personal tragedies as possible sources of this latent anger. I have genuine empathy for Joe Biden, even as I cringe watching him in situations like this one below where he calls a 21-year-old woman a “lying dog-faced pony soldier”:
Admittedly, Biden was trying to be funny in supposedly borrowing the “lying dog-faced pony soldier” quote from a John Wayne movie. [More likely, it was a misquoted line from the movie, “Pony Soldier,” starring Tyrone Power.]
But to me, Biden still comes across as needlessly hostile, just as he did 33 years ago.
I realize I’m judging Biden on something far less serious than a sexual assault allegation; but, for that very reason, I feel comfortable using his unambiguous personality traits as judgment factors. The fact that Biden keeps reinforcing my doubts about his temperament through what he says and does in the present only further validates my vote decision process.
Politics is not a forgiving, merciful business. Politicians can once have had problems, but they can’t have problems. Americans love survivors, not victims.
And, since that day in 1987 when Joe Biden came to speak to my class, I can’t get over the feeling that Joe Biden has significant personality problems.
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