Some decades ago Joe Biden became a minor celebrity in Britain because he was caught plagiarising one of the then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s speeches. As it happens, Senator Biden, during an early tilt at the White House, gave quite a good rendition of the Kinnockian rhetoric about education and opportunity, but it was embarrassing all the same.
Thirty years on, and at the age of 76, Mr Biden is running for president again, but this time he is reminding the British of John Prescott, another Labour politician who enjoys a reputation for mangling his meanings. Although still the frontrunner in a crowded field to take on Donald Trump in next year’s general election, Mr Biden did not inspire much confidence in the latest Democratic candidate debate that he’d be able to take on and beat the incumbent, one of the biggest brawlers that the roughhouse of American politics has seen.
At times Mr Biden was incoherent, getting mixed up and simply unable to deliver a sentence that made sense. The rough outlines of meaning, the contours of a policy proposition, were usually there, but clouded by misspeaking and mix-ups. Physically Mr Biden had a strange plasticised look about him, though tanned and trim. If he makes it to the White House, and if he then goes on to serve two full terms – the norm for most presidents since the Second World War – he will be all of 86 years of age when he leaves office in 2029.
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There may be more than usual interest in his choice of running mate this time round. References to his age are unfair – Donald Trump is no spring chicken, and Americans revere Ronald Reagan, who was becoming frail towards the end of his presidency – but they are unavoidable in these circumstances. When Julian Castro goaded the former vice president about forgetting what he said two minutes before, audiences had a glimpse of the treatment that would be meted out to him during any future Trump-Biden debates.
Mr Biden did have some promising messages, insofar as they could be deciphered. He made sense on reforming healthcare, being more aware than his Democratic opponents of the forbidding increase in taxation a comprehensive publicly funded system would require. Yet for much of the time Mr Biden seemed to offer no more than a return to the days of Barack Obama, whom he served loyally for eight years as veep.
Rather like Hillary Clinton last time round, Mr Biden presents himself as the Obama continuity candidate, even though the voters rejected such a candidate, albeit narrowly and only in the electoral college, in 2016.
The opinion polls remain encouraging for Mr Biden, and indeed the other leading Democrat candidates, to face the Trump steamroller next year. Mr Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and some others would all beat President Trump, according to the opinion polls, and Mr Biden would thrash most comprehensively – with a 15 per cent margin of victory. Yet the presidential campaign has hardly begun, and the president has showed himself to be a ruthless foe, careless about the truth and with a talent for casual insults – “sleepy Joe” is the one he reserves for his opponent.
More than anything, the Democrats, individually and collectively, need alternatives to the policies that won Mr Trump the presidency last time round, attracting as he did the blue-collar “rust belt” votes of the traditional Democrats who simply felt left behind by globalisation. Protectionism; immigration; the Mexican wall; “standing up” and “making deals” with foreign powers – these were and are the planks of the Trump platform. The Democrats need to able to make the argument that trade wars, aggressively racist tweets and that ludicrous wall are making America and its citizens poorer and less safe than the policies of the past.
Thus far the candidates haven’t risen to that particular challenge. The worry must be that they will do no better than Ms Clinton did in 2016, and that is not good enough.