Former Vice President Joe Biden gave perhaps the most disastrous performance by a frontrunner in the history of presidential primary debates on Thursday night. Throughout the evening, Biden sounded aloof and evasive. There was not a single moment when his words or behavior suggested the ease and confidence of someone in control of his political destiny. He was not even in control of his own limbs. I cannot remember ever seeing anything more strange in a political debate than the weird spasmodic gestures he made in response to the questions candidates were supposed to answer by raising or not raising their hands.
Asked to name the first thing he would try to do after being elected president, Biden said that he would "defeat Donald Trump." Did he mean in battle? (To be fair, idiots in the audience applauded him for this anyway). Nor did he seem to realize that there was any contradiction between his insistence that the Affordable Care Act was more or less the last word in Democratic health-care policy and his support for giving health care to illegal immigrants, which ObamaCare does not cover. He seemed genuinely proud of the compromise he helped to negotiate that made the Bush tax cuts permanent. Worst of all, though, was his confused and confusing response to Sen. Kamala Harris' (D-Calif.) criticism of his nostalgia for the good old days of cutting back-room deals with segregationists and principled opposition to federal busing. Biden looked utterly lost.
This was not just my impression. The post-debate headlines for Biden were uniformly terrible. Already there are reports that he is not cooperating with his handlers during debate preparation, that he is "set in his ways," and that members of his staff are "freaking out," though a spokeswoman for the campaign has, naturally, denied this. But I hope for Biden's sake she's fibbing. It would be a gross dereliction of duty for anyone close to the former vice president not to be panicking after his first debate performance.
All of which is to say that Biden could use some help from his most powerful political ally, someone whose name he repeated throughout the debate like a half-understood prayer: Barack Obama. What is the current status of his relationship with the former president, both personally and politically? Obama has so far refrained from endorsing his former VP, though Biden has insisted this has been at his own request. Is that believable? Its truth should at any rate be put to the test sooner rather than later.
If Obama does plan on endorsing his old chum, or even just publicly defending him against accusations that he is racially insensitive or otherwise out of touch with the rest of the Democratic Party, he should do it well before the primary season begins in earnest. Some time next week sounds about right, preferably in front of voters at a rally in, say, South Carolina. What happened on Thursday was a torching, not just of Biden's character and judgment, but of the old style of moderate liberalism he and Obama both represent.
Whether Obama is actually willing to do this is very much an open question. After all, what would he have to gain? His own legacy is secure; Obama's place in the Democratic pantheon does not depend upon Biden. Unlike George W. Bush, whose endorsement was neither sought nor received by his party's eventual nominee, Obama remains a hugely popular figure with the Democratic base. Even people like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who see the Obama years as a squandered opportunity, if not a barely disguised co-opting of progressivism by the finance industry, are loath to criticize him. But this is all true in large part because at the age of 57, he is really a bland elder statesman, someone who is remembered more for his lofty-sounding rhetoric and the historical nature of his election than for his actual record in office. The last thing he probably wants to do is go out of his way to back a loser, which is exactly what Biden is looking like right now.
Would an Obama endorsement — or even just a short statement aww-shuckings away Uncle Joe's goofy talk that neither confirmed nor denied Biden's story — change this? It might. But it might also give rise to an intra-party quarrel that virtually no one is interested in having, least of all Obama himself, who is in any case busy with his numerous commitments to Netflix. And a fight here might not even be the worst outcome for him. Suppose Harris were to say that the former president's kind words for his friend were understandable, moving, indeed inspiring, vintage Barack, and totally irrelevant to the question of whether Biden is the right person to lead the Democratic party and the country in 2020. The only thing more humiliating for Obama than being rejected would be being ignored. My bet is that he stays out of this until next year's Democratic convention.
Biden has drafted behind Obama to the White House twice already. This time he's going to have to be the lead car.