No one won the second night of this week's Democratic debate in Detroit. But Joe Biden certainly lost.
During the course of an evening in which he received roughly double the speaking time of most of the other candidates, all of Biden's powers seemed to desert him. The first thing to fail was his folksy charm. "Go easy on me, kid," he told Kamala Harris as she entered the stage. She did not.
Neither did anyone else, with the possible exception of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who sounded too tired to criticize anyone, and Andrew Yang, who didn't speak long enough to say much of anything. Jay Inslee went after Biden on climate change. Cory Booker accused him of having done more than anyone to create the incarceration crisis he is now denouncing. Julián Castro asked him why he did not do more to prevent the millions of deportations that occurred under the Obama administration in which they both served. Kirsten Gillibrand needled him with lines he wrote in the '70s about women in the workforce that would not sound out of place in a Rick Santorum speech.
Biden is a good reminder that having a long political career is not necessarily an asset in a presidential campaign. In the last round of debates he was forced to defend his past opposition to federal busing and his nostalgia for the good old days of rolling up his sleeves and working with segregationists to get things done. Wednesday night made it clear that this problem is not going away.
But Biden's personal fortunes are not the only thing tanking. Throughout the evening it was clear that he was being attacked not simply because he is the front-runner but because the Obama-era moderate liberal consensus he represents is not acceptable to any segment of the Democratic base. To earnest progressives, his steadfast opposition to single-payer health care and his wait-and-see approach to climate change are unacceptable; to neoliberal moderates who might agree with him about all of the former, his rhetoric on race and his confrontational attitude toward issues such as abortion are disqualifying. Even Bennet spoke cryptically of "the divisive politics of the last 10 years."
This put Biden in a difficult position. It seems never to have occurred to him that Obama remains a popular figure among the Democratic base despite rather than because of his actual record in office. You cannot premise your entire campaign on the idea that you are Obama's closest political confidant and then insist that any of the administration's failings — on immigration for example — have nothing to do with you. Obama's seeming refusal to endorse his former vice president has never looked wiser.
Meanwhile, even when he was not being forced to defend Obama's record or his own, Biden sounded unprepared, confused, and exhausted. At one point he spoke about the horrifying possibility of "eight more years of Trump." Later he directed voters to "Go to Joe 30330," which is neither a website nor a phone number. This kind of bumbling might have been endearing at embassy receptions or bill signings when he was Obama's number two and all-around fall guy. In the current context, it serves mainly to remind us why both of Biden's previous presidential campaigns failed.
Does this mean that Biden has no chance of winning the nomination? Absolutely not. He remains the front-runner. It is possible to imagine a world in which Sanders and Warren and Harris, whose combined support barely exceeds Biden's share in current polls, effectively split the anti-Biden vote in the early primaries. By the time some of these people are willing to drop out it could be too late for the base to rally behind anyone else.
But it does mean that Democrats could end up with a nominee who seems mentally and physically unprepared for the rigors of a presidential campaign, one who is a disappointment to vast swathes of the base and has an ambiguous relationship with one of the only more or less universally popular national figures in the party.
Maybe "eight more years" of Trump was not a gaffe.