Opinion

Incoherent in Iowa

Joe Biden's speech about the recent mass shootings showed why he's uniquely unfit to take on Trump

The only thing drearier than having one national mourner-in-chief is having two of them. To his dubious credit, President Trump chose not to speak publicly during the course of his visits to Dayton and El Paso on Wednesday. Instead, he met privately with local and state politicians and with law enforcement.

Not so the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. In the course of about 15 painfully tedious minutes Wednesday afternoon in Iowa, Joe Biden gave one of the most moronic, ham, parodies of a campaign speech I have ever heard. The former vice president referred to "the Southern Poverty Center" and the "Klu Klux Klan," and quoted white supremacists in Charlottesville as chanting "You will replace us!" He garbled a Lincoln quote and referred to America as "the nation that Barack Obama proved toward bends toward justice."

Should we really be surprised that someone who earlier offered his sympathies to the victims of shootings in "Michigan and Houston" does not know how to pronounce the name of the nation's oldest racist terrorist organization? No. But it should give some Democrats pause before they insist that the only person who can beat Trump in 2020 is a soon-to-be 77-year-old white man famous for his malapropisms.

Still, there are other, more important reasons that Biden's speech fell flat for any honest, non-blinkered observer. It would be hard to think of a Democratic politician less capable of speaking with moral authority on the subject of American race relations than the former vice president. Never mind his gushing over Strom Thurmond or his nostalgia for the good old days of hammering out back-room deals with Southern segregationists or his warnings about children growing up "in a racial jungle." The guy who has spent the last week recycling a speechwriter's quip about how Trump is "closer to George Wallace than George Washington" has had plenty of good things to say about the man who stood in the schoolhouse doorway.

In 1975, Biden said: "I think the Democratic Party could stand a liberal George Wallace — someone who's not afraid to stand up and offend people, someone who wouldn't pander but would say what the American people know in their gut is right." In the course of a single Senate committee hearing in 1981 Biden repeated a false claim about having marched for civil rights, called busing "stupid," complained about the delusions of "liberal sociologists," and insisted that "George Wallace is right about some things." He also called prison rehabilitation programs "garbage" and argued in favor of "minimum mandatory life imprisonment, no probation, no parole, no apology."

This sort of talk was typical of Biden then and would remain so for most of his career in the Senate. Until virtually the minute he was selected as Barack Obama's running mate in 2008, Biden was unusually comfortable making use of what any liberal observer would now consider racist dog whistles. His character assassination of Clarence Thomas during the latter's Supreme Court confirmation hearing was a patently obvious attempt to make use of racist tropes about black male hypersexuality. In the '90s he was virtually synonymous with the Clintonite Third Way "tough on crime" rhetoric. He only recently stopped taking credit for helping to write the 1994 bill that led to the epidemic of mass incarceration.

Why does anyone care what this septuagenarian bungler thinks about race — or any other issue? There are any number of reasons that Democrats might prefer Biden to Trump (the former is far more likely to support military adventures in the Middle East, for example, and the ratification of new multilateral trade deals). But his ability to contribute anything of value to our national conversation about race, much less to hold the current president to account for his own rhetoric, is not one of them.

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