Being president of the United States is hard and requires an essentially heroic work ethic and the ability to think and speak clearly? What a lot of malarkey. All you have to do is roll up your sleeves and get down to work, the same way that Sen. Eastland and Barack and I used to do in the good old days. You need me.
This is basically Joe Biden's pitch to the American people. It is how powerful men always talk when anyone dares to question their presumed right to rule. Cut it out with that tedious needling bullcrap about facts and timelines and whether my words make any sense — I've got this under control. It should be especially familiar to anyone who has paid attention to this country and its affairs for, I don't know, the last three or four years.
These days, Biden is confused about everything and everyone virtually all the time. He doesn't know the difference between Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher — or between the latter and Angela Merkel. He routinely says things that are absolute gibberish — "truth over facts," "the nation that Barack Obama proved toward bends toward justice." The broad strokes of his biography — tough childhood, long time in the Senate, then vice president — are clear enough but begin to blur around the edges: Was I still in the administration when those kiddos came to see me?
These are not ordinary slips of the tongue. They are signs of cognitive decline that will be familiar to anyone who, like me, spends a good deal of time in the company of people who are roughly Biden's age. As far as I am aware, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the only prominent Democrat who has actually come out and said this, even though it must be painfully obvious to millions of Americans who have friends and relatives in their eighth or ninth — or even 10th — decade of life.
First, there is the low-level verbal infelicity, which is especially pronounced among those who were never silver-tongued to begin with. The affect is there — strong, assertive — but the syntax is garbled; the clauses don't add up; the rhetorical space is reserved for crucial fact or reference but it doesn't appear somehow. Then there are the issues with chronology. It's not that they have totally forgotten what they did or when or with whom, but facts end up in the wrong place on the timeline — you did buy that truck from that guy but it was three years after you sold the old house. There is also the endless nostalgia, the sunny insistence that if only we could get back to how everything used to be when — insert the names of old cronies and pals of yore — everything would improve, as if by magic.
None of these is, in itself, a bad thing. No one minds the fact that older people get confused about their own biographical details or view the past with rose-colored glasses. In fact, one of the nastiest things about American life is how appallingly we treat the elderly, especially those whose families will not or cannot attend to them personally. But to suggest that Biden's mental abilities are irrelevant to his presidential campaign is insane. I do not think there is a single sentient adult who actually believes this, least of all Biden himself. You cannot simultaneously bow before the awesome grandeur of a machine that exhaustively catalogs Donald Trump's "false or misleading claims" (itself a ludicrous catch-all category that includes everything from bald-faced lies to moronic opinions to usage errors) and insist that Biden's verbal slipups are of no consequence.
Which is why people who make excuses for Biden are always quick to mention the current president. Despite what is widely reported as a more or less superhuman level of energy, Trump too is bad at names and dates and, well, at everything else that requires the ability to use words and his reasoning faculties. Details elude or simply bore him, and he is always jumping seemingly at random from one project to another or refusing to move on from others that are of no importance out of sheer stubbornness. (This is why even those of us who broadly approve of his trade policy, for example, doubt that he is the right man for the job.)
But these comparisons with Trump are tiresome. Surely the whole point of having a wide-open primary field with more than two-dozen Democratic hopefuls is that your baseline qualifications for a candidate can be something other than "also senescent but at least a member of our team."
Will the Democratic establishment ever come around to this? What would it take for a few bigwigs to say enough's enough, pull Biden aside, and ask him to stand down? Imagine a world in which on the eve of the primaries, Biden holds a joint press conference with his old pal Barack in which they both endorse, I don't know, Julián Castro, a fresh-faced youngster who is up to the task of defending the old Obama-era neoliberal consensus but with the performative wokeness dialed up one or two notches.
I for one cannot see this ever happening. This is not because it would not be a good thing for the party and its fortunes but because Democrats value unity and loyalty and knowing one's place in the pecking order more than they do anything else, including winning elections. We saw this in 2016, when at least 10 of today's candidates running against a non-incumbent Trump would have had a better shot than Hillary Clinton, whose serious weaknesses were as apparent long before Iowa as they were on November 9.
Hillary wanted for her turn. Now it's Joe's.