The tragedy of Joe Biden

Why is Biden putting himself through this?

Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a tragedy mask on a stage.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images, Michael Burrell/iStock, pialhovik/iStock)

Joni Ernst has spilled the beans! This is not goofy dialogue from a forgotten teen comedy but an actual quote from Joe Biden on Tuesday, who was responding to comments made by Iowa's junior Republican senator during the day's impeachment proceedings. "I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucusgoers," Ernest said on the floor of the Senate, referring to remarks made by members of President Trump's legal team about Biden, his son Hunter, and their activities in Ukraine. "Will they be supporting former Vice President Joe Biden at this point?"

What a load of malarkey, as Biden might put it. But so is pretending the opposite, that partisan electoral considerations have played no part for Democrats in an inherently partisan political process, albeit one that was undertaken in the hope of making an end run around the election (the one that took place more than three years ago, not the one tentatively scheduled for November). It would be as ridiculous as arguing that Donald Trump's allusion to the Bidens in his infamous phone call with President Zelensky is an impeachable offense but that the Bidens would somehow not be relevant witnesses in an impeachment trial. You can't have it both ways.

Biden knows this better than anyone, which is why he has made far less noise about impeachment in recent weeks than many of his Democratic primary opponents. But even when the impeachment trial is over, I somehow doubt that he and his family will suddenly become free from this kind of scrutiny. Indeed, even as it has become de rigueur to refer to bad-faith readings of his actions in Ukraine as "unfounded" or alternately (though they are opposites) a "thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory," we are still reading stories like this one from Politico about a shady deal between Biden's brother and a lobbyist who had business with the senator for many years. Apparently this guy's random decision to buy a piece of property from James Biden for much less than its actual value and then give him a loan is just a coincidence, like Hunter's $83,000 a month Burisma retainer. This is to say nothing of recent efforts by right wingers to publicize the not-exactly-unknown fact that for decades Biden's political campaigns paid millions of dollars to an undistinguished consulting firm run by his sister, Valerie.

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Does any of this stuff really matter? I would say that on a swamp monster scale of Revenge of the Creature From the Black Lagoon to Kermit's Swamp Years Biden's situation barely rises to the level of Frog and Toad Are Friends. Because that is exactly what this kind of low-key nepotism is about — friendship, family, shrugging and winking and sometimes loudly denying it as the people he loves are allowed to profit from his power and connections. Biden spent virtually his entire career in Washington as one of the least wealthy people in the Senate. This isn't about money for him, even if he doesn't exactly mind that his cokehead failson got a job out of it.

The people who get worked up about this are (or should be logically anyway) the same people who want to investigate every single one of Trump's real estate deals and make a fuss about the fact that Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation and wife Mitch McConnell, is related to the owners of a shipping company that incidentally benefits from administration policies Trump would be implementing no matter what (just as Biden and Obama wanted to end corrupt prosecutions in Ukraine regardless). Sometimes, gasp, she even brings them along for official government meetings, just like the former veep did, which no doubt accidentally resulted in Hunter's company being awarded a gazillion-dollar contract and his receiving a 2.8 carat diamond gifted to him from a Chinese energy tycoon. I doubt that either Biden or McConnell and Chao mind that their relations are prospering, but this is not exactly Tammany Hall material.

What I don't understand is why Biden wants to expose himself and his family to all of this now. Here is a man who could have lived out a quiet honorable retirement, remembered fondly even by conservatives for whom he was largely the caricature who figured in classic Onion articles. Instead he is the object of intense loathing, not only among Trump supporters but for many earnest progressives as well. Rather than a lovable avuncular elder statesman, he is a mean, dumb racist grandpa who needs to step aside and make room for more electable candidates (e.g., the nice, smart non-racist grandpa who is currently ahead of him in Iowa). His every utterance of the last 50 years is being examined under a woke microscope, and his obvious cognitive decline has become fodder for cheap (and uniformly unfunny) jokes.

And all for what? Biden didn't need to do this. Any number of other candidates — the late-surging Amy Klobuchar comes to mind, along with the inexplicable Cory Booker — could have provided Democratic primary voters with a a moderate liberal alternative to Bernie Sanders. The one person who could be of the most help to him, his ostensible good buddy Barack Obama, hasn't endorsed him and, so far as we know, never suggested that he sit this one out, even though one cannot fail to imagine Biden heeding his advice. Even the friendship candidate has no real friends.

Which brings us back to Biden's comments on Tuesday afternoon. To say, as he did, that "the whole impeachment trial for Trump is just a political hit job to try to smear me" makes no sense at all. If the president and Mitch McConnell had their way, there would be no impeachment trial involving witnesses, including Biden, but a speedy acquittal. Rather it is the lunatic intransigence of members of his own party, who insist on having witnesses participate in a judicial process whose outcome is not even remotely in doubt, that could give Trump and his allies the chance to do for him what the government of Ukraine could or would not.

This is the tragedy of Biden's presidential campaign: an old man convincing himself to do something no one in particular needs him to do and feeling sad about it and having to go on for weeks and months enduring insults and calumnies from people who would otherwise leave him alone, all because no one, least of all the people who should care about him most, gives a damn.

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