It’s been a remarkable seventy-two hours for Joe Biden.
Having remained largely hidden from view after his comeback on Super Tuesday, the former vice president made headlines thanks to a needlessly testy exchange at a Detroit auto plant and complained that “The Bernie Bros are here!” when interrupted by green and anti-NAFTA protestors at a campaign event elsewhere in the city.
Biden’s most significant public appearance since last week, however, took the form of a sit-down with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell — his first and only substantive interview in more than a week. Touching, among other things, on health care, the Iraq War, and the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Biden’s strange and rambling appearance can only be called an alarming harbinger of what lies ahead, should he ultimately become the Democratic nominee.
In a span of less than twenty minutes, while facing a decidedly friendly and nonconfrontational interviewer, Biden offered some clue as to why he’s maintained such a low profile this past week despite having recovered his status as the race’s front-runner. The first real sign of trouble came a few minutes in, when O’Donnell asked about Medicare For All:
Let’s flash forward, you’re president. Bernie Sanders is still active in the Senate, he manages to get Medicare for All through the Senate in some compromise version, Elizabeth Warren’s version or other version. Nancy Pelosi gets a version of it through the House of Representatives. It comes to your desk, do you veto it?
Somehow, Biden managed to summon a response even worse than the more familiar kind of Democratic triangulation: the former vice president answered in the affirmative. In O’Donnell’s hypothetical scenario, he would veto Medicare for All:
I would veto anything that delays providing the security and the certainty of health care being available now. If they got that through and by some miracle there was an epiphany that occurred and some miracle occurred that said “okay, it’s passed,” then you gotta look at the cost. I want to know, how did they find $35 trillion? What is that doing? Is it gonna significantly raise taxes on the middle class, which it will? What’s gonna happen?
It was an extraordinary answer given the premise of the question. Centrist Democrats usually have enough sense to cloak their ideological opposition to Medicare For All in the language of pragmatism. Not Biden, who was effectively saying he would veto Medicare For All even if it somehow did pass the House and Senate.
Having offered this answer, Biden proceeded to catch himself somewhat — pivoting to more familiar talking points about cost:
Look, my opposition isn’t to the principle that you should have Medicare. Everybody, health care should be a right in America. My opposition relates to whether or not, a, it’s doable, and, two, what the cost is and what the consequences to the rest of the budget are. How are going to find $35 trillion over the next ten years without having profound impacts on everything from taxes for middle-class, working-class people, as well as the impact on the rest of the budget.
Biden’s campaign unconvincingly tried to spin the comment yesterday by insisting he hadn’t actually used the word “veto” despite video evidence to the contrary.
Later in the interview, Biden was asked by O’Donnell about his support for the Iraq invasion. If his remarks about health care could charitably be called incoherent, here they were nothing short of Orwellian.
Look, the reason I voted the way I did was to try to prevent a war from happening. Remember, the threat was to go to war. The argument was because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. So [Bush] said, “I need to be able to get the Security Council to agree to send in inspectors to put pressure on Saddam, to find out whether or not he’s producing nuclear weapons . . .” I didn’t believe he had those nuclear weapons. I didn’t believe he had those weapons of mass destruction. What happened was we went in, determined that they hyped what, in fact, was occurring. There was no concrete proof of what he was doing, and they still went to war.
Biden’s spin on the events of 2003 echoes language he used in January at a Democratic debate in Des Moines and elsewhere on the campaign trail. In reality, Biden was one of the Iraq War’s most crucial boosters and advocates — as evidenced by a giant paper trail of video clips and Senate transcripts. As Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic wrote last summer: “A review of the historical record shows Biden didn’t just vote for the war — he was a leading Democratic voice in its favor and played an important role in persuading the public of its necessity and, more broadly, laying the groundwork for Bush’s invasion.”
Biden’s pattern of gaffes and dishonesty, though certainly remarked upon, have not as of yet proven much of a liability to his campaign. Despite spending parts of February telling an entirely fabricated story about being arrested in apartheid South Africa, the former vice president won the South Carolina primary handily and rode the momentum into a strong showing on Super Tuesday a few days later.
The series of strange incidents, demonstrable falsehoods, and accidental mask-off moments that preceded yesterday’s six primaries do not seem to have been an electoral impediment for Biden at all. Pundits seem to love his hostile interactions with voters, and any fallout doesn’t seem to have registered much, if at all, in the voting results — which saw him win four states.
What does seem clear is that Biden’s handlers and media surrogates recognize the potential risk of their candidate spending too much time in public. As results trickled in from Michigan last night, no less a figure than Jim Clyburn (whose endorsement proved so crucial to Biden in South Carolina) was telling NPR he thought the DNC should simply step in and cancel future debates. His stated reason? That Biden might “[get] himself into trouble.”
His increased delegate lead notwithstanding, Joe Biden and his allies are not running a campaign that bespeaks confidence in his prospects in a general election matchup against Donald Trump. Next week’s debate between Sanders and Biden will be a critical test as to what could ensue in the fall if the Democratic establishment’s chosen horse continues to ride his current wave of momentum to the party’s presidential nomination.