I know Joe Biden. Not well, but well enough to have had a good chat when we ran into one another at the Irish embassy in Washington on St Patrick’s Day last year. I must also confess to rather liking Biden. In 2015 I argued that he would win if he ran the next year. He would certainly have been a more engaging candidate than Hillary Clinton, especially in those key states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that carried Donald Trump to the White House.
A veteran professional politician of the homely, Irish-American, middle-class, press-the-flesh variety, Biden overcame personal tragedy (the 1972 car accident that killed his first wife and daughter and seriously injured his two sons) to become the reassuringly conventional vice-president to Barack Obama — not only the first black president but just 47 when elected. Because, folks, Biden is exactly what central casting used to think a US president should look like.
Yet in 2020 there has been something about his campaign that has been, well, off. I could give numerous examples of Biden losing his train of thought and stumbling over his words, but this is the one that has worried me the most.
Biden was speaking last Monday at a campaign event in Texas. The crowd was fired up; their man had been on a roll since winning South Carolina two days earlier. And this is what he said:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are . . . created by the . . . go . . . you know, you know, the thing.”
I hope you don’t need me to tell you that Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the declaration of independence is a little more eloquent than that. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” No mention of women. No “you know”s. And no “the thing”.
Earlier this year, The Atlantic ran a sympathetic story about Biden’s boyhood stutter, suggesting that this was the reason for his verbal stumbles — though Biden himself kept telling the author that this wasn’t the problem. Listening to him since he launched his campaign, I’ve frequently wondered if he’s suffered a stroke since I last saw him, but we’d surely have heard about that, as we heard about his rival Bernie Sanders’s heart attack.
Maybe one day they’ll make an Oscar-winning film called The Veep’s Speech. Alternatively, Biden is 77 years old and it really, really shows.
These days many people in America struggle with basic arithmetic. On Thursday’s edition of The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, the show’s host and Mara Gay, a member of The New York Times’s editorial board, both appeared to accept the claim that if Mike Bloomberg had distributed to his 327 million fellow Americans the amount he spent on his failed presidential campaign — more than $500m (£383m) — each of us would have received at least million dollars, as opposed to $1.53.
Well, here’s another one for Brian and Mara. What age would Biden be at the end of his time in the White House if he won this November, secured a second term in 2024 and did not kick the bucket along the way? That’s right: 86.
All of which only adds to the mystery of Biden’s political comeback. Prior to his victory in South Carolina on February 29, Biden appeared to be out of it in both senses. By last Wednesday morning he was back where he began last year: the frontrunner, with 627 delegates to Sanders’s 551. Not only did Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar drop out last week, but they promptly pledged their support to Biden. Bloomberg followed suit on Wednesday, while Elizabeth Warren declined to back Sanders, to whom she is closer on the issues but from whom she personally recoils.
There have been primary comebacks before; indeed, an election year is incomplete without at least one. I remember vividly, as one of John McCain’s advisers in 2008, glumly anticipating his exit from the race, only for his almost-broke campaign to turn around and propel him to the nomination after he won New Hampshire. It was that same state that made Bill Clinton “the comeback kid” in 1992.
But Biden lost New Hampshire, finishing in ignominious fifth place. To find a comeback this late in the game, you need to go back to the 1996 Republican nomination contest, when the veteran Kansas senator Bob Dole went into the South Carolina primary having lost three states to the conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan.
The kingmaker then was Carroll Campbell, the state’s popular Republican governor. Just as House majority whip and South Carolina representative Jim Clyburn did for Biden, Campbell went all-in for Dole, signalling to the voters in the state and nationally that he alone had a shot at beating the incumbent president. Dole won South Carolina easily, after which he won every remaining contest with the exception of the Missouri caucuses.
Of course, Dole went on to lose to Clinton, so this is an analogy Biden would probably prefer to have a senior moment about. Yet I am not so sure he would lose to Trump if nominated.
The other key takeaway from last week is that the majority of black voters backed Biden — and not just in South Carolina. As the brilliant young African-American writer Coleman Hughes noted: “The fact that black voters went overwhelming for Biden is only surprising if you’re unaware that black dem voters are way more conservative than white dem voters. The progressive activist class may feel itself to be channeling black America’s politics, but it’s not.”
Black voters matter: the sharp nationwide drop in black turnout between 2012 and 2016 was a decisive factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. But black voters don’t necessarily gravitate towards black candidates — otherwise Kamala Harris and Cory Booker would have got further with their nomination bids.
In the coming months, the virulence and lethality of Covid-19 will almost certainly matter more than Biden’s charm and incoherence. A large outbreak in an American state and/or a recession caused by the global shock of the potential pandemic could make Trump a one-term president.
St Patrick’s Day is nine days away. If the luck of the Irish holds, Trump is about to be hit by a cross between Hurricane Katrina and Lehman Brothers, and the man he derides as “Sleepy Joe” will duly oust him from the White House.
And if Covid-19 hits only the Democratic states of the coasts? If the economy stalls for a quarter but doesn’t crash? If the message sticks in the Midwest that the outbreak was a hoax?
Then I fear we are in for one of the least intelligible concession speeches in . . . you know, the thing.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford