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The Pragmatic Roots of Biden’s Incoherence

The former vice president is a dealmaker, not a deep thinker.

Justin Sullivan/Getty

On Sunday, Miami real estate developer Craig Robins introduced Joe Biden at a fundraiser by telling prospective donors that Biden is a candidate seeking “a solution that could just make things normal again.”

It’s a pithy description for the campaign that Biden has run thus far. While the majority of the Democratic field has spent the year racing left and churning out white papers and policy proposals, the former vice president has followed a different path. Biden is not running on remaking the American economy or, at long last, ensuring that every American has health care. Instead, he’s running on largely unspecified promises to restore normalcy and sanity to a political system that is in short supply of both.

For Biden, that means a return to the recent past. Biden’s constant evocation of his former boss has become a joke, with many twisting the former vice president’s burn on Rudy Giuliani: Every sentence includes a noun, a verb, and Barack Obama. It is opportunistic, sure, but also good politics. Obama is enormously popular among Democrats, and, as his vice president, Biden has the best claim to Obama’s legacy. But it has also become a shield, not just against attacks from the left, but from having to delve into policy at a detailed level.

Writing in Vox, Ezra Klein argued that Biden’s constant evocation of Obama obscured substantially different visions and approaches. “Biden is not neatly to the right or left of Obama on foreign or domestic policy, and he diverges dramatically in how he makes decisions, how he understands the basic material of politics, and how he’d run an administration,” Klein wrote. “It is time for Joe Biden to stop campaigning for Obama’s third term and focus on the case for his first.”

But that’s the problem. Biden doesn’t seem to have a case for his first term. His attempts at discussing policy almost inevitably devolve into complete incoherence.

Asked last Thursday about how he would address the legacy of slavery and institutional racism, Biden had this to say:

It was, as many have noted, a deeply unsatisfactory answer, echoing a number of tropes about how African American culture is to blame for black poverty. It was also almost completely incoherent, a political word salad consisting of a series of digressions that ended with a plea for parents to leave the “record player” on so their children hear words.

A few days later, Biden was once again in hot water when video circulated on Twitter of him telling a bizarre story about confronting a gang leader named “Corn Pop” at a Delaware pool in the 1960s. It soon surfaced that the story he was telling was true, that the video was more than two years old, and that he had been telling the story publicly for years, having included it in his 2007 memoir. Still, it was yet another instance of Biden behaving strangely in public, raising questions about his fitness for office. Even though the video was older than many initially thought, the timing was nevertheless poor. After Biden’s rambling, Grandpa Simpson-like performance in the most recent Democratic debate, many were once again wondering if the 77-year-old was simply too old to be president.

But Biden’s incoherence is deeply ingrained. Before becoming vice president in 2009, Biden’s history was littered with gaffes that undermined his three previous presidential campaigns. As vice president, Biden’s verbal stumbles were regularly treated as being almost whimsical—avuncular, human touches from one of the most powerful people in the world. They are also regularly spun as a selling point, proof of Biden’s inability to tell a lie. “Let’s talk about Joe Biden’s heart,” Boone County Democratic chairman Tim Winter said when introducing Biden earlier this year. “The media sometimes calls these gaffes, or slipups. And what they really are is a man with a good heart showing his caring leadership, even when it is politically incorrect to do so.”

But Biden’s gaffes, as The New Yorker’s Eric Lach wrote earlier this spring, often center around the question of race. During the 2008 primary, he famously referred to his future boss as being “clean” and “articulate.” His 2020 campaign has been marked by a series of unforced errors when discussing racial issues, including an instance earlier this year when he said “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”

Many of Biden’s slips point to a blindspot on race that has rightfully drawn significant attention over the last year. But his incoherence is not limited to speech that the political media labels as “gaffes,” but instead extends to much of what he says on basic questions about policy. The section in last Thursday’s debate covering health care ended with a smirking Biden defending, in patriotic terms, a system that kills tens of thousands a year. His economic platform is that “no one should be punished”—a not-so-subtle message to billionaires that he isn’t interested in wealth redistribution. The best case he can make on health care and the economy, the two biggest issues in the primary, is that he will improve systems that already exist, which barely qualifies as a platform. Biden’s incoherence comes not from some charming Washington-esque inability to tell a lie, but from a lack of real ideas about how the government should work.

In his piece about how Biden can find a platform that extends beyond reminding people that he once worked for Obama, Klein pointed to Biden’s political style as the thing that makes the former vice president different. “Biden’s approach to politics—whether it’s foreign leaders, congressional negotiations, or the Iowa State Fair—is relational,” Klein writes. “Biden was often deployed to do the in-person work Obama dismissed.” In a piece arguing that the Democratic primary has been a debacle, New York’s Jonathan Chait made a similar point. “It seems just as likely that many of Biden’s supporters have a positive appreciation for compromise and pluralism,” Chait wrote, “designing policies that appeal to wide social and economic swaths of the country, rather than those that draw sharp cleavages between winners and losers.”

The idea here is that Biden’s appeal is as a dealmaker. This is something that Biden has run on himself, both in 1988, when he dropped out after being accused of plagiarism, and in 2008, when he quit the race after finishing fifth in Iowa. In the latter campaign, Biden’s signature idea was to essentially make a new Sykes-Picot agreement, dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous territories. (It was, and continues to be, a bad idea.) In fact, Biden’s entire 2008 campaign was premised on a series of similar pragmatic-seeming compromises, on issues like Social Security (he promoted a plan that would involve bipartisan negotiations on a number of issues, including the retirement age and trumpeted his past work with Republican senators, including Bob Dole) and health care.

There is nothing wrong with making the case that being a back-slapping dealmaker is what America needs to cut through the Gordian knot at the center of our politics. (There’s also not much right about it.) But it’s not an idea and it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of policy. This was, importantly, the basis of Biden’s last, not-at-all successful campaign, when he ran as the candidate for those who wanted compromise and ended up getting crushed. But this approach—of premising deal-making over ideas—continues to define Biden’s approach to politics.

It also continues to undercut this presidential campaign. One reason why Biden was so incoherent in Thursday’s debate is that he doesn’t have an ideological foundation to rely on when pressed. His instinct is to cut deals, not to find the best policy or solution. But that also means that Biden has little of substance to offer on most big policy questions. And, while it may very well be true that what voters are looking for is someone willing to compromise, Biden has run on that idea before, with disastrous results.

It’s not exactly surprising that Biden, as true a creature of the Senate as there ever was, would think about politics this way. And there is an argument to be made that it does have its place in the White House, given the foreign policy-heavy responsibilities of the executive branch. But that means that Biden’s struggles to make sense do not stem from his inability to get out from under Barack Obama’s shadow or from his age. They’re grounded in a shallow approach to policy that’s more rooted in backroom deals than in real world consequences.