The full essence of Joe Biden's candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination has been that he offers the best bet to defeat Donald Trump.
That's owing to name identification, Barack Obama affiliation and a working-class connection in Pennsylvania and vicinity.
Biden remains possessed of all those advantages. But a question is arising as to whether he has any responsibility to offer more--to emerge as a contemporary candidate who can execute in today's arena, embody an abiding modern principle, advance a relevant message, and generally appeal beyond the biography of presumed and passive electability.
If so, if Biden indeed bears that responsibility, then he and--more importantly--the Democrats are in trouble.
In terms of performance beyond the long-existing biography, Biden has been an abject bust thus far.
Consider merely the recent case in point of his declaring a certain chumminess with old Southern racist Senate colleagues back in the good ol' days--the 1970s.
It is a scenario of self-inflicted wound turned to ineptitude turned to the weakness of apology turned to tired old consummate political expediency.
And that is your best play against Trump?
In the offending incident, Biden was speaking to a high-dollar group. His handlers were doing what Biden handlers must do whenever he speaks, which is holding their breath until it's time to exhale and cringe.
Joe was explaining that, in his early Senate days, he could work with philosophically antithetical senators for the greater good. He was lamenting that we we'd lost that ability and saying he could lead us back toward it.
So far, so good.
But then, as is his custom, Biden became enamored of his voice and his deft making of a point. He kept going, turning his handlers from breath-holding to recoiling.
He wound up essentially saying that he came of age in the Senate with those Southern racists and white supremacists and segregationists and that--fundamental human differences aside--he got along with them well enough to work with them on other issues.
What he said was true, and not as horrible as it sounded. But it sounded horrible. And campaign politics is more a matter of how things look and sound than how they are--a truth a man whose big-time political service dates over five decades ought to know and respect by now.
The word went out across the land that Biden had told a Democratic group that he was tight and thick with Southern racists.
The most predictable element of the first round of Democratic debates was that U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, desperate to peel black support off Biden and toward her, confronted Joe about such a statement, saying she found it "hurtful."
Joe fumbled in response, just as he fumbled in denying the basic demonstrated fact that he had resisted court-ordered busing to achieve racial segregation in the '70s and '80s.
So, to summarize: He talked too much. He talked unwisely. He defended incompetently.
Now he's been briefed on polls that show Harris to have hit him where it hurt--on his essence, meaning his electability, which becomes less evident and less inevitable the more he fails to either deflect or vigorously defend against the not-bad Triple-A pitching of Harris.
He would have been better off leaving Southern segregationists out of his ode to collegiality in the first place. A 40-year-old truth in 40-year-old context need not be invoked 40 years later in a campaign about the next four years to come.
But, having gone there, Biden would have been well-served in the debate either in saying he had erred and was sorry or by defiantly declaring that, yeah, he hated the sin of racism but could try to work with the sinner otherwise--on some other bill of interest to the country or his constituency, because that's the political process, using one hand to hold one's nose and the other to shake a colleague's hand, considering that a bad senator gets one vote just as a good senator does.
How about this for a rehearsed line: "A president has to work with a lot of creeps. I've had a lot of practice"?
But what Biden did was behave as the consummate political being that he is. He poll-tested, then tactically reacted. He embarked on the transparent and tired ploy of an atonement tour.
He found a suitable audience and said that he was sorry he had said that tolerant thing about those racists and that his remark didn't demonstrate who or what he really was.
At this rate, Biden probably will ride in a school bus in a few days to apologize for having gotten caught opposing school busing back in the day.
Is this what the country needs for the fateful fall of 2020--Trump's lies and madman tweets versus Joe's blunders and poll-driven pleas for forgiveness?
Might there be someone younger than both, more honorable than Trump and less a reckless motormouth than Biden?
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Web only on 07/10/2019