Joe Biden ran two presidential campaigns alongside Barack Obama and served as vice president for eight years, yet his decades-old position on federal busing never seemed to come up during that extensive time period. If it did, it was confined to niche left-wing media. Certainly the denizens of MSNBC or the blue-check Twitter spinmeisters seldom, if ever, evinced concern for that aspect of Biden’s record which they now claim to find so morally abominable. So the onslaught of attacks on Biden, like the one launched at last night’s debate by Kamala Harris, come across as having a tinge of bad faith. The prevailing view in the Democratic party – or at least its most vocal activist and media segments – seems to be that the first black president selected and elevated someone who is an unconscionable booster of racists. So why are there not strident calls for a reckoning from Obama himself? Surely that’s the logical extension of this criticism, but it won’t happen because the argument is fundamentally rooted in political calculation and amoral maneuvering, not principle or substance.
Kamala’s obviously pre-planned hit on Biden caused media elites to swoon with glee, because the unavoidable fact is most activists, operatives, and party-aligned journalists under 50 desperately do not want Biden to win the nomination. It would offend their sense of decency and contradict their myopic, parochial view of where the Democratic party coalition currently stands in the ‘era of Trump.’ Nominating an ‘old white man’ to take on Trump would put these elites in an intensely awkward position given the various identity-focused nostrums that have become standard-fare left-liberal talking points for the past two-and-a-half years. So they don’t hide their bias at all, and instead revel in Biden’s purportedly inevitable destruction, which has not yet come to pass despite weeks of confabulated controversies that have had little-to-no effect on his standing in the polls. If Biden plummets, it will more likely be due to his diminished cognitive capacities at age 76, rather than any sudden epiphany engendered by the righteous tweets of journalists.
Of course, Biden has scores of legitimate liabilities that can and must be scrutinized. Bernie Sanders did so somewhat tepidly last night, with regard to Biden’s vote to authorize the Iraq War. It’s amazing that a vote from 2002 is still being litigated in the context of a primary campaign 17 years later, because Democrats insist on continually putting forward candidates who approved the war. Biden’s response to the question posed to him by Rachel Maddow (whose very presence on the debate stage was a disgrace) was interesting insofar as he used his relationship with Obama to deflect any responsibility for the 2002 vote. ‘The president turned to me and said “Joe, get our combat troops out of Iraq,”’ Biden said, not addressing the fact that he voted for the war in the first place, just like the previous Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. That vote harmed Hillary in both 2008 and 2016, and arguably contributed to her eventual general election loss to Trump. So too will it haunt Biden, although using Obama as a shield is probably a more politically effective defense than anything Hillary could muster. Biden also elided the fact that once the bulk of combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq, many were sent back to wage Iraq War 3.0 against ISIS, which still rages to this day. So the Obama-Biden administration did not complete a full withdrawal from Iraq.
Perhaps the evening’s most deflating moment was when Andrew Yang, the candidate whose main promise is to provide every American over 18 with a $1,000 monthly cash payment, used his limited time to declare Russia the ‘greatest geopolitical threat’ to the United States because ‘they’ve been hacking our democracy successfully and they’ve been laughing their asses off about it for the last couple of years.’ This was an odd and seemingly out-of-character comment for Yang, because he’s notable chiefly for his distinct agenda relative to the rest of the presidential field. I attended a gathering of the Yang Gang in Miami Beach during the debate, and attendees were befuddled and a bit miffed by Yang’s comment, with some claiming they’d never heard him fulminate about Russia before and would have preferred more Universal Basic Income talk instead. They also booed and cursed at NBC because there were large spans of time during the debate where Yang received no questions. Yang later claimed his mic was shut off which prevented him from interjecting. If true, that’s a clear and flagrant bias on the part of NBC, but shouldn’t be surprising because the network’s producers have been clear about their primary objective in orchestrating the event: maximizing viewership, not facilitating debate. Still, Yang’s comment came across as forced and out of place. He had the least speaking time of all 20 candidates who participated over two nights, so smuggling in an incendiary Russia barb was simply bizarre.
Anyway, the primary function of these debates is not to inform but entertain, and also to enable media elites to create their preferred narrative based on ‘who’s up and who’s down.’ The incentive is toward excitement and chaos, which is largely why the response to Biden is so negative. Biden coasting to the nomination with approximately 30 percent support would be totally boring, so journalists want fodder to proclaim various plot twists and surprises that could upset that outcome. At the same time, much of the electorate is hyper-politicized right now and paying closer attention than usual, so perhaps the debates will have a tangible impact – but it will be hard to disentangle that impact from the media-generated storylines. Which underscores why it’s ridiculous to afford TV networks with exclusive control over candidate debates. We needn’t do this; the technology is available to do otherwise. It’s a conscious choice by the party chieftains and their media friends. The result, unsurprisingly, is crap.