I met Joe Biden last month, after one of his town hall events in New Hampshire. His team had turned the music up loud, presumably so that 77-year-old Joe — the gaffe machine from Scranton, Pennsylvania — would not be recorded saying something stupid as he mingled with the fans and reporters. I shook Biden’s hand and — limey hack that I am — asked: ‘Mr Vice President, how, as President, would you approach Brexit Britain and Boris Johnson?’ ‘What?’ he said. I repeated the question, shouting this time. ‘What?’ he said again, smiling. His dentures were brilliant; his eyes mad blue. He had no idea what I was talking about. I tried one last time, screaming ‘Boris Johnson!’ in his ear. Somewhere deep in his psyche, something stirred. ‘Bori…,’ he said. Then the emptiness returned and he went to hug some old ladies.
It’s not fair to mock the elderly, and no doubt US politicians have far more pressing matters on their minds than Brexit. But Joe Biden is emerging as the Democratic party’s choice to be the next leader of the free world, and he’s clearly not all there.
A little over a week ago, Biden seemed finished. The socialist outsider Bernie Sanders looked unstoppable. Then Biden won in South Carolina and the race flipped. Two of Biden’s rivals in the so-called ‘moderate lane’, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, dropped out and endorsed him. The ‘Joementum’ carried on to Super Tuesday this week, as Biden notched up significant wins across the South and in Minnesota and Massachusetts. Sanders won in California, but he is now behind. Things could look even better for Biden if Michael Bloomberg now withdraws.
Each day, however, Biden reveals a little more senility. This week, he lost his thread while trying to cite the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men and women created by the … you know … you know, the thing.’ He called Super Tuesday ‘Super Thursday’. Last month, he declared: ‘We choose truth over facts!’ Last week, he said gun crime in America had killed 150 million people since 2007. He also claimed that his child tax-credit plan would put 720 million women back into work. He keeps saying ‘I wrote that bill’ when often he didn’t. He has claimed that Margaret Thatcher told him she was worried about Donald Trump (he meant Theresa May), and that he struck a climate deal with Deng Xiao-ping, who died in 1997 (he meant Xi Jinping). On Tuesday night, he grabbed his wife’s hand and said ‘This is my little sister, Valerie’.
Biden fans will tell you that he’s a fighter. He’s a man who has overcome great hardship. In 1972, his first wife and daughter were killed in a crash. In 2015, he lost his son Beau to brain cancer. Any man who has gone through so much pain can be excused the odd slip.
Team Biden is also quick to point out that, since his childhood, he has suffered from a stutter: his mouth betrays his brain so he stammers and jumbles. Long before the spectre of dementia hung over him, Biden was notorious for putting his mouth in his foot, as he would say.
But the trouble isn’t just that Biden makes gaffes. It’s that he can’t get anything right. The Biden of 2020 is a sad specimen — he looks lost everywhere he goes. By January he could be in charge of the nuclear codes.
Maybe Americans like doddery leaders. Ronald Reagan was famously gaga for much of his second term and adored nonetheless. It’s not as if Donald Trump, 73, is master of any detail. Sanders and Bloomberg, both 78, also show signs of losing their faculties. As for Elizabeth Warren, who is 70, maybe she would do better if she kept forgetting what to say.
There’s a lot of popular resentment towards baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. ‘Late boomers’, in particular, are perceived as a selfish generation who got rich as America declined. It may be impossible for one of their cohort to be elected, and that’s why we have these older, crazier dinosaurs leading the polls.
Biden’s team say that Trump fears Joe the most. Sanders’s campaign say the same about their guy. But Trump seems to find his Democratic opponents amusing more than anything. ‘I am a young, vibrant man,’ he joked on Monday. ‘I look at Joe, I don’t know.’
He’s enjoying himself. But the election is eight months away and Trump’s luck might turn. The coronavirus could sink the global economy. Or perhaps the Democrats’ best hope is the growing consensus that Trump’s re-election is almost inevitable. In the topsy--turvy world of 21st-century politics, voters delight in defying received wisdom. On 3 November, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders might win because nobody thinks they can.
Listen to Freddy Gray’s regular podcast on American politics and the 2020 election.