In 1979, as he prepared to take on sitting President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts gave an interview to CBS’ Roger Mudd.
At the time, Kennedy was a well-established front-runner, an unusual situation when one is trying to unseat the sitting president, an indication of just how much malaise James Earl Carter had wrought.
Things began to fall apart for Kennedy when Mudd asked him the simplest question possible: Why he wanted to be president.
Kennedy first paused as if his brain were a Commodore 64 trying to load Photoshop. When he did get around to answering the question, the response was halting, rambling, unenthusiastic and deadly to his campaign. You can never identify exact moments when sure-thing candidacies go south, but in Kennedy’s case, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better moment than that interview.
It wasn’t just that he’d flubbed an answer. It was that one got the sense Kennedy was running because he was a Kennedy and everyone around him wanted him to run.
He didn’t have any fully formed ideas besides the fact that he represented the traditional ’60s liberal wing of the party better than Carter did. He didn’t look like a man of vigor or adamantine mental faculties. He made Jimmy Carter look like the sensible choice, something that was a difficult task in 1979.
Joe Biden has been officially running for only a day as of Friday morning, and he hadn’t sat down to do a full interview yet. (I’m sure that CNN town hall will be coming soon, though.)
However, in a short answer given to a group of reporters Thursday, just hours after he announced he was jumping into the race, he may have given us a Ted Kennedy moment for the Twitter age.
The big news out of the short interview was that he says he had asked President Obama not to give anyone — and by anyone, Biden really means himself — the imprimatur of the former president.
“I asked president Obama not to endorse,” Biden said, according to AFP. “Whoever wins this nomination should win it on its own merits.”
This is great-sounding stuff if pretty much meaningless, since I would have guessed that Obama wasn’t going to make an endorsement without Biden talking to him. Given the controversy in 2016 about the establishment — particularly the DNC — throwing the primary race Hillary’s way, Obama was almost certainly going to stay as far away from this one as humanly possible.
However, reporters had one question later that might end up coming back to bite Biden: Why should Democrats choose him in 2020?
Biden smiles: “That’ll be for the Democrats to decide,” he says as he turns to walk away.
Question: “Why are you the best choice for Democrats?”
Joe Biden: “That’ll be for the Democrats to decide.” pic.twitter.com/ixEQD9c4R2
— The Hill (@thehill) April 26, 2019
Biden had just announced he was running for president earlier that day. He should, theoretically, have a short list of bullet points to give reporters. Most of the other candidates would.
If you asked Elizabeth Warren, she’d probably talk about the wealth tax and income inequality. Pete Buttigieg would talk about tenor and values. Eric Swalwell, gun control. All of that would be mixed in with vague platitudes about how great this country is and the perfidy of Donald Trump — and they can do it all in, oh, 20 or 30 seconds.
Biden is the most experienced candidate in the field but he can’t even do that.
I suppose you could come up with several reasons for this, not all of which are muttruually exclusive. The first would be that he was tired of the reporters and didn’t know how bad this would look. Well, if he doesn’t like this now, just wait until they start asking him about Anita Hill or inappropriate touching.
Second, he legitimately doesn’t know. This poses a separate set of problems, particularly since this is what appeared to doom Ted Kennedy in that clip. If Biden can’t figure out what his appeal is, he either doesn’t have any or can’t figure out — neither of which is a pleasant augury for Joe 2020.
Finally, he doesn’t know what’s going to play well with voters yet. Biden likely knows that he’s not liberal enough for a base that wants the party to veer left. He also knows he has to play to independent voters who aren’t quite ready to embrace anything that far off that side of the spectrum.
So, what he’s going to do is play the polls. Once he gets a better idea of what voters want him to be, he can be it.
In all of these cases, he lacks any conviction. Yes, it’s a short answer delivered to a group of reporters. It’s also a sign of what Biden is going to be going forward: a carefully focus-grouped candidate who will say whatever needs to be said and is probably only running because that’s what he was supposed to do.
We’ll see whether this clip becomes what the Kennedy interview clip was for him some 40 years ago. Either way, this is bad news for Biden, inasmuch as he looks completely transparent here. That’s good news for Trump, considering Joe was still the Democrats’ best chance to beat him. After all, if this is just his first day of campaigning, just wait until the debates come around.
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