Biden’s awkward 2020 start and prospects for rebounding

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden, apparently on the verge of entering the 2020 Democratic presidential race, stubbed his toe by joking about the allegations of several women that he invaded their personal space.

Biden, a warm and gregarious public schmoozer all his life, chose in defending himself to make light of the matter, saying at a union political event he had received permission from his host to shake hands. He also called some small children to the stage and put one arm around one boy, with permission, he said.

The comments drew laughter and applause from the crowd but obviously did not sit well with his complainers. It wasn’t the first time Joe Biden was accused of talking too much, by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Once, long ago, I asked GOP Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, he of sharp tongue, about Biden’s loquaciousness. He quipped: “When Joe used to get up to speak (on the Senate floor), we all figured we had at least 30 or 45 minutes to go to the office, get a haircut. Not that we didn’t want to hear what he said. We’d probably heard it before.”

But beyond such needling, Biden earned a solid reputation in the Senate as a serious workhorse in the Judiciary and Foreign chairmanships he held. He also proved to be an effective debater in the Democratic debates of the 2008 campaign, won by Barack Obama.

When Obama as the Democratic nominee chose him as his running mate, he cited Biden’s performances in those debates as one reason he had selected him. And when Obama in his first debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney had a subpar effort, Biden followed with a strong yet respectful debate against his GOP counterpart, Sarah Palin, lifting Democratic spirits.

Biden’s expected late decision to enter the 2020 race will qualify him for the 12 Democratic candidate debates scheduled to start under the Democratic National Committee this June. They will be unprecedentedly early in the process, and will be two-tiered, to accommodate the largest Democratic field ever assembled for a presidential nomination.

These debates will be the prime opportunity for new and younger candidates to show their stuff over a wide range of issues. At the same time, the televised debates can work to Biden’s advantage in showcasing the depth of his experience over a range of subjects in domestic governance and foreign policy.

These verbal confrontations figure to be a decisive battleground for the Democratic Party’s own argument between its progressive and moderate-liberal factions.

Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and other contenders, will vie for the favor of one or both wings. Biden has already claimed he is the most progressive of the bunch, while at age 76 he still can offer himself as a moderate-leaning liberal of the old school.

This competition will continue more than half a year before the Democratic state primaries and caucuses where national convention delegates are selected, and more than year before the presidential election itself.

Already, the main cable television channels are bombarding voters with nearly nightly town hall sessions offering free air time to candidates both prominent and little known, assuring a greater political circus than ever before dominating the national landscape.

By contrast, nearly 60 years ago, Democratic hopeful Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts did not announce his 1960 presidential candidacy until the second day of January of the actual election year, with the party national conventions half a year later.

What we’re witnessing, and tolerating, this time around is literally unprecedented nonstop fund-raising, around-the-clock campaigning in the flesh and via television, the Internet and telephone robocalls, to determine the future of our 232-year-old Republic.

There are millions of Americans, to be sure, who may not yet see this long encounter as an acid test for the survival of the pillars of our democracy in the Trump era. . But perhaps the news media onslaught that will unfold before Election Day in November of 2020 will drive home why that event warrants such attention and sober judgment.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.