Friday, September 13, 2019

Democratic Debate Analysis: Who Has the Right to Question Biden's Competence?

It's likely that even those analysts who love to declare winners, losers, and game-changing moments (a practice largely eschewed here at Honest Graft) won't find all that much fodder in Thursday night's Democratic debate. The biggest pre-debate media hype focused on the opportunity for a dramatic personal showdown between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, who were appearing on the same debate stage for the first time this year. But no major conflict arose between the two, and for sound strategic reasons. Biden is still ahead in the race, while Warren seems to be steadily gaining support, and so neither candidate has much incentive to rock the boat—at least not right now. Aiming a sharp personal attack at the other might only backfire among the large share of Democratic voters who have positive views of both candidates.

Even those contenders who are far behind in the polls, and thus have more reason to adopt a risky, attention-grabbing debate style, mostly played nice—at least with each other. (Some mockery lobbed in Donald Trump's direction, especially by Kamala Harris, was seemingly designed not only to play to the crowd but also to potentially bait the president into responding on Twitter.) The biggest exception was Juli├ín Castro, who directly challenged Biden on at least two occasions. Castro provoked the most comment during an exchange on the subject of health care, when he claimed that Biden had contradicted himself about an aspect of his reform proposal. "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" Castro asked Biden.

Anyone paying even modest attention to the news coverage of the 2020 Democratic nomination race is likely to have encountered the implication from multiple corners of the national press corps that the front-running former vice president is not operating at peak performance these days. Biden has long been treated by many reporters, fairly or not, as an undisciplined speaker with an unremarkable intellect, but something of a collective judgment has formed that even by his own standards he's lost a step or two, mentally speaking, as he approaches his late 70s. When combined with Biden's digital illiteracy and propensity to tell stories about the mostly-forgotten senators he served with 45 years ago, this has led to an unmistakable theme running through reporters' coverage of Biden that their subject is a man whose time has come and gone—a pattern that Biden's own orbit recently complained about to Ryan Lizza of Politico.

One might think that the potential competence of would-be presidents would be a critical topic for primary voters to consider—or, at the least, fair game to contest in a debate. But from the perspective of a rival candidate, it's a very tricky issue to raise. And Castro missed the mark: his accusations that Biden had misstated, or "forgotten," his own health care plan were simply not true.

Candidates who make false attacks on their opponents are being unfair and deserve criticism. But multiple media assessments faulted Castro not only for making a false attack—something that has been known to happen from time to time in debates—but also for engaging in underhanded if not offensive insinuations about Biden's cognitive acuity: a "low blow," "playing the age card." Yet later in the debate, Biden gave a somewhat meandering answer in response to a question about Afghanistan and made a non sequitur remark about "having the record player on at night" as (apparently) a suggested means for parents to improve the verbal skills of underprivileged children. Both of these comments provoked immediate media mockery in the familiar "Uncle Joe is losing it!" genre that has become a staple of campaign coverage this year.

One need not agree with Castro's specific line of attack—which was clearly erroneous on the facts—to wonder whether the national media are in danger of adopting a kind of double standard under which reporters and commentators can openly ridicule Biden's outdated references and freely speculate about potential senility while simultaneously pronouncing any political competitor who suggests the same to be guilty of ageism or other out-of-bounds transgressions. This is a complicated and delicate subject, and no clear rule book applies. But if journalists are as concerned about Biden's fitness to serve as they appear to be, they should allow the issue of competence to be openly litigated during the nomination campaign. It's an important attribute for a president to have, and voters should be allowed—and even encouraged—to take it very seriously.