We need to talk about Joe Biden.
In the nearly six months since the former vice president announced his presidential candidacy, he has consistently led by a wide margin in polls of Democratic voters. But as the Democratic debate in Houston Thursday night demonstrated, the warning signs about his candidacy — and his age — are becoming more difficult to ignore.
No moment demonstrated that point better than Biden’s answer, late in the debate, to a question about racism in the American educational system. Here’s an excerpt:
“. . . Make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School! Not day care, school. We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t know what — They don’t know what quite what to do. Play the radio. Make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. The phone — make sure the kids hear words.”
Aside from the disjointedness of these words, Biden seemed to be suggesting that poor black parents don’t know how to raise their kids.
Then Biden bizarrely started talking about Venezuela and its strongman leader Nicolás Maduro, who had come up earlier in the debate. “We should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela,” said Biden. “I know Maduro. I’ve confronted Maduro . . . you talk about the need to do something in Latin America. I’m the guy that came up with $740 million to see to it those three countries, in fact, change their system so people don’t have to chance to leave. You’re all acting like we just discovered this yesterday! Thank you very much.”
As the kids might say, “huh?”
This is not the first time that Biden has thrown out Trumpian word salads. The former Veep has a disquieting tendency to wander into rhetorical cul-de-sacs, jumping from topic to topic in stream-of-consciousness spiels.
But as Biden likes to say in those moments when he meanders down the path of incomprehensibility: “here’s the point.” Biden is 76 years old and while he’s always had a tendency toward flowery, discombobulated speech, this feels different. Biden has the feel of a candidate who lacks the acuity to run for president. Maybe it’s a bit too on the nose to point out that while Biden started off strongly in Thursday’s debate, he faded as time went on.
Biden might seem electable today, but what about a year from now, after a grueling campaign against a bevy of tough Democratic candidates? If the former vice president can’t speak clearly during a three-hour debate with nine other candidates in September 2019, how is he going to fare going mano a mano against Trump in September 2020?
Then there’s the much bigger question that few Democrats seem willing to address: How will Biden, who would turn 80 during his first term, hold up in the most stressful job in the world?
It’s hard not to compare Biden’s faltering performance with that of the other candidates on the stage, particularly Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose discipline in sticking to her message — and artfully dodging tough questions — offered a stark contrast.
Yet many Democrats spent the post-debate period criticizing former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro for making an age-based, somewhat crude attack on Biden, rather than addressing the substance of his critique. If Democrats think Castro was being tough on the former vice president, imagine what our obscene and shameless president will throw at him.
What makes all this particularly discordant is that when you talk to reporters, consultants, and political insiders, the issue of Biden’s age and the clear evidence of slippage is front and center. The political world is having this conversation, but it’s taking place off the record. Democrats need to stop tip-toeing around it. The same goes for reporters.
The fact of the matter is, time waits for no one. All humans grow old and as they do, their step becomes slower and their minds become less agile. Democrats can no longer afford to be blind to the potentially ticking time bomb that is Biden’s candidacy — and the very real question of whether he is fit to be president of the United States.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.