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Opinion | Michael A. Cohen

What did Joe Biden do now?

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden. (Susan Walsh/AP)

What did Joe Biden do now?

This has become a now-familiar refrain in the early stages of the race for the Democratic nomination for president.

First, there were questions about Biden’s overly touchy-feely manner around women. Then came the embarrassing retreat on his support for the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal money being used for abortion. Now comes his strange boast about being able to work with two segregationist senators, James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, when he first entered the Senate in 1973.

While pundits and reporters alike tend to overstate the importance of campaign gaffes – and the extent to which most voters are paying attention – Biden’s series of unforced errors should be concerning to his supporters and those who see him as the most electable Democrat in 2020.

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We’ve seen this movie before.

In 1988 and 2008 Biden ran for president. Both times he crashed and burned and for disturbingly similar reasons. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

In 1988, Biden’s downfall was a propensity for exaggeration, plagiarism, and hubris. He claimed to have marched in civil rights demonstrations (he hadn’t). He took the words of Robert Kennedy and UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock as his own. But perhaps above all he showed a lack of discipline that has throughout history been the deathknell of presidential campaigns throughout history.

Twenty years later, , he did it to himself again, short circuiting his campaign in Iowa when he praised Barack Obama for being the first “mainstream” African-American candidate for president who was “clean,” “bright” and “articulate.”

At the core of his political problems, however, was Biden’s almost misplaced sense of his own self and his abilities. In Richard Ben Cramer’s magnum opus on the 1988 race for the White House, “What It Takes” he writes of Biden’s debilitating “certainty”“he knew what was supposed to happen,” Cramer wrote. “Hell, it was a done deal … and then it wasn’t imagination … it was destiny.”

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There is a through line from 1988 to today of stubbornness and misplaced self-confidence in Biden’s political makeup. Thirty years ago he got in trouble for lecturing a voter who questioned his academic record. “I probably have a much higher I.Q than you do, I suspect,” Biden told the man.

This time around, when Democrats raised questions about his progressive bonafides, Biden took umbrage again, proclaiming that he has “the most progressive record of anyone running.” When asked at a fundraiser in South Carolina about his foreign policy experience he declared “I know as much about American foreign policy than anyone around, including even maybe [Henry] Kissinger.”

When asked about his flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment, Biden pushed back on the notion that he has a “mixed record” on abortion rights. “I have had 100% voting record” on abortion claimed Biden, which is an odd claim for someone who had previously supported Hyde.

When questioned about his anecdotal stories of working with segregationist Democrats, Biden retreated to the defense that he “there’s not a racist bone in my body” – and then proceeded to lecture New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (who is black) for criticizing Biden’s statement. “I’ve been involved with civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period,” he indignantly declared.

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Indeed, perhaps the most telling element of this most recent Biden gaffe is that his aides have repeatedly told him not to reference the two Southern Democratic senators, Eastland and Talmadge. Thirty years ago, his advisers told him to stop falsely claiming he had marched in civil rights protests. In both cases, he kept doing it.

The pattern is unmistakable. Biden says or does something he shouldn’t. He exaggerates or misspeaks and then gets annoyed when he is criticized.

It’s as if Joe Biden expects everyone to see Joe Biden the way Joe Biden sees Joe Biden. And then rather than changing his ways or exercising more discipline he convinces himself that he can merely talk his way out of the problems he created - and in the process causes himself more agita.

This inflated sense of self can be seen across Biden’s current campaign for the White House.

The former vice president is spending as much time raising money as he is out on the hustings talking to voters. He’s eschewing press appearances and media availabilities (except when he needs to clean up one of the messes he has made). According to a report in the Daily Beast, Biden has regularly denied interview requests from CNN and MSNBC. At candidate forums, Biden is usually one of the few Democrats to be a no show, unless it’s on comfortable terrain like this weekend’s fish fry in South Carolina, a state where Biden has strong political roots.

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In short, the former vice president is acting like a cautious frontrunner, trying to sit on his lead, run out the clock and position himself for the general election campaign. This is a recipe for disaster, especially for a candidate so prone to gaffes and misstatements and so thin-skinned about being challenged about his record. It’s hardly a good thing for a presidential candidacy when Biden’s media appearances seem primarily oriented around cleaning up the mess he created.

Granted, most of this is flying over the heads of Democratic primary voters. Few are paying attention to the race yet and even fewer are focused on these early hiccups. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a problem.

Biden is acting like an arrogant and entitled frontrunner - wanting to win by acclimation rather than doing the hard work of campaigning and convincing voters. He seemingly expects voters, his rivals, and the media to treat him with the kind of deference that Joe Biden believes Joe Biden deserves.

The polls today might show the former vice president with a big lead, but anyone who thinks that kind of attitude won’t come back to bite Biden is kidding themselves.

Biden has failed twice before to win the presidency - and if his campaign so far is any indication, he’s learned nothing from his past mistakes.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.