For most candidates, it would be a death knell to frequently appear confused and feeble. Those characteristics, however, are Joe Biden’s greatest political strengths in his campaign against President Donald Trump.
For several weeks, Biden has been campaigning mostly from his basement. The most interesting parts of his video appearances usually involve his gaffes. During an interview early on in the coronavirus crisis, he kept touching his face and lips. Earlier this month, he said that there are “10 to 15 percent of the people out there who just (are) not very good people.” He told an African American interviewer, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” If a Republican had made a statement that racially prejudiced, the national mainstream media would have hounded him until Election Day.
Biden won’t have to worry about that.
Staying out of the spotlight has boosted his presidential aspirations. Recent polls have shown him leading in numerous states Trump won in 2016, including Michigan (+12), Florida (+3), Wisconsin (+9) and Arizona (+4). Trump is holding on to Texas — by 1 point. If you want Trump re-elected or Republicans to hold the Senate, these numbers spell disaster.
Biden’s polling upswing is a result of Trump’s approval ratings falling off a cliff. The Real Clear Politics average shows 42 percent of people approve of Trump’s performance, compared with 55 percent who disapprove. A minus-13 approval rating spread is potential blowout territory. If the election is a referendum on Trump, the president probably loses.
Trump can boost his chances if an improving economy boosts his approval rating. If he could resist his narcissistic urge to pick stupid fights on Twitter, he’d do even better.
But because self-control seems unlikely, Trump’s best hope is turn voters against Biden or his policies. The problem for Trump is that Biden’s seeming ineptness limits this line of attack. Biden is supporting some radical policies, including the Green New Deal, federal funding for abortion and abolishing for-profit charter schools. Biden’s call for a public option in health care could close half of rural hospitals. Those are scary proposals.
But it’s hard to persuade voters to view Biden as a radical when he’s struggling to string sentences together.
The best counterexample of this comes from the Trump presidency. It would be a stretch to call Trump a hands-on president when it comes to moving legislation. But with competent people working in the White House and steady leadership in Congress, Trump has had signature accomplishments. Those have included criminal justice reform, tax cuts and two new justices on the Supreme Court. But an attack that nuanced isn’t going to persuade swing voters.
Even Trump’s nickname for Biden — “Sleepy Joe” — is counterproductive for the president. It makes it sound as if Biden won’t be able to accomplish much of his radical agenda if he’s in the Oval Office. A segment of voters is also exhausted by political divisiveness. They wouldn’t mind if politics became a bit more sleepy.
Five months is a lifetime in politics, especially when Trump is involved. But this much is clear: Unless Biden has a full-scale mental breakdown, his bumbling incoherence is going to be more helpful than harmful.
Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen to him discuss his columns each Monday at 3 p.m. with Kevin Wall on AM 670 KMZQ Right Talk. Contact him at email@example.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.