July 30, 2019
Why Joe Biden’s First Campaign for President Collapsed After Just 3 MonthsBreaking News
tags: Joe Biden
As former Vice President Joe Biden prepares to take the Democratic debate stage on Wednesday, the pressure is on the front runner for the party’s 2020 nomination for the presidency — especially after the June debate, after which he admitted he was unprepared for fellow candidate Sen. Kamala Harris to call him out on his past positions on busing.
But for at least one veteran political reporter, that moment is just part of a decades-long history that goes all the way back to the first time Biden made an official run for the White House — and to the scandal that ended that campaign.
“Then, as now in fact, Biden is not as fast on his feet as a successful candidate usually is,” argues Laurence I. Barrett, a former TIME national political correspondent who profiled Biden during his three-month-long presidential bid in the run-up to the 1988 election.
Biden had been on presidential watch-lists for years by that point. When he was elected to the Senate in 1972, he was already seen as White House material. TIME’s walk-up of Election Day that year noted the extraordinary enthusiasm surrounding his Senate campaign, pointing out that he would be old enough to run for president in 1976, if only by 61 days.
He mulled the idea in the years that followed. By the time he did declare his candidacy for the presidency, on June 9, 1987, he had been in the Senate for more than a decade, though his age — now seen by some as a weakness — was still one of his strengths.
“What people don’t remember today about Biden in the 1980s is that he was considered by quite a few people as a bright new hope, different from other Democrats,” says Barrett.
President Ronald Reagan had won two presidential elections, and the Democratic field faced a pretty wide-open race. The seven major contenders were nicknamed the Seven Dwarfs. (Biden joked they should be called the seven deadly sins, saying after Gary Hart backed out amid a scandal over an affair that, “We’ve got an opening for lust.”) The lack of a front runner seemed like a great opportunity for Biden.
“The Democrats had taken two shellackings at the hands of Reagan, and there was this thought, not really based on a lot of facts, that the Democrats were too soft, too feminine, too much into interest politics, and Biden was seen by his own people as an antidote to that — good looking and athletic — who would come across as stronger,” Barrett says.
Not that the candidate was without his drawbacks: “Biden’s mouth is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability,” Barrett wrote shortly after Biden announced his candidacy. That analysis would prove enduringly prescient.
The then-44-year-old Senator was great at giving inspiring speeches and people were attracted to his youthful energy, but he could also come off like a “hothead,” as he did in his “angry” questioning of Secretary of State George Shultz when the Senate heard testimony about South Africa in 1986. His position in the Senate offered him a chance to show his skill. In particular, as Biden chaired the Judiciary Committee, he hoped to gained more national attention during the uproar over polarizing conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Biden, in charge of the confirmation hearings, oversaw what was seen as potentially “the culminating ideological showdown of the Reagan era,” as TIME put it back then. “For Chairman Biden, the hearings could provide a spark for his presidential campaign by giving him a chance to show his mettle in front of a national television audience.”
But Biden didn’t get a chance to shine during the Bork hearings in the way he had hoped.
A few days before they began, video surfaced that spliced together footage of U.K. Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock giving a speech and Biden clearly quoting Kinnock at the Iowa State Fair without attribution. More examples of misattribution came to light, and the plagiarism scandal became more memorable than his leadership during the Bork confirmation hearing. His mouth — or rather, what he failed to say — got him in trouble again.
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