Time for Joe Biden to ride off into the sunset

The macho, swaggering 20th-century American politician is a thing of the past.

At an appearance in New Hampshire on Sunday, former Vice President Joe Biden was asked a reasonable question by a 21-year-old student named Madison Moore. It was just days before the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which put Biden in fifth place, an astounding drop for the one-time favorite. He delivered a rambling speech in which he appeared to introduce himself as “Joe Biden’s husband” (he meant “Jill”), and implied Barack Obama ran against an incumbent (he didn’t). “It ain’t over, man,” he insisted. “We’re just getting started.”

Even before New Hampshire, Biden’s fourth-place showing in the Iowa caucus the previous week had delivered a devastating strike against his self-styled image as a sure thing in a time of uncertainty. "I took a hit in Iowa, and I'll probably take one here," he said at the New Hampshire debate last Friday. Afterwards, he had declined precipitously in the polls, especially with black voters, once taken to be his base.

Just about everyone had questioned the results of the Iowa caucus, with the exception of former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who cheerfully named himself a winner from the beginning. But while most accusations of conspiratorial thinking were targeted at supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden was first out the gate with paranoid speculation, questioning the results in an email to the Iowa Democratic Party. You can’t blame him, necessarily — this whole election was supposed to be a slam dunk for the aviator-wearing, ice-cream slurping, easily meme-able presumptive frontrunner.

Moore, for her part, did her best to prepare Biden for any embarrassment, prefacing her question by saying, “I’m gonna be a little bit mean for a second, okay?”

“You’re arguably the candidate with the greatest advantage in this race. You’ve been the vice president, you weren’t burdened down by the impeachment trials, in the participation. So how do you explain the performance in Iowa, and why should the voters believe that you can win the national election?”

Characteristically, Biden began to ramble immediately.

“It’s a good question,” he said. “No. 1. Iowa’s a Democratic caucus. Ever been to a caucus?”

Moore nodded her head.

“No you haven’t,” said Biden. “You’re a lying, dog-faced pony soldier. You said you were. But now you gotta be honest. I’m gonna be honest with you.”

When the statement was reported on Twitter, it was hard to tell whether he meant it genuinely or if it was a comic monologue — you know, those weird digressions, antiquated cultural references, bewildering admonishments — “come on, man,” “jack.” But it was real.

His campaign quickly began doing damage control, with press secretary Remi Yamamoto insisting the phrase should be taken as no more than a joke. Indeed, when Biden is not joking, he will tell you, “it’s not a joke!”

None of this is necessarily untrue: it was clear from his demeanor he meant the remark to be funny, and, bizarrely, he is indeed on record as having used this phrase, more than once. He has used it in what appears to be an attempt to defend Obamacare, in which he also adds, “no one understood Obamacare.” He also used it in the context of suggesting a union representative beat up a Republican congressman.

In that case, he attributed its origin to his brother — very in-character, given his propensity to quote family members, most often saying, “my dad had an expression.” In this case, however, it was a movie quotation acquired secondhand:

“As my brother, who loves to use lines from movies, a John Wayne movie, there’s a good line in a movie, a John Wayne movie, where the Indian chief turns to John Wayne and says ‘this is a lying dog-faced pony soldier.’”

I don’t often watch Westerns, because I’m not a 77-year-old white man. Both Slate and Vanity Fair have tried to track down just which Western it was that Biden was quoting, but it frankly seems more likely that between the Biden brothers, they invented a Wayne-like turn of phrase. It appears to include the kind of impenetrable antiquated slang that has become Biden’s trademark — “dogface,” referring to an infantry soldier, and “pony soldier,” to a mounted police officer.

But in 2020, comparing a young woman to a dog or a horse doesn’t quite carry those connotations. Moore told the Daily Mail she has found the insistence that the comments should be taken strictly as a joke “kind of insulting.” What’s more, she said, “it was kind of humiliating to be called a liar on national TV by the former vice president. Instead of answering that question straightforward, his immediate response was to attempt to invalidate me by exposing my inexperience.” Moore admitted to the Washington Post that she hasn’t previously been to a caucus, and answered hastily due to nerves. But she points out that her own experience is irrelevant. “Joe Biden has been performing incredibly poorly in this race,” she said to the Post. “His inability to answer a simple question from a nobody college student like me only exacerbates that reality.”

Like any political candidate, Biden is putting on a performance — but his seems to belong to an earlier medium. The first televised presidential debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, firmly entrenched personality as the predominant factor in electoral politics. While radio listeners generally considered Nixon the winner, those who watched the two face off were taken in by Kennedy’s charisma.

Biden is a member of this flagging generation, in which what is considered “presidential” is a certain incarnation of masculinity, born with Kennedy, consolidated by Ronald Reagan, and made farcical by George W. Bush. In his book The Invisible Bridge, historian Rick Perlstein describes an early 60 Minutes profile of Reagan that showed the candidate in a white cowboy hat, “filmed heroically from below just the way John Ford shot John Wayne.” In his running mate’s son, Bush the second, we got the actual cowboy — albeit one born in Connecticut and ushered through Andover and Yale.

John Wayne was a perfect corollary for the American politician in a time when American politicians were still almost exclusively white men. He carried himself with iconic machismo, showed no intellectual pretensions, and operated by a simple moral code that did not preclude the exercise of power. It’s no wonder Donald Trump solicited an endorsement from John Wayne’s daughter, Aissa Wayne, in 2016. As Trump stood in in front of a wax figure of her father at the John Wayne Museum in the actor’s Iowa birthplace, Wayne said,

The reason that I'm here to support Mr. Trump is because America needs help. And we need a strong leader. And we need someone like Mr. Trump with leadership qualities, someone with courage, someone that's strong like John Wayne. And I'll tell you what, if John Wayne were around, he'd be standing right here instead of me.

Trump beamed. "We love John Wayne,” he said. “We love John Wayne and we love his family equally, right? Equally." (Unfortunately, Aissa Wayne’s brother Ethan later released a press statement revoking the endorsement.)

Biden may not share Trump’s flagrant machismo, but he is frequently described as “folksy,” a cornerstone of the cowboy archetype. Indeed, nearly every sentence Biden speaks ends with the word “folks” — a tic he shares with Trump, but also with his former employer, who once referred to Bush-era war crimes by saying, “We tortured some folks.” This rhetorical style is endemic to American electoral politics, which still imbues less-populated “heartland” states with a symbolic power that takes on the quality of the supernatural. As Jessa Crispin has written, “The midwestern common folk routine works because it is still a dominant American fantasy about what a good life is: close to the land, close to God, and in the warm embrace of a heteronormative nuclear family.”

It’s true that Biden was once a beneficiary of this bias, in particularly eccentric, avuncular form. The Onion’s recurring “Diamond Joe” character turned him into the comic relief of the Obama White House, and he was frequently memed in a similar vein.

“If you’ve ever thought of Joe Biden as a clueless but lovable clod, a well-meaning klutz who is predictable, friendly, and ultimately electable, I am in small part responsible for that image,” former Onion writer Joe Garden wrote at Vice. “And I’m sorry.” After Biden announced his candidacy, Garden began to feel that his publication had “helped make him more likable by inventing a version of Biden that never existed.” But the Onion’s contribution is surely minor, compared to the political media at large. According to an analysis by In These Times, during key months last year, MSNBC covered Biden “twice as often as Warren and three times as often as Sanders.” Even as his polling numbers declined, Biden was the only candidate to see coverage increase.

Media coverage isn’t necessarily positive, but attention to Biden’s verbal gaffes tends to elide more serious issues, too. Although Biden’s long career in Democratic politics has strengthened his relations with black communities throughout the U.S., his record sours under scrutiny. He took his biggest hit during the campaign from California attorney general Kamala Harris, over his opposition to legislation facilitating school desegregation in the 1970s. In June of last year, Biden boasted of his friendly collaborations with Sens. James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both segregationists. “I know the new New Left tells me that I’m — this is old-fashioned,” he said. “Well guess what? If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens?” But these kinds of alliances, whether with wealthy donors or with segregationist legislators, are increasingly relevant to voters, who have begun to pay closer attention to campaign finance. His is a vision of politics written by Robert Caro, but without any critical scrutiny. It’s the art of the deal.

Allegations, by former Democratic party assemblywoman Lucy Flores and others, that Biden has been physically inappropriate with women colleagues, have also never really gone away. In light of his largely negligent conduct overseeing hearings over Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, it adds up to a set of gender norms that is now hopelessly out of date. In a contest facing two women, one gay man, and an irascible Jewish grandpa, the cowboy act seems like little more than a throwback.

At this point, it’s a shock that he ever did look like a sure thing. Biden has now run for president three times and has never won a primary. The one thing that made him the frontrunner was simply that he was the frontrunner. He was supposed to be. He was that kind of guy. Without achieving this tautology, his campaign is left unmoored.

Biden himself seems to remain perpetually confused. On Saturday, he said “I’ve never paid attention to all the frontrunner talk from the time I entered the race.” Later that day, he said “I’ve been the frontrunner all the way through.” He is nonetheless doing his best to stay in it, struggling to keep up with political rhetoric of the day. “Butterflies are dying,” he said at a rally in Hudson, New Hampshire on Sunday. “Bumblebees are dying. And that means we are in real trouble.” That may have been truer than he knew.