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Emperor Joe’s New Clothes – Arc Digital

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hen Joe Biden addressed the Democratic National Convention back in 2016, he was in top form. He spoke with a skill honed by a lifetime in politics, distributing his gaze around the room and barely glancing at the teleprompter. Aside from misspeaking once or twice, there were none of the “gaffes” he’s known for. Biden was as fluid and eloquent as the best of them.

Biden’s warmth and folksy charisma showed as he talked of his friendship with Barack and Michelle Obama. He smiled charmingly, joking that they both had “married way up.” Biden provoked tears reminiscing about his late son Beau, then deftly transitioned into a bit about the indomitability of the human will. He spoke with a rising crescendo of force and feeling, culminating in applause lines that brought the crowd to their feet.

America saw a different Joe Biden on Monday, March 23. After spending nearly a week out of the public eye — a conspicuous absence in the middle of a once-in-a-century health crisis Biden reemerged for a promised live daily briefing on the coronavirus outbreak. Delivered at a lectern set up in his basement, his remarks were brief and scripted; his delivery, wooden. Biden slurred words and stumbled over a phrase or two every few sentences.

About midway through, there was some sort of problem with the teleprompter. Visibly thrown off, he started sputtering: “And, uh, in addition to that … in addition to that we have to … make sure, uh, that we are in a position that … that we are … well, let me go to the second thing.”

This sort of mishap wouldn’t have been an issue for Biden a few years ago. For most of his career, he’s been able to speak off the cuff without a hitch. Biden could hold an audience’s attention for 30 to 45 minutes at a time, without having to so much as peek at his notes. Lately, however, he’s had difficulty making it through short interviews without some sort of misfire.

The following day, during a brief appearance on The View, host Sara Haines asked Biden to respond to some of Donald Trump’s remarks about ending coronavirus lockdowns and sending Americans back to work in a few weeks. She quoted Trump warning “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” and Biden’s answer was nonsensical: “We have to take care of the cure. That will make the problem worse no matter what.”

Biden has taken heat over the past week for staying out of sight when the number of coronavirus cases is rising rapidly. President Trump has been addressing the public, as has Biden’s primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders. Biden’s failure to appear on TV or online prompted speculation about the possibility he might be sick—or worse. Hashtags like #WhereIsJoeBiden and #RIPJoeBiden started trending.

His staff announced that Biden would be holding “shadow briefings,” the first of which we saw Monday. The excuse they gave for his absence was that staff needed to set up a makeshift studio in the basement of his Delaware home.

But it’s not like Biden just suddenly disappeared from the spotlight—he’s kept a suspiciously low profile since his big win on Super Tuesday. It’s not hard to intuit why that is.

Biden’s poll numbers, which had fallen behind Sanders in February, skyrocketed overnight thanks to endorsements from nearly all of his former opponents. There was a sudden air of inevitability about his candidacy.

With the exception of the March 15 debate and one or two sit-down interviews, Biden’s appearances in the past few weeks have been limited to versions of his stump speech. In Missouri, he was energetic but stumbled often. When he spoke in Philadelphia, he was more precise but sedate.

Biden’s strength is supposedly his “retail politics,” but a conversation with factory workers on the day of the Michigan primary ended in disaster. He got into a tense confrontation after one accused him of advocating gun confiscation. Biden told the man he was “full of shit” and said “don’t tell me that, pal, or I’m going to go out and slap you in the face.” When asked by reporters about the exchange, Biden muttered some non-sequitur about Bernie Sanders being in cahoots with Donald Trump.

None of this is normal, but much of the media acts like it is. After the incident in Michigan, CNN’s Chris Cillizza said it showed “passion,” concluding that “it’s hard for me to see this as anything but good for Biden.”

There were virtually identical takes from MSNBC’s Joy Reid and NeverTrump conservative David Frum. MSNBC edited the more unhinged parts out, leaving only the short segment where Biden is most calm and coherent.

Since Biden’s win in South Carolina, centrist media has acted like an arm of his campaign. These “gaffes” are too big to ignore, so they’re spun into something positive, or dismissed as a “stutter.” In other instances, pundits acknowledge them, but subtly shift the focus to distract from any discussion of Biden’s possible cognitive decline.

Biden’s first disastrous foray into virtual campaigning was a digital town hall in which he rambled, falsely claimed to have authored the Endangered Species Act, and then wandered off screen. Coverage was hardly positive, but it mostly dwelled on the “technical nightmare,” portraying Biden as simply an out-of-touch grandpa who wasn’t good with computers.

Some outlets have acknowledged the issue but relativized it, arguing that any impairment is minor and that Trump is experiencing it, too. Still others have flat-out denied allegations as baseless smears.

Washington Monthly writer Nancy LeTourneau called it a “disinformation campaign,” saying “there is no data to support the allegation that he is in cognitive decline.” LeTourneau claims that the Trump and Sanders campaigns have “teamed up on an attack.”

She quotes a Mayo Clinic description of age-related cognitive impairment, including symptoms Biden has clearly shown, such as memory loss (forgetting Obama’s name and the opening line of the Declaration of Independence), language problems (increased frequency of filler words and verbalized pauses, slurring), and confusion (mixing up his wife and sister on stage at a rally).

LeTourneau then cites a three-page letter from Biden’s doctor detailing his medical history, which includes two brain aneurysms for which he underwent surgery in the 1980s. The doctor notes that Biden did not take a cognitive function test, explaining that they’re “not typically required unless problems are detected,” and claimed that “meeting a rigorous travel and meeting schedule probably would suffice as a replacement for the formal test.”

But if the rigors of campaigning are a substitute for the test, then Biden is failing. His interviews and public appearances have been noticeably limited. Most of his post-primary victory speeches have been shorter than 10 minutes.

In the fall of last year, his campaign staff and unnamed allies were talking about the need to reduce his schedule and get more rest to cut back on “gaffes.” According to reporting in The Hill, these “allies” say “Biden has a tendency to make the blunders late in the day.” That timing might be a sign of age-related decline.

That’s not proof of dementia, as Biden’s harshest critics allege, but it’s evidence he’s at least a little diminished. He’s not in a wheelchair but he’s not a marathon runner, either—and that’s what we need right now because this is quite possibly the most important race of our lives.

With the primaries postponed, the Democratic establishment may find it hard to sustain the image of a competent, “electable” Biden long enough to get him to November. Hiding him is not an option, and neither is putting him front and center, as his interviews on The View and MSNBC showed.

Their best chance at this point is to get people to forget about Joe Biden as the coronavirus pandemic absorbs attention, hoping they can hold future primaries where a Biden victory could create a positive news cycle. A “gaffe” or two might get some coverage, but that can be spun and explained away.

Still, there’s a risk in trying to bury the truth.

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