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Biden’s Big Night Belonged to Others

With a series of widely recognized stumbles in the Miami debate, did the former V.P. just become the former frontrunner?

Saul Loeb/Getty

Joe Biden had one job at his first Democratic debate. He didn’t have to win, but he couldn’t lose. He was there to remind everyone that he was a jovial grandpa—someone who would take his gloves off for Donald Trump, but put them back on for everyone else. He would take every opportunity to play for nostalgia and remind the crowd of how good things once were—back when Barack Obama was president and he was a meme.

It almost worked. Eric Swalwell, perhaps the most desperate of the 20 aspirants who appeared over two nights, took an early shot, informing Biden that he had argued that it was time to pass the torch 32 years ago, when he first ran for president. It was a good line—Swalwell’s only good line of the night—but Biden shrugged it off. A kid took his shot, but it didn’t hit; Biden grinned like he was Jesse James having missed an assassin’s bullet (if Jesse James spent several thousand dollars on tooth whitening).

For Biden, it seemed to be a reminder of the basis of his campaign thus far. He hasn’t been Middle Class Joe for some time, but he’s been Teflon Joe in this election cycle. Despite continuing to do Joe Biden things, his poll numbers haven’t decreased. The king stays the king.

But that may very well change after Thursday. Even if it doesn’t, however, Biden’s vulnerabilities as a candidate, both in a Democratic primary and a general election, were on full display.

That was, to some extent, by design. Biden stood like a wax figure on the stage—he was there to remind the audience of the way things were before Donald Trump was president. But the issues being talked about by the candidates—health care, racial justice, climate change—were not resolved while he was vice president. Far from it. The implicit argument of nearly all of the Democratic candidates, whatever tribe they belong to, is that the Obama administration didn’t go far enough and that much more is needed to create a just and equitable society.

For most of the debate, Biden just gestured backwards, clearly not expecting anyone to go in for the kill. But that changed when Kamala Harris took aim at his decades-long opposition to busing and his embrace of other initiatives seen as antithetical to the advancement of civil rights. It was brought up in the context of Biden’s recent comments about working with segregationist senators, but Harris took it further, in a few crucial directions. She made it clear that Biden played an active role in the backlash to the civil rights movement, and she made it clear that people—people like Kamala Harris—were personally affected by those decisions. Biden has always shrugged them off by arguing that it was for the greater good that he worked with monsters. But he couldn’t do that when Harris made it personal.

That attack was a body blow. Biden never recovered. He spent the first hour revisiting his Obama administration image, and the second stammering through answers. That only served to remind voters how little Biden has to say about the most important issues of the election: Climate change, immigration, economic concentration, civil rights, and voting reform. Biden had nothing of substance to say.

That was partly by design. But it’s also who Biden is as a politician. His tendency to coast—to seem somewhat above the fray—made him the perfect vice president in the social media age. It’s a disastrous inclination in a Democratic primary, though, and one that other candidates will exploit during every single debate.

But it has another side effect. Biden’s supporters want him to remind them of the good old days, when Obama was president and Donald Trump was just a reality TV star. Biden didn’t do that on Thursday night. He didn’t seem like he was going to return the country to 2008, but to 1978. If your biggest selling point is a triumphant march to the recent past, seeming like a limping vintage model is a big problem. It’s one that his voters—and his staff, who have already been in open rebellion—seem to have noticed.

That’s not to say that Biden is finished. There are months to go until this race becomes real. But it’s hard to imagine a worse start for a candidate with his kind of polling lead. Biden entered the debate with the goal of looking like someone who could beat Donald Trump—the anti–Hillary Clinton. He exited it looking like Jeb Bush, another out-of-touch, “low energy” candidate whose party had sprinted past him.

*This story has been updated to clarify Biden’s opposition to court-ordered busing.