Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff comments aren’t playing well to audiences any more. Is this an indication of a too-long political career finally declining, or is this a sign of a much bigger problem for the Democratic Party in 2020? Jacqueline Luqman talks with The Week contributor Ryan Cooper
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
We may be witnessing the sunset, the sad sunset, of a long political career in slow motion in this 2020 Democratic primary race, one bad sound bite at a time. Of course I’m talking about Joe Biden, and his sometimes nonsensical, sometimes fanciful, and sometimes some would argue racist comments that have plagued him on this recent campaign. How is he still in the race? Will someone tell him to stop making ad hoc comments and stick to his script? Should we call the people on Joe and get him some help? And why is the media is still calling this man and his awful comments the frontrunner, and the best bet the Democrats have to beat Trump?
Here to talk about this amusing and frightening case of what could be the ungluing of a Democratic presidential candidate, from Philadelphia is Ryan Cooper. Ryan is a Staff Writer for The Week. His work all has also appeared in The Nation, Current Affairs, and The Washington Post. Ryan, thank you so much for joining me today.
RYAN COOPER: Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So I have to start off by saying that your article in The Week about Joe Biden entitled, “Why is the Media Gaslighting America on Joe Biden?” It was my favorite article on this topic that I have read in the past couple of weeks, so I appreciate the article. The first thing I want to ask you about this, the media has had an interesting response to Biden’s recent unfortunate comments. Are his comments just simple gaffes, as much of the corporate media characterizes them, or are they more than that?
RYAN COOPER: You have a man who is very used to speaking off the cuff. He’s very charming, he’s very funny, and he’s got a certain kind of charisma to him in his interpersonal behaviors. Then you have a guy who has very clearly lost a step or two mentally. He loses the thread of what’s going on. He’ll forget what he’s talking about. Trump does this sort of thing very consistently too where he starts in on a sentence and then he sidetracks himself, and then he forgets where he was going with the original thing and just sort of trails off.
Then I think thirdly, you have a career where Joe Biden has been firmly on the right of the party for a long time, and the party even relative to 2016 has moved very sharply to the left. Everybody is talking about the ideas of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and his entire career is all about credit card companies, giving them whatever they want, war on crime, mass incarceration. And so you combine those two things and you get a guy who’s just popping off semi-incoherently and semi just being horribly out of step with the party. And so, he just sounds horribly inappropriate to a modern audience.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So it sounds to me like you’re saying that he is playing the part of the angry old man who is pretty much angry that the kids have taken his party away, almost.
RYAN COOPER: Angry maybe isn’t the right word. See, he’s not furious, exactly. He’s always very jovial in his comments, but he seems more just confused, like the way he used to be able to just riff on things and everyone would think, “Oh, it’s old Uncle Joe, Diamond Joe,” the Onion articles. Now it’s like, not only is he saying stuff that is offensive to the modern audience, but then it sounds incoherent and strange. Like if your dad said that, you would start looking to take away his car keys, and so—
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I would take away my dad’s car keys. Yes.
RYAN COOPER: Yeah. You feel bad for him in one sense, but boy, he really is not doing himself any favors. It seems as if he can’t help himself. If he could keep doing this, he certainly would, but he just doesn’t appear to be capable of it.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So let’s talk about some of the things that he has recently said and why they’re problems. Let’s talk about the record player comment, which generated a lot of condemnation on Twitter and Facebook, and of course here in independent media. You specifically deal with this issue in your article in The Week, but the corporate media had a different response to his comment.
LINSEY DAVIS, MODERATOR: I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.” You said that some 40 years ago, but as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?
JOE BIDEN: We have to make sure every single child does in fact have – three-, four-, and five-year-olds go to school. School, not daycare, school. We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure that the television, excuse me. Make sure you have the record player on at night. Make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school or a very poor background, will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So breakdown the issue for us here. What was the problem with what Biden said during the last debate about the record player?
RYAN COOPER: Yeah, sure. So the question here from the moderator, was to bring up an old comment of Biden’s in which he just said, “I’m not going to do anything about the legacy of slavery, and it’s not my fault what happened 300 years ago,” something like that. There has been a push, both academically and in a lot of the popular press, The New York Times, looking at the legacy of slavery, which absolutely does continue to this day. Why is there an income gap between black and white? Slavery is a big part of that. And so, in response to this question and saying, have you rethought anything, Biden goes on this rambling non-sequitur type response, and the implication with the record player comment was to, number one, repeat this very semi-discredited study that poor people don’t talk to their kids very much and that there’s this huge word gap.
A recent effort to replicate that study did not pan out. So it’s discredited or semi-mythological research. But on the other hand, the implication is that black people don’t know how to raise their kids, and that they need to be instructed by Joe Biden to turn on the record player. By the way, who has a record player nowadays? And I guess those are coming back, but you look at differences in educational attainment and differences in wealth and income, as I was saying previously. And the overwhelming reason for those things and why poor black children and poor white children as well do less well academically is because they are poor. Because they have less access to material resources, and not because nobody told them how to turn on the record player at night. And so Biden is just wildly out of step. This is just an ignorant take and a way to blame poor people for what happens to their children rather than the unequal society, basically.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So the reality is that poor people, and particularly poor black people because his response was in context to a question about have his views changed on what America can do to address the legacy of slavery. So the issue is not that the legacy of slavery is that black people don’t know how to raise their children and they don’t talk to their children, so they need the record player on at night so their children can hear words. The actual legacy of slavery that America needs to address is that we have to address the actual legacy of slavery in income and wealth inequalities, housing inequalities, education inequalities, all of those inequalities that are actually – and he didn’t say any of those things. He talked about turning the record player on at night. You mentioned something else in regard to the record player specifically in your article, that I think a lot of people missed. What is that in reference to?
RYAN COOPER: Oh, that. So it’s hard to parse this because he did mention the word study, something about 4 million words, but then the record player thing, it seemed to be that he was saying that it was about keeping the record player on at night. And that sounds like a reference to this urban legend that playing Mozart while your baby is sleeping is going to turn them into a super genius. And that’s just nonsense, but it’s still very common to see that. You look up YouTube, go to Baby Mozart or whatever. It’s like, “Oh yes, 10 IQ points, 20 IQ points if you’re listening to classical music.” Come on, this is a goofy, woo-woo nonsense. You don’t become smart by listening to stuff when you’re asleep.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I mean, I tried actually, and people can certainly argue as to my level of—Anyway, so let’s move on about Joe Biden’s comments. This is so much fun and it shouldn’t be. That’s where I think we want to go with this conversation because in the moment where he became testy in his response in the debate, he started talking about Venezuela when his time was up.
LINSEY DAVIS, MODERATOR: Thank you, Mr. Vice President.
JOE BIDEN: There’s so much we—No, I’m going to go like the rest of them do. Twice over, okay? Because here’s the deal. The deal is that we’ve got this a little backwards. And by the way, in Venezuela, we should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela. I know Maduro. I’ve confronted Maduro. Number two, you talk about the need to do something in Latin America. I’m the guy that came up with $740 million to see to it those three countries in fact changed their system so people don’t have a chance to leave. You’re all acting like we just discovered this yesterday.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: What was the issue with his comments about Venezuela? Because they also seemed off.
RYAN COOPER: That one, so this was again in response to the question about the legacy of slavery, and then he just, after the moderator says, “Thank you, Joe,” he just completely switched gears and returned to a topic that had already been hashed out. He just sort rambled a lot about how he knew Maduro, and we know how to deal with this, and then brought up the refugee crisis that’s coming from Central America and that doesn’t really have anything to do with Venezuela. But then he also said that we should be letting more refugees in from Venezuela. But the overwhelming impression, and I guess what matters about this comment, is that you were just like, “Dude, what are you talking about?” It’s the kind of thing where someone’s like… they’re half senile or they’re very drunk or something like that, and they just sort of start rambling incoherently about something that nobody brought up and you’re like, “Man, where did you come up with it? Why are you talking about this?” And it just doesn’t speak well to his mental state.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yes. Especially if you want to try to give Joe Biden some type of credit, as many in the corporate media tried to do with his comment about Venezuela. I think Joe Scarborough the next day went on a tirade about how evil Maduro is. Okay, that’s fine if that’s the argument you want to take to try to give him some type of legitimacy in his comments. But what he didn’t do in that moment was mention actual US policy, that he could have mentioned, that framed a discussion about Venezuela, and perhaps immigration arguably. That would have made his comments more legitimate, but he didn’t mention anything about US sanctions against Venezuela. He didn’t mention anything about the United States trying to implement a coup in Venezuela and install a person that no one in Venezuela elected as their leader. He just did what you mentioned in your article, was to basically have people sit there and say, “Dude, what are you talking about?”
RYAN COOPER: Yeah, that’s a great point. I mean, that was the overwhelming takeaway because the discussion had completely moved on, and it was like, “Why are you bringing this up?” But yeah, on the substance of the matter, the best thing that the United States could do for Venezuela would just be to remove all these sanctions and so forth that are helping to strangle the Venezuelan economy. And you would say ideally you could try to broker some sort of arrangement between all the various squabbling factions there, as Norway has been trying to do, and did successfully in Columbia some years ago. But the United States for a lot of very well justified reasons, doesn’t have a lot of trust in the region. So that maybe wouldn’t be appropriate. But yeah, on the substance of the matter, in addition to just bringing it up out of nowhere, Biden just – he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So let me ask you these last two questions. Now, after this debate, there was the issue with the Corn Pop comment.
JOE BIDEN: And he ran a bunch of bad boys, and I did—And back in those days, to show things have changed, one of the things you had to use if you used Pomade in your hair, you had to wear a baby cap. And so he was up on the board, wouldn’t listen to me. I said, “Hey Esther. You. Off the board, or I’ll come up and drag you off.” Well, he came off and he said, “I’ll meet you outside.” My car – this was mostly—These were all public housing behind it. My car – there was a gate out here. I parked my car outside the gate and he said, “I’ll be waiting for you.” He was waiting there with three guys and straight razors. Not a joke.
There’s a guy named Bill Wright mouse, the only white guy, and he did all the pools. He was the mechanic. And I said, “What am I going to do?” He said, “Come down here in the basement where mechanics, where all the pool filter is.” You know, there used to be a chain that went across the deep end, and he cut off a six foot length of chain and he folded it up. He said, “You walk out with that chain, and you walk to the car and say, ‘You may cut me man, but I’m going to wrap this chain around your head.’” I said, “You’re kidding me.” He said, “No, if you don’t, don’t come back.” And he was right.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is another one of those issues where there’s a little bit of truth, there’s a little bit of fiction, and what is going on with this particular issue? Then Ryan, I want you to answer, are these comments from Biden just gaffes as the media is characterizing them, or are they an indication of something much more serious, not just for Biden but for the Democrats in 2020 in particular?
RYAN COOPER: Yeah, so I mean,, on the Corn Pop thing, I don’t have a lot of super insightful stuff to know about it. I mean, poor Corn Pops, apparently he died a few years ago so we can never get the truth of the matter. Maybe somebody will go and try to investigate the local newspapers and so on. I think you’re right that it appears to be a classic Biden thing where he takes something that was true, or a couple of different things and mixes them together and make it much more dramatic and interesting. It makes himself seem more of a hero. He did that with the Afghanistan veterans story.
But I guess on the gaffes question, there are a lot of different definitions of a gaffe. You have a gaffe where you just say something stupid, but there’s also the Kinsley gaffe where you the truth without by accident. I don’t think these comments particularly qualify because what they are is just evidence of someone whose mind appears to be in a parlous state. What it ought to bear on is the question of whether you really want to put up this guy against Trump. Because on the one hand Biden, he might not be able to handle a campaign. I mean, to speak seriously for a moment, this kind of dementia or senility, it can accelerate very quickly. I think a lot of people have seen that happen to their parents or grandparents, and he’s a pretty old man.
Then secondly, this also takes away one of the biggest arguments against Trump, which is that he is also slowly losing his mind. And you and you can’t really hit him on that to the same degree when you’re going to nominate someone who has the same problem.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Or at least the same proclivities that look like the same problem. Even if we’re talking about something that isn’t diagnosed because as smart as we both are, neither one of us are actual doctors. So we can’t diagnose these people, but it looks like they both have the same kind of cognition or at least connection challenges.
RYAN COOPER: Yeah. Yeah. I think you can’t know for sure and it probably would be near impossible to get an honest diagnosis of this stuff. The power issue is so prevalent, but you can just look with the evidence of your eyes. Whether or not there is a diagnosable medical issue, it’s troubling that Biden can’t seem to make it through a three-hour debate without starting to just ramble incoherently, and the same thing with Trump. You want someone who, whether or not they have a medical issue in a diagnosable sense—You know, being president is hard and you need to be thinking a lot and thinking well. And to have someone who is just well past their prime, it’s just not ideal.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So as much fun as we’ve had talking about Biden’s unfortunate comments, this really is a very serious issue for the Democratic Party in 2020 as they continue to focus on him as their frontrunner, at least at this point. So Ryan, thank you so much for joining me to talk about this today.
RYAN COOPER: Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.