Is Joe Biden’s Folksy Shtick Beginning to Backfire?

June 16, 2019

We can all have a good laugh at the scientific reasons why Biden's comment about curing cancer was ridiculous, but his view of his own importance is no laughing matter

We can all have a good laugh at the scientific reasons why Biden's comment about curing cancer was ridiculous, but his view of his own importance is no laughing matter


Is Joe Biden's Folksy Shtick Beginning to Backfire?

Story Transcript

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Hi. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

Welcome to the second segment in our trending topics discussion, where we talk about some of the top stories in politics in the United States during the previous week. This week, Joe Biden is going to cure cancer if he’s elected president.

JOE BIDEN: A lot of you understand what loss is. And when loss occurs, you know that people come up to you and tell you “I understand” if you lose a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, a family member. That’s why I’ve worked so hard in my career to make sure that–I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America, we’re gonna cure cancer.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: As funny as that sounds, we had to go to LiveScience.com to make sure Joe Biden didn’t know something that we don’t. He doesn’t, but we just wanted to make sure that that’s true. According to Live Science and Diana Attai, an assistant clinical professor of surgery at the University of California Los Angeles, she says, “Are we going to open the news one day and hear that cancer has been cured? No. It is not that simple, because cancer is not just one disease, it is not just one disorder. There are many cancers with many different treatments, and cancer just as a general statement is misleading at best.” What does this mean, when a presidential candidate of the caliber of someone like Joe Biden say something so bizarre?

Joining me again to talk about Joe Biden are, from the San Francisco Bay area, Norman Solomon. Norman is the national coordinator RootsAction.org, an activist group now with 1.2 million supporters online. In the United States, he was a Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention and is currently a coordinator of the relaunched independent Bernie Delegates Network. Hi, Norman.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Hi.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And from Atlanta, Georgia, Kamau Franklin. Kamau is an attorney, the founder of the grassroots organizing group Community Movement Builders Inc, and is a co-host of Renegade Culture, a podcast that covers news and culture in the black community. Hi, Kamau.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Thank you both so much for joining me. OK, who wants to take Joe Biden first, with this curing cancer? Because I don’t even know who to start with. Kamau, how about you? What do you have to say about this comment from Joe Biden?

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Well, I think this is the time in the electoral cycle where Joe Biden sort of resorts or retorts back to his old ways of continual flubs, which I think is going to start to bring him back into the pack. Now, some of Biden’s statement is born out of a personal tragedy, because I think as it’s been documented, his son Joseph Biden III died of a brain tumor and he also underwent a lot of chemotherapy for cancer before that, and radiation. And of course, they had an institution that Joe Biden was heading. So I think he feels obviously close to the topic. But I think, as something that Joe Biden is prone to do, he speaks off the top of his head without thinking about what those thoughts, what those words actually mean when they come out of his mouth. And he’s had this history before, again.

And so, I think this is where Joe Biden moves away from being just this “oh shucks” guy who everybody wants to have a beer with to a guy who comes off a little wacky, not that that’s something that obviously doesn’t get you elected, apparently. But he comes off a little wacky. And I think if the elder candidates remain strong and continue to talk about their platforms, that there is an opportunity, particularly for the candidates right behind Biden, to come back and bring him back to the field.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So you think that this might actually work out to be a good thing for Biden, as much as we’re kind of panning it a little bit, making fun. This might actually be an opportunity for him, especially because it is a personal issue that he has experienced.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Well, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that saying crazy things is no longer what it used to be in terms of not getting you elected. Apparently you can say the most crazy things, the most disgusting things, the most racist things and get elected. As what used to be the case in the past, and we had a 40 year period where you had to be more undercover about it in terms of presidential elections. But we’ve now returned to a place where anything goes. And so, I don’t think necessarily that Joe Biden saying something like what he said about curing cancer–it may be ridiculed for a few days, but if he continues down this line, because this is something I think is part of his history again, and whether it’s fair or not, the Democratic electorate is probably a little more educated and wants a more serious candidate. So I do think in that way it can’t pull him back into the pack.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Norman, what are your thoughts?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah. I see Joe Biden’s comments about cancer as not only in and of themselves not making sense and getting some deserved ridicule, but also a metaphor for a somewhat messianic view of his own role as a political leader. Let’s keep in mind that as he’s continued to joke about and sometimes actually engage in inappropriately touching women and girls, intruding on their space, he sometimes has trying to justify that, including in his videoed non-apology, supposed apology a couple of months ago, that he was trying to comfort people. And that implies that Joe Biden the leader, the former vice president, he can put his arms around individuals in the nation and soothe their sorrows. And that’s a hyper-inflated view of his own political path and destiny quite different than what Bernie Sanders continues to reiterate. As he puts it, “Not me, us.”

And more broadly, there’s a top-down view of the universe that is really replete in what Biden says and the positions that he takes. He’s contemptuous, although he doesn’t quite put it that way, toward social movements. And he thinks, and sometimes says, that it is totally unrealistic to call for, for instance, guaranteed healthcare for all, Medicare, single payer, et cetera. He’s really a polar opposite of a humane future as it is articulated by millions of progressives in this country who have found, particularly in Bernie Sanders, a spokesperson at this juncture in history. I really believe that of all the so-called major or semi-major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden is the worst. He’s the most unhinged from the on the ground realities that people face. He’s the most elitist, and he’s the least able to connect with people’s real concerns and values at this point.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: It’s interesting that you say that Biden is the most elitist and he has a messianic view of his role. There was a clip recently, I think it was this week, of him speaking to a woman who was asking him about his stance on abortion. And she was glad that he changed his mind a little bit, but she pushed him to do more to advocate for women’s rights, I believe, in a more meaningful way. And Biden’s response was to literally shake his finger in this woman’s face. Kamau, how does a candidate like Joe Biden, who is seasoned, we can’t argue that he’s not seasoned, how does he overcome that kind of–it’s not even social awkwardness–that kind of lack of connection to real people and their issues that Norm brought up.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Well, I’m probably going to disagree a little bit, because I think what Biden has going for him is the folksy everyman spiel that he is rhetorically known for. I think he has eight years under Obama, and obviously he’s the lead in the poll because he feels safe. I think for folks of color he feels safe, he feels like reminiscent of a regime that just left the White House, and they can go back to those times. So I think for the other candidates who are right below Biden, waiting for him to continually gaffe–which he will do–as a way to think that that’s going to be the thing that they have to do to sort of leapfrog ahead of him, would be a mistake. Waiting for him to not connect so much would be a mistake.

I think the things that a Sanders, a Warren–again, I think Sanders has better politics, particularly internationally speaking, than Elizabeth Warren does–is something that Norman alluded to earlier in another segment, was they have to start connecting to black and brown voters in a way that Sanders was not able to do in his first run. But he has to do it now if he’s to not only compete with Biden, but surpass him. So he has to be able to show a better sort of racial justice lens, have more straightforward conversations about race, and be able to articulate reasons why black and brown folks should take what would be considered the non-middle ground and vote for him.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So since it all comes down to policy–and as much as we like to, again, poke fun at these little gaffes from Biden and point out the very inartful, I think as you said, earlier ways that he has communicated over the years, it does come down to policy. When we have Bernie Sanders–when we talked about in the earlier segment–laying out a vision for the American government, providing for “we the people” or working for “we the people” as opposed to the one percent or the elite or the corporate interests or however you want to describe them, what is Biden’s response to that, especially considering his record being vetted now? For example, in your recent article Norman Solomon, that you have published, entitled “Joe Biden: Puffery Versus Reality,” in a debate, how does Biden respond to Bernie Sanders’ message of “we the people” as opposed to “things aren’t so bad right now?”

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, it’s all a nostalgia tour for him, for Biden. And it’s notable that he ducked out of the California Democratic Party convention, where more than a dozen candidates did accept invitations to speak. He did that more recently with about twenty Democratic candidates in Iowa at an event. He didn’t want to go to that one either. I think he wants to avoid it as much as possible. It really is, I think, about contrast between records and outlook. If it was Joe Biden as a baseline, and that was it, and it was him or Trump, then anybody who is not committed to a right-wing agenda, or badly seduced by it, would go to Biden. But there is a contrast available that needs to be pointed out and sharpened. As you alluded to, Jacqueline, when you look at his political history and just march through it, the more that people–and especially the Democratic Party base widely defined–the more that people learn about that history, the less support Biden is apt to get when voting time comes around.

I mean, it’s really stunning when you contrast his “lunch bucket Joe” persona in the media with his Wall Street Joe reality, how in the 70s he came into the Senate and he dog-whistled for racism around his positions on busing for school desegregation. You look into the 90s, where he was the leader and a co-author, writer of the now notorious 1994 crime bill, and yet he still denies it was a big impetus and ingredient towards mass incarceration. You look at the 2005 bankruptcy bill, and there are millions of students who owe–so to speak–owe their college loans in large part to the work of Joe Biden. He’s been flagging for credit card and financial services industries for almost 50 years now. So all of that is crucial. And I think in many ways it’s a race between Joe Biden mythology and reality that will determine whether he can get the nomination.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Kamau, I’m going to give you the last minute on this. What are your thoughts?

KAMAU FRANKLIN: I completely agree with those last statements. I think that Joe Biden, if he is exposed, and again, I think if Sanders, Warren are able to get better rhetoric and maybe put out policy that connects with folks–again, particularly folks of color, which is going to be vital, particularly when the Democratic nomination hits the South–then I think along with Joe’s gaffes, that that probably brings him back to the field. It offers a real potential for someone like Sanders, who is left of field, has strong policies around working class and poor, and if he can show that those policies extend specifically to folks of color and black people in particular, then I think that really puts Joe Biden in some trouble.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, we will see how this Democratic presidential nomination race continues to shape up. We’ll continue to watch Joe Biden’s comments and his actions, and I’m sure we’ll have plenty more to talk about as the months roll on. But we have to leave this discussion right here. Thank you, Kamau and Norman, for joining me today.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Thank you.

KAMAU FRANKLIN: Thank you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.