Old-School Joe

Joe Biden is an “old school” politician.  First elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1972 — that’s almost 50 years ago, folks — he traces his roots to a different political era.  Joe Biden has been involved in politics at the national level for longer than just about anyone you can think of, and certainly longer than anyone else who might be a serious candidate for President in 2020.

screen_shot_2019-04-02_at_10.23.19_pm_0It’s pretty clear that Joe Biden is what you might call a “hands-on” politician, the kind who likes the handshakes and arm around the shoulder photos and ropeline grappling with admirers.  That’s why you can find countless photos of Joe Biden in physical contact with somebody — some of whom look happy about it, and some of whom look very uncomfortable — and why some of the people who are attempting to explain his current predicament say things like “he hugs everybody.”  It’s a political style that was commonplace in decades past, when some politicians believed that the personal touch and laying of hands was a way to establish a memorable connection with voters and establish power relationships with other politicians.  The backslaps and shoulder grabs were also a way to allow the politician to remain the center of attention, even when someone else was getting an award or making a speech.  Such politicians embodied the old comment about the politician who so craved attention that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

When you’ve been playing the political games for as long as Joe Biden has, perhaps you lose touch with prevailing views, and perhaps you lose a good sense of the line between an appropriate contact and creepy, personal-space-invading behavior.  No one, male or female, is going to object to handshakes, or a backslap or tap on the shoulder.  But grabbing the upper arms or shoulders of a woman to pull her close, smelling and kissing the hair of a woman, and leaning in so that your face is inches away clearly cross the line into more intimate contact and should be reserved for close friends and colleagues.  The fact that Joe Biden was routinely engaging in such conduct with complete strangers, from biker women in diners to political candidates at rallies to the wives of people appointed to federal jobs, shows that he simply didn’t — and perhaps still doesn’t — understand what are long-standing, and commonly accepted, social boundaries.

Joe Biden’s old-school roots may help to explain his behavior toward women, but they don’t excuse them.  Part of being an effective politician is having sensitivity to what is going on, and how society — and standards and boundaries — are changing.  Joe Biden apparently lacks that quality.  His clutching and space-invading behavior with women is creepy and a real problem, but in my view the fact that he apparently didn’t understand that until now raises deeper concerns about him.

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Presidential Debates, Just Around The Corner

In case you haven’t had your fill of politics already, with an important election only a few weeks away and political stories of one kind or another dominating every newscast, here’s some encouraging news — the first Democratic presidential candidate debates for the 2020 election are just around the corner.

t1larg-debate-stage-empty-t1largPolitico is reporting that the first debates will probably occur in the spring of 2019, months before the first primaries and caucuses, and a full year and a half before the 2020 election.  And even though that seems ridiculously early to non-political types like me, it’s apparently causing all of the would-be candidates to ramp up their activities now.  It’s expected that there will be a lot of people who will be vying for the chance to square off against President Trump in 2020 — more people, in fact, that can reasonably fit on one debate stage.  And if sheet numbers mean there will be two debate stages and two sets of debaters, all of the candidates want to be sure that they appear on the stage that includes all of the perceived “real contenders,” and are not relegated to the “everybody else” stage.  So everybody who is contemplating throwing their hat in the ring is out there raising money, hiring staff, visiting Iowa and New Hampshire, and trying to make news and start showing up in the polls.

Who are the “real contenders” for the Democrats?  According to the Politico article, only one person — a Congressman named John Delaney, who I’ve never even heard of — has formally declared his candidacy at this point.  Among the people who reportedly are considering a bid are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.  Some people think Hillary Clinton might run, or Michael Bloomberg, and no doubt there are mayors, governors, other senators and representatives, and corporate figures who may launch campaigns.  If only a few of these folks actually run, you’ve already got a pretty crowded stage.

It’s hard to believe that we’re at the point of gearing up for another presidential election already, but politics being what it is, I am sure that there are a lot of Democrats out there thinking very seriously about running for President.  Why not?  After all, if Donald Trump can win the Republican nomination and actually get elected, just about anything is possible.  So why not take a shot — and do whatever you can to make sure that you get onto the coveted “contenders” stage?

No Go Joe

Vice President Joe Biden announced yesterday that he won’t be running for President. His declaration of non-candidacy ended months of speculation, as well as the hope in some quarters that he might enter the race for the Democratic nomination as an alternative to Hillary Clinton.  Although Biden and his family apparently had decided they could commit to a campaign, after months of mourning the recent death of his son, he concluded that they simply did not have enough time to launch a successful bid.

I’m not quite sure why so many were urging Biden to run in the first place.  After all, he’s sought the Democratic nomination on multiple occasions in the past, without making much of a mark.  I suspect that the “second-string quarterback syndrome” was at play.  Any football fan knows that when the first-string QB is struggling, the back-up’s popularity skyrockets — because he’s not out on the field getting sacked and throwing picks.  With Hillary Clinton’s ever-shifting  approach to questions about her private email server, and Bernie Sanders widely seen as unelectable, Biden seemed like a viable alternative.

It’s interesting that so many people who were urging Biden to run, and so many pundits who wrote favorably of that possibility, focused on Biden’s enjoyment of campaigning, as opposed to his capabilities, judgment, decision-making, and other qualities that would come into play if he actually were elected.  The pro-Joe stories always seemed to strike the tone that Joe came across as a good guy who loved to press the flesh and eat corn dogs with the little guys out on the hustings.  Gaffe-prone, to be sure, but an ever-smiling, two-fisted Happy Warrior who could be friends with those across the aisle and whose politics were agreeable to the liberal/progressive base of the Democratic Party.

Of course, those articles drew a favorable contrast between Old Joe and Hillary Clinton, who is widely depicted as wooden, contrived, and joyless in her campaign appearances and willing to endure them only because they are a necessary path to her ultimate goal.  And Biden’s speech yesterday struck some of those same tones.  Without mentioning Clinton by name, he criticized those who characterized Republicans as “enemies” — as Clinton did in the recent Democratic candidate debate — rather than as “opponents.”

So now “Middle-Class Joe” is out, and Hillary remains in.  Today she’ll testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi about her role in the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. installation in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the death of the U.S. Ambassador and other Americans, and her public assertions in the aftermath of the attack.  With Biden out of the race, her performance today will get more attention than ever.

Joe Or No Joe

With the calendar turning to August, it’s officially the silly season in American politics.  On the Republican side, a loudmouthed, self-promoting, angry anti-politician is leading in the polls, and 10 of 17 declared presidential candidates will crowd onto the stage to have a “debate” on Thursday.  And on the Democratic side, politicos and pundits are talking seriously about drafting Joe Biden to throw his hat in the ring.

Wait a second . . . Joe Biden?  72-year-old, two-time also-ran, vice president Joe Biden?

Evidently so.  There’s apparently concern in some Democratic quarters about Hillary Clinton being damaged goods.  Her trustworthiness numbers aren’t good — whether it is because of her State Department email server fiasco, or because everything she does and says seems so carefully scripted and calibrated, or for some other reason — and she hasn’t exactly been lighting it up on the campaign trail.  In fact, there seems to be a lot more excitement about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist who has been drawing big crowds in the early decision states.  So while Hillary has raised tons of money and signed up legions of heavyweight staffers and fundraisers, people are beginning to wonder whether her nomination is as inevitable and certain as, say, Ed Muskie in 1972.

But if you think Hillary Clinton may not be the best candidate to carry the Democratic banner, where do you turn?  America isn’t likely to elect a 70-something socialist, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley doesn’t exactly have people buzzing.  Most of the leading Democratic politicians on the national scene don’t seem especially keen to take on the Clinton political machine.  That leaves good old Joe.  He’s been on the national Democratic scene forever, he’s a known commodity, and although he’s been a gaffe machine in his prior races he’s one of those pols who seems to love being on the campaign trail — whereas Hillary Clinton seems to consider it to be a painful hassle.

I have no idea whether Joe Biden will end up running — he’s just lost his son to cancer, but once the presidential bug bites it’s hard to shake the obsessive lure of the Oval Office.  What’s more interesting to me is that the national Democratic bench seems so shallow — and, with the exception of O’Malley, so long in the tooth.  Why aren’t the party bigwigs talking about Democratic governors (other than California’s Jerry Brown, who is 77), or Senators like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown?  Why aren’t more up-and-coming Ds willing to risk a long-shot run, like Bill Clinton did in 1992?

Political Poor-Mouthing

In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two of the principal presumed contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, pointedly talking about their purportedly humble economic circumstances.

Clinton, who with her husband Bill is worth tens of millions of dollars, first said that she and the former President were “dead broke” when they left the White House.  She was immediately ridiculed for that comment, and since then has tried to explain that, even though they are millionaires many times over and make tens of thousands of dollars each time they give a speech, they struggled earlier in life and pay “ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”

Biden, on the other hand, said people shouldn’t hold it against him that he isn’t rich.  He says he doesn’t own a single stock or bond, and has no savings account.  Of course, fact checkers quickly determined that his disclosure forms show that, in 2013 at least, he had one savings account and two checking accounts, and his wife holds certificates of deposit and investments in several different mutual funds.  Biden concedes that he has a “great pension” — achieved from being a Senator for decades — and makes a “good salary.”  (As VP, Biden earns $227,500 per year and gets lots of freebies.)

Clinton and Biden obviously think they need to make such statements to enhance their electability — which is why we are treated to the spectacle of two people who make far more than the vast majority of Americans, and who live lifestyles that exceed what most people dream of, consciously downplaying their success.  The history of poor-mouthing it by American politicians is a rich one.  During the 1800s, candidates touted their often exaggerated log-cabin roots, and in the early 20th century Horatio Alger tales were popular.  More recently, the elections of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and George W. Bush seemed to take the wealth issue off the table.  Apparently not!

These days, the poor-mouth strategy seems more likely to set a politician up for a fall rather than winning votes; both Clinton and Biden have been chided for their implausible recent remarks.  But let’s set aside issues of truthfulness, candor, and awareness of how normal people live — why would you want to vote for someone who hasn’t been successful and responsible about their finances?  And if Joe Biden in fact doesn’t have a savings account or own any stocks or bonds after decades of receiving the hefty salaries of U.S. Senator and Vice President, what the heck has he been doing with all that money for all those years?  Most of us working stiffs have been scrimping and savings for decades in a responsible attempt to have a decent retirement.  I guess old Joe doesn’t need to worry about that with his “great pension,” eh?

Not Ready For 2016

When I opened a news website this morning I saw a story about Joe Biden making a campaign trip to Iowa.  When I saw a picture of him flashing a Cheshire cat grin as he posed with a child for a picture and read about his “2016 themes,” I groaned and briefly contemplated hurling myself off the nearest overpass.

I’m not ready for 2016.  I’m really not — and I don’t think the country is, either.  But political reporters can’t resist this stuff.  We’re still more than three years from the next election, and already you can find the campaign speculation stories out there, lurking out there like a blobfish, ready to surface at any time and cause us all to emit howls of rage and disgust.  Don’t count out Rand PaulHillary Clinton’s got a big decision to make as she weighs whether to throw her hat in the ringWhat’s Chris Christie going to do?

All of this inside-the-Beltway speculation may be loads of fun for the pundits and politicos, but it’s depressing for those of us out in the heartland.  Why?  There are several reasons.  First, we know that, when elections are on the horizon and the political posturing begins in earnest, nothing gets done.  And right now, we don’t need politicians who are focused on the next election, we need politicians who are focused on trying to figure out how to fix the economy so that people can get back to work.  It’s astonishing that the grim economic record of the past few years don’t get more meaningful attention, but our political leaders are adept at manufacturing distractions from the difficult problems at hand — and ridiculously premature election speculation is just another distraction.

Second, we already have a President.  When the next election becomes a focus, the existing President automatically becomes a lame duck.  We don’t need a lame duck, we need a President.  I’m no huge fan of President Obama, but I think three years of lame duck drift would be disastrous for our country.

Finally, the 2016 stories are disturbing because they expose the unfortunate lack of mature, capable leadership in our country.  Are people seriously considering Joe Biden for President?  Or Rand Paul?  Or Ted Cruz?  How many governors and senators command your confidence these days?  Look out at the presumed fields in the Republican and Democratic primaries and see if you can avoid an involuntary shudder.

So please, do me a favor.  Shut up about 2016 for a few years, will you?

The F Word

Some time ago a friend gave me The F Word by Jesse Sheidlower.  Published by the Oxford University Press, of all places, the book is both a history of the Queen Mother of Curses and a dictionary of its many uses.  It’s a fascinating read.

IMG_3084The origin of the f word is muddled by urban legend.  It’s not an acronym (sorry, Van Halen!) nor does it have anything to do with the French taunting English archers by encouraging them to pluck their yew bows.  Instead, the word is related to terms found in German, Dutch, Swedish, and Flemish with meanings like “to strike,” to “move back and forth,” and “to cheat.”  Although the precise source of the word is shrouded in the mists of time, it entered the English language (pun intended) in the fifteenth century.  It immediately became taboo — and also replaced the Middle English vulgarity for sexual intercourse, which was “swive.”  Powerless against the curtness and bluntness of the f word, “swive” fell into total disuse.  The f word went on to become the most obscene word in the English language, banned during the Victorian era and the most reviled of the “seven dirty words” George Carlin addressed.  Recently, as barriers to indecent speech have fallen and even Vice Presidents have lapsed into regrettable coarseness when congratulating Presidents, the use of the word in American society has become much more common.

The F Word provides an exhaustive listing of the many different uses of the f word.  As someone who tries to avoid casual obscenity — and fails utterly when referees make a bad call against my team in a big game — I was amazed by the broad utility of the word.  In addition to adding emphasis by being dropped, in its gerund form, into various parts of sentences (consider the different meanings conveyed by the question “When are you going to move your car?” if the f word is placed before “when,” “going,” “move,” and “car”) the word has been used to convey hundreds of different connotations, always with that shocking edge.

As the dictionary component of The F Word demonstrates, the versatility of this vulgar word is astonishing.  How many other words have been combined with “bum” to refer to a remote location, “cluster” to denote a disorganized mess, “flying” to signify a minimal amount, “holy” to indicate surprise, and “off” to tell someone to get away?  And, of course, those are only a few of the inventive applications of this powerful word.

The F Word is worth reading.  Just be sure to keep it away from your teenagers.