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Loud-mouth politics: Biden needs to campaign like it’s 1987

The first time Joe Biden ran for president, it was hard to shut him up, which contributed to his early departure. Now running his mouth may be the president’s one way to save his job. Biden faces that kind of politically existential choice after his widely panned June 27 debate performance against former President Donald […]

The first time Joe Biden ran for president, it was hard to shut him up, which contributed to his early departure. Now running his mouth may be the president’s one way to save his job.

Biden faces that kind of politically existential choice after his widely panned June 27 debate performance against former President Donald Trump, the 2024 Republican nominee-in-waiting. Throughout the 90-minute-plus faceoff in Georgia, Biden’s voice was soft and raspy, and he spoke with little vigor or energy. Biden, 81, further stumbled over prepared lines meant to reinforce his administration’s accomplishments over 3 1/2 years.

Then-Senator Joe Biden speaks as he stands with his wife Jill Biden after announcing his candidacy for president in Wilmington, Delaware on June 10, 1987.

Shortly after the disastrous performance, talk among Democrats turned to a possible replacement nominee, which would be needed if Biden dropped out. There’s no reason to think Biden will leave, as he’s craved the presidency his whole adult life. And he sought it twice before winning: in the 1988 cycle, as a precocious 44-year-old Democratic senator from Delaware, and 20 years later, when he did well enough in primary debates to grab the attention of the eventual Democratic nominee and future president, Sen. Barack Obama, who made Biden the ticket’s understudy.


It was in that first, Reagan-era presidential race, though, when Biden was at his most loquacious. Biden wasn’t even halfway through his 36 years as a senator. But he already had a reputation as somebody who liked to talk and talk and talk. To the point that Capitol Hill reporters on deadline would have to politely step away and tell the yammering senator from Delaware they had to run off and write their stories. And C-Span’s video archives are full of Biden’s long-running speeches, on the Senate floor, at Democratic Party fundraisers, and in other venues.

Biden’s mouth also turned out to be his worst enemy at the time.

Self-inflicted political wounds

Biden launched that first presidential campaign in June 1987 and ended it in September. His forced exit is remembered for revelations of plagiarism on a paper at Syracuse University’s College of Law in the 1960s, as well as having to confront a leaked video showed Biden reciting a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock nearly word for word, without attribution.

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But Biden was already sliding by the time those plagiarism stories hit. Done in by his big mouth.

Biden said to a New Hampshire voter that summer, “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect.” The senator added, “I’d be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours if you’d like.” Not exactly a way to show humility and respect for voters’ judgment.

And Biden, testing his presidential message in February 1987 before a New Hampshire audience ahead of his campaign launch four months later, mused, “When I marched in the Civil Rights Movement, I did not march with a 12-point program. I marched with tens of thousands of others to change attitudes. And we changed attitudes.”

Advisers at the time had to remind Biden gently that he had not marched during the Civil Rights Movement.

Facing a wave of unfavorable press coverage, Biden quit the presidential primary race before any Democratic nominating contest votes were cast.

Flock to the media and embrace the spotlight

That long-ago, arrogant Joe Biden offers a road map for a 2024 comeback against Trump. Biden could use his debate disaster to become much more open to media interviews and public interaction. As president, Biden has done fewer interviews than his modern predecessors of both parties, by far. And his White House press office pushes back aggressively on any journalist suggestion that Biden is too old and infirm to run again.

Biden could, in theory, throw off the rhetorical shackles imposed by his handlers and seek out interviews with journalists and meetings with voters in any venue that will have him. That wouldn’t be difficult, of course, since he’s president of the United States and can command audiences on a whim.

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Biden could take it upon himself to do multiple television interviews every day. To be sure, he would stumble at times and appear old and frail. That would have to be priced in with this kind of strategy, and his press shop would need to just roll with embarrassing moments and answers by the president.

Part of such a strategy would be acknowledging his age, as Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term. Still, Biden could constantly compare himself to Trump, his repeated rival from 2020, who faces sentencing on July 11 after being convicted in Manhattan on 34 New York state charges related to hush money payments made to a porn star with whom he’d had a brief affair. There’s some polling evidence independent and undecided voters have moved away from Trump since the convictions.

“I may be old, but I’m not a criminal like Trump,” Biden could say.

In a sense, Biden already has gone down this path. On Friday, June 28, the afternoon after his embarrassing debate performance in Atlanta the previous night, Biden confronted the concerns swirling around him at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious,” he said to a crowd of people cheering. “I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job.”

If that’s the first of many such self-confessional statements that’s used as a contrast with Trump, it could be part of a comeback. If it’s a one-off, Biden is likely doomed.

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‘Straight Talk Express,’ Part 2?

This kind of ask-me-anything strategy has been used before in modern presidential politics, to varying effects. In the 2000 Republican primary fight. Sen. John McCain pioneered it with his “Straight Talk Express” bus trips. On long rides through New Hampshire ahead of its first-in-the-nation primary, McCain held court on all topics journalists wanted to ask him about.

McCain fell short in that presidential bid against the eventual GOP nominee and White House winner, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But the precedent for candidate openness was set.

Even Trump adopted that “I’ll talk to anyone, anytime” strategy for the early part of the 2016 Republican primary fight. It seems strange now, but until about February 2016, reporters could get Trump on the phone, or talk to him in person, with little problem. His Trump Tower assistant in New York would simply patch a call through.

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That openness ended as Trump picked up delegates toward the Republican nomination and increasingly sparred with journalists. Yet there’s no reason Biden couldn’t adopt such an approach, even if it took a bit more planning due to Secret Service precautions and already having a day job as president, juggling any number of crises, foreign and domestic.

There’s no assurance any of this would work for Biden. Trump and his supporters will make sure to remind voters, repeatedly, about Biden’s age and poor debate performance. Still, it’s an opportunity for the president to be the Joe Biden of his earlier political incarnation. And hope that 37 years after shooting off his mouth, he can do it again, with voters this time not turned off by his arrogance but assured by his lucidity and coherence.  

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