Joe Biden’s presidential campaign set its rally Saturday at the summit of the liberty memorial in the heart of Kansas City. The access road to the nation’s World War I museum passes through a rectangular park that stretches nearly a quarter-mile. The line of people hoping to attend ran the length of the road.
An intern struggled to mount the teleprompter glass in the face of stiff winds. A mostly white crowd began to pack in around the stage as members of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers managed security. It seemed women outnumbered men by about 20 percent. The attendees spanned all ages, but the 50 to 70 demographic appeared to be heavily represented. The venue was too small to accommodate the crowd. Perhaps 500 people found a spot close enough to view the candidate directly.
I talked to some of the lucky ones who made it in to get a sense of things. One attendee told me she believed the Republicans were destroying our institutions and that “Joe” would repair the damage. I asked what institutions she meant. She said the Supreme Court and the Senate. In all, I spoke to more than half a dozen attendees. Their answers were remarkably similar.
For instance, I asked each one what agenda items a new President Biden should prioritize in his first 100 days. None had a clear answer.
A few mentioned healthcare and womens’ rights, (which I took to mean abortion rights). One mentioned America’s standing throughout the world and our relationship with our allies. But these issues were not what motivated them to come to see “Joe.”
For these attendees, it wasn’t about issues. They had an affection for Joe that contrasted with their contempt for the current president. Almost all of them mentioned the word, “decency,” in their answer. I heard that same word, “decent” or “decency” no fewer than six times in talking to these supporters. They felt Joe sincerely wanted to help. “Joe genuinely cares about people,” one said. Most referred to the former vice president by his first name. “Joe is one of us,” one said.
I asked each whether there were any concerns about family members getting rich while trading on Biden’s name and influence. The question was met with eye rolls and dismissiveness. “Everyone has family,” one told me. Another said, “There’s never going to be a perfect candidate. It’s getting exhausting listening to all of the flaws each candidate has.” Others retorted with examples of President Trump’s flaws.
I asked whether they had any concerns about Vice President Biden’s mental acuity. The answer was unanimous: No. Joe makes gaffes. That’s just Joe. One mentioned the former vice president mixing up his wife for his sister and chuckled sympathetically. Two retorted with examples of flubs made by President Trump. All told me that they would have voted for any Democratic candidate just to get rid of Trump.
A Strong Start Before the Stumbles
Biden started the speech strong by comparing his recent comeback during Super Tuesday to the Kansas City Chiefs who came from behind to win the Super Bowl. He then he began telling the story of how his first days as a U.S. senator were marred by the death of his wife in a car accident. He wanted to make the point that it was a Missourian who talked him into seeing it through.
But three hecklers started screaming at him from just a few rows away. (You can watch the video here.) Biden stopped his story to try to reason with them. Their protest had to do with getting evicted and the availability of low-income housing. Biden promised that he would end evictions in his presidency and offered to meet with them after his speech. But the hecklers just continued to disrupt the speech until police officers led them away.
The exchange with the protesters consumed almost a third of the entire time Biden spoke. He mishandled the hecklers, allowing them too much of his precious time. But in so doing, he also revealed a sincere desire to persuade and convince the unreachable.
The crowd stayed with Biden, chanting “Joe! Joe! Joe!” to drown out the protesters. Biden stumbled through the rest of the story without really bringing it home. He then seemed to recover by returning to the South Carolina and Super Tuesday victories. He bragged about drawing higher turnouts in Virginia, Texas, and North Carolina. He then swiped at his rival Bernie Sanders by challenging the crowd, “If you want a nominee who is a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat,” to join him.
Biden then made a typical Biden gaffe by stumbling over whether he was running for election or re-election. He fumbled a story about an Irish poem leading to a confusing line in which he exalted his goal to “make history rhyme with justice.” He then accused the president of “ripping off the band-aid” and said “they’ve seen how ugly the other side is. They are ready to unite the country. They’re ready to move. This is the United States of America.” The crowd puzzled over who “they” were supposed to be and whether they should be cheering or booing.
Biden Voters Forgive His Flaws
Afterward, I found an attendee for a debriefing. She enjoyed the speech but expressed disappointment that it was so short. Biden spoke for barely 15 minutes. She told me that the same thing happened in the St. Louis speech he gave before coming to Kansas City.
The speech exhibited many of Biden’s strengths and weaknesses. His followers will not be moved by more Ukraine dirt or videos of his gaffes. They’ve already factored that in and they’re willing to forgive these flaws because they believe he’s a kind and decent man at his core. For a scandal to have an effect, it would have to cast doubt on those impressions.
But the speech also showed vulnerabilities. While it was a good speech, I nevertheless saw signs of dullness and confusion. He was genuinely flummoxed by the protestors. While he started strong, by the end, he had some trouble staying on message. Biden’s policy messages remain vague, which allows him to lead a coalition of contradictory priorities. This, not his gaffes or corruption, is his Achilles’ heel.
Biden should be taken seriously. In many ways, it is he, not Bernie Sanders, who has become the Democrats’ Trump. It’s easy to make either man the butt of a joke. It’s easy to create video montages of silly gaffes for both. Biden followers, like Trump followers, have already factored in many of the criticisms their opponents are counting on to act as vulnerabilities. After watching this speech, I’m convinced that Biden will run a close contest against President Trump.