On Saturday, Joe Biden was one of 20 presidential candidates to speak at a Planned Parenthood forum in Columbia, S.C., held right next door to the state’s Democratic convention. It was just a couple of weeks after he’d reversed his longtime support for the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion. One of the moderators asked him what he’d say to pro-choice voters who have concerns about his mixed record on the issue.
This was part of his answer: “The fact of the matter is that we’re in a situation where mortality rate for poor women and black women, here in this state, 26.5 percent of the, 24, 25.6 people, who of 100,000 who need, who end up dying as a consequence of birth, it’s absolutely absurd.” (He was referring to South Carolina’s maternal mortality rate, which is 26.5 maternal deaths per 100,000 births.)
Seeing Biden on the stump often feels like watching an actor who can’t quite remember his lines. Even if you don’t support him, it’s hard not to feel anxious on his behalf.
I had the chance to watch Biden campaign three times over the weekend, when almost the entire Democratic field descended on Columbia. On Friday he appeared at the famous fish fry held by Congressman Jim Clyburn. The next day he was at the Planned Parenthood event and at the state convention.
His performance was unnerving. I don’t want Biden to be the nominee for ideological reasons, but polls show him far ahead, and if he’s going to be the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer against Donald Trump, I want him to be a strong one. He didn’t seem strong in South Carolina.
Donald Trump, of course, also speaks in gibberish, but with a bombastic unearned confidence; rather than flailing around for the right figure he makes one up. Biden, by contrast, was just shaky. And while there’s great affection for him on the ground, there’s little excitement. You can see why his campaign has been limiting his public events and why he’s been avoiding the press.
It’s true that ordinary voters don’t seem to care about the gaffes that obsess cable TV commentators. No one I spoke to in Columbia was bothered by Biden waxing nostalgic about his civil relations with segregationist senators; most people hadn’t even heard about it. And his ability to forge personal connections remains impressive. At the fish fry, his remarks were surprisingly short, but he stayed until almost midnight talking to attendees one-on-one on the rope line.
At the Planned Parenthood event, each of the candidates was asked a question by a preselected audience member. A 32-year-old Army veteran named Peshka Calloway, from Parkersburg, W.Va., stood up and, voice cracking, told Biden about being sexually assaulted by her abusive husband not long after having a baby.
She became pregnant and needed an abortion, and later needed two more. Each was paid for by West Virginia’s Medicaid program, which stopped funding abortion last year. She wanted to know what Biden intended to do to protect and expand abortion access for people like her.
“First of all, a lot of you women, maybe a lot of men out here, don’t realize what incredible courage it took to stand up and say that,” he said. He spoke about his work on domestic violence, and then asked if they could talk privately afterward.
For some of the activists there, the moment was another Biden screw-up — they saw him mansplaining rape trauma to a room full of feminists. But Calloway, whom I spoke to after she met with Biden, was pleased with their discussion. “He’s centered himself on fighting for victims of assault and domestic violence victims,” she said, adding, “I felt relatively empowered in that space with him.”
That’s Biden at his best — undisciplined, but with a big heart. But personal warmth won’t be enough without the ability to inspire masses of people.
At the convention, several groups of chanting supporters marched their candidates into the auditorium. On Saturday morning, Kamala Harris came down an escalator accompanied by a cheering throng and a high school drum line. Later, boisterous backers of Cory Booker streamed in behind him from one end of the convention center, only to meet dozens of raucous Beto O’Rourke fans coming from the other. They came together in the middle, attempting to drown each other out with chants like rival gangs in a good-natured musical.
Shortly after that, a group of Biden supporters gathered to march into the main hall. Biden wasn’t with them, but they planned to enter as he appeared onstage. There were 20 or 30 people, a smaller group than those accompanying Harris, Booker or O’Rourke, and despite a few earnest woo-hoos, they weren’t nearly as loud as the others.
An ability to draw crowds isn’t everything — a tepid vote counts the same as a passionate one. Biden’s supporters are older than those of other Democrats, which gives his campaign less visible energy but a more reliable voting base. Still, as recent elections have shown, enthusiasm matters. Anyone convinced that Biden is the safe choice should go see him for themselves.
If any feminist fruitcake tries to tell me to pee sitting down, I'm going to stand in their living room and pee on their couch like it's a urinal.