Joe Biden's cringey answer to why he doesn't need a cognitive test proves he actually might

Twitter / @ErrolBarnett
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Joe Biden's main proposition to voters is roughly as follows:

  1. Donald Trump is a lunatic who has no respect for our precious norms.
  2. I, however, am not a lunatic, and I deeply love and cherish our norms.
  3. Therefore, vote for me: the norm-loving not-lunatic.

Accordingly, the Biden campaign's broad strategy of staying relatively low-key while the president spews his increasingly deranged theories about pandemics and his very good brain and who-the-hell-even-knows-what-else makes a fair bit of sense. Let Trump hang himself with his own words, their thinking appears to be, and Biden can seem dignified and presidential by staying above it all.

In theory this all tracks. But in practice Biden is still auditioning to become the most powerful person on Earth. Despite what the opportunistic ghouls at The Lincoln Project would have you believe, a candidate can't simply coast on Trump's historic unpopularity alone if they want to win a national election; they actually have to get out there and do some campaigning, which admittedly is a difficult prospect in the midst of a global pandemic.

And so here we are, with three months to go before the 2020 presidential election, and Biden is giving interviews from what I can only assume is his meticulously curated home office. Unfortunately, on Wednesday, his effort turned sour when Biden seemingly abandoned all three of the aforementioned campaign precepts, and instead did, uh, this:

There's a lot to unpack here, and none of it's good. In rejecting the premise that he — unlike Trump — should take a cognitive test, Biden's response seemed like a cartoonish overreaction.

"Why the hell would I take a test?" Biden whined. "Come on man!"

The optics here are not great for Biden, and they got even worse when he bizarrely pivoted to asking CBS News reporter Errol Barnett whether he should be tested for cocaine, asking finally, "Are you a junkie?"

Look, the idea that Biden is somehow in significant mental decline whereas Trump has the sharpest brain in Washington is laughable on its face. But Biden sure doesn't do himself any favors here. Instead he comes off irritable, overly sensitive, and bizarrely tone deaf.

In part, I suspect Biden's difficulties here lie in the fact that his career has been spent cultivating an affinity for retail politics. He glad-hands, schmoozes, yuks it up — and yes, at times makes people deeply uncomfortable with his overly familiar behavior. But retail politics doesn't work when you're sitting alone in a room, speaking to a national audience through a webcam. There are no hands to shake, no shoulders to slap, and crucially, no immediate reactions to play off of beyond the diligent effort by Barnett to simply plow ahead with the interview from his own home office miles away.

But as much Biden's shtick simply doesn't translate well in this medium, his bungled response to Barnett's questioning is telling for another reason: It shows a crack in Biden's obvious campaign framing of the former vice president as the responsible adult — the one who doesn't fall apart and get weird in the face of pushback. A good rule of thumb, I think, is that if you're refuting bad faith smears of cognitive dysfunction, you should respond to those allegations — no matter how ludicrous they may be! — as calmly as possible, rather than with scattershot pivots and awkwardly delivered asides.

Instead, Biden took the bait, and now here we are, scratching our heads at what the hell just happened. There are three months left of this, and it seems like one way or another, Biden still has some work to do to differentiate himself from Trump — not just in policy, but in presence — without starting to sound like him, too.