Could Joe Biden lose it at Thursday’s debate in Houston in a way that confirms he’s too old, too old-fashioned, too tired, too "get off my lawn" for a party that’s skewing young and moving left?
Spoiler: Yes, and that’s the anticipated plot of Thursday’s debate. It will ostensibly be about health care, climate change, guns, gender issues, and education. But in reality all eyes will be on Biden to see if he can take a punch, or a dozen of them.
It’s not just Sen. Elizabeth Warren who’s aiming for him, podium to podium for the first time with the leading candidate. All nine of the other Democrats on stage are poised for that moment when Biden’s hair catches on fire. Each is "a" Biden vying to replace "the" Biden.
So far Biden’s faltered, but not enough to knock him out of first place. He wasn’t ready for the left jab from Sen. Kamala Harris about how she was "that girl" who was in a later class of children to be sent to a desegregated school because of his opposition to busing.
It was more complicated than that, but the trusted vice president of the first black president seemed to think he was at a church picnic, and couldn’t have been more stunned by the frontal attack. In his performances, he’s been low energy. Who runs out of things to say and yields back their time?
Warren’s coming Thursday armed with chapter and verse on Biden’s record as the Senator from Delaware favoring corporations, the bad guys at the center of most of the detailed reforms that have powered her rise.
Will he have her record of taking money from some of those same corporations before she found religion and banned them, or know enough about her policy proposals to make the case they’re impractical?
Warren arrives with the wind at her back, drawing by far the biggest crowds, the clear favorite at the mini-convention in New Hampshire this past weekend, getting a two-minute ovation before she said a word.
But Biden has a lot of goodwill stockpiled and he just has to rely less on his instincts and more on briefing books. Even those who admire him are worried about how easily he gets lost in the mists of time and mixes fiction with non-fiction.
Every detail in a heart-wrenching story about a war hero he recently told was wrong, as The Washington Post reported: the vice president wasn’t in Afghanistan but the White House, the hero was in the Army, not the Navy; Obama, not Biden, bestowed the Medal of Honor, not the Silver Star.
But folks who heard it were still wiping their tears by the time the facts, which Biden doesn’t think matter, caught up with him.
Still, the whispers are getting louder. "I just think Biden is declining," Rep. Tim Ryan still running his own campaign after failing to make the debate stage, told Bloomberg News.
"I don’t think he has the energy. You see it almost daily. And I love the guy."
"There’s a clear worry among Biden supporters that he can’t be the front-runner from June of 2019 through July of 2020," said former Pennsylvania governor and DNC chair Ed Rendell, who is a major supporter and loves the former veep to death.
"That eventually, the gaffes will pile up and he’ll come down."
I’m in the love Biden camp but I’ll be watching him as I do a child at a piano recital: my fists clenched, braced for the first wrong note. Changing the debate from two hours to three is not to Biden’s advantage.
He is in excellent shape but at 76, just standing in one place that long under the klieg lights can be a strain and could trigger his tendency to resort to fuddy-duddy verbal tics like "I’m not joking," "Joey, my mother said to me," and rambling, like Ronald Reagan, who was the last candidate thought to be too old, taking unplanned detours down the Pacific Coast Highway mid-debate. He won anyway after declaring he wouldn’t hold Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience against him.
Biden, so far, hasn’t had a quip like that ready, which comes partly from being out of the arena. He got soft from the trickle-down approval as Obama’s number two. After, he took time away to mourn his son’s death, to work on finding a cure for cancer, and deliver paid speeches.
Audiences came to hear him, stayed for the hugs, and didn’t call foot faults.
It’s different now and thus the concerns over his "gaffes" —misnamed since a gaffe, as journalist Michael Kinsley noted, is when a politician accidentally blurts out the truth. Biden can handle the truth when he can remember it.
He should get straight what state he’s in, and while he was ultimately right on what to do about Iraq, admit that he got the vote wrong. Same about the crime bill. It gave us an assault weapon ban that saved countless lives but it also had unintended consequences.
Lapsing into stories about his dad lending him a car off the used car lot for the prom to remind people of his working class cred growing up in Scranton—a little goes a long way.
By this, his third debate, Biden should be in fighting shape.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s "Capital Gang" and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.