Everyone was buzzing last week about Joe Biden’s confrontation with a voter in Iowa who had the temerity to ask about son Hunter’s extremely lucrative job on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma—a job Hunter Biden received one month after his father was named the Obama administration’s “point person” on Ukraine.
Biden, obviously, did not take well to the suggestion he had enabled corruption by his son. As a general rule, I’d like to see more bare-knuckles between politicians and voters in campaign settings, but the real revelation here is that Joe Biden is totally, utterly unprepared to answer obvious difficult questions he’s going to have to answer in a presidential campaign.
Biden’s latest excuse is blaming his aides for not warning him that his son’s Burisma job was a problem, even though at least one aide says he raised the issue with him directly. Plus, calling an ordinary voter a “damn liar” and other ad hominem insults for raising the very real issue of his son’s corruption is… something.
Yet much of the political Twitterati responded with praise because Biden was “feisty.” In fact, here’s how CNN National Political Reporter Maeve Reston covered the exchange:
In a human moment defending his son, Biden showed the authenticity, emotion and readiness for a fight that appeals to so many Democrats as they look for someone who can take on Trump … Thursday afternoon’s exchange could benefit Biden at a time when Democrats say toughness is one of their most coveted assets in their battle against Trump …. It could help Biden allay the doubts of Democratic voters who have continually complained in interviews that the former vice president is too soft-spoken … Though most political consultants would counsel their candidates not to personally attack voters as Biden did Thursday, he at least looked like he wouldn’t shy away from the fight.
That seems to be a charitable take on what happened, to put it mildly. On Friday, the day after the confrontation, even the 77 year-old Biden said he shouldn’t have challenged the out-of-shape voter to a push-up contest. Online, people were having a field day about one part of the heated conversation where the former vice-president appears to call the man “fat.”
Tellingly, one of Biden’s more brazen insults directed at the voter in Iowa produced almost no reaction: Biden challenged the voter to an IQ test. This is an old obsession with him. When he first ran for president in 1987, he told a new Hampshire voter “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect … I’d be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours if you’d like.”
Perhaps this wouldn’t have largely have escaped notice if Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Mayor Pete Buttigieg decided to employ a similar insult. She’s a Harvard prof and he’s a Rhodes scholar, so maybe people would consider it unforgivably patronizing if they lorded their credentials over a normal voter.
But I think it’s fair to say Biden’s intellectual reputation is such that most people would think publicly offering to take an IQ test would be inadvisable. Yet he seems to skate whenever he says outrageous things that question his competence, such as when he plays into racial stereotypes or encourages people to brandish shotguns. It gets laughed off as Uncle Joe’s monkeyshines or whatever.
Biden obviously has exceptional retail political skills, and it’s true that not everyone who is bright and capable comes off in a wonky fashion that everybody recognizes as smart. But setting aside his talent for campaigning, Biden’s entire career as a politician is marked by a series of ethical lapses and terrible judgments.
Years ago, I did a survey of his political career and the results were underwhelming. Biden supported for the SALT II treaty, which in retrospect looks like a misplaced sop to the Soviets. Thanks to his egregious and unfair grandstanding on the judiciary committee in the 1980s, it’s arguable that no single figure did as much to turn the Supreme Court nominations process into the goat rodeo it is today, and he unintentionally galvanized support to turn the conservative legal movement into the formidable force it is today.
In his six-terms in the Senate, Biden drafted and passed one bill, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which is now singled out by criminal justice reform activists as the poster child for what not to do legislatively. (Another major part of Biden’s law, the Violence Against Women Act, was partially struck down by SCOTUS.)
While Biden was vice president, one of his aides wrote a scathing memoir for the administration’s failures hold Wall Street accountable after 2008, called The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. It directly fingers Biden as part of the problem.
Then there was the time Biden publicly bet his vice presidency on negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq. Suffice to say, Biden failed to do this, and most people agree this failure immediately paved the way for the Islamic State’s rise to power in the Middle East, where at one point the barbarous death cult controlled a de facto nation the size of Joe’s native state of Pennsylvania.
Yet in 2012 The Atlantic actually ran the article “Joe Biden: The Most Influential Vice President in History?” that specifically singled out Biden for his dominant role in the Obama administration’s role in reining in Wall Street and crafting foreign policy.
On the flip side, what are his actual accomplishments? Try and name them. Here’s CNN’s attempt to do a timeline of key events in his life, for what it’s worth. He was in the Senate and White House for 44 years straight. (Note that we haven’t discussed his repeated and inexcusable plagiarism in law school, as well as during his first presidential campaign.)
What It Means to be ‘Smart’
That brings us back to the IQ test. At what point would you say Biden’s actual discernment, the kind of thing you would attribute to intelligence, is bad? Again, none of this is to say Biden is necessarily dumb. As Biden is fond of reminding people, he went to law school on an academic scholarship, and plenty of demonstrably smart people, especially those inhabiting D.C., can be and are often very wrong about political judgments.
But we should also ask ourselves what it means to be “smart” in a political context. A couple of months ago, I was at a party where Pascal Emmanuel Gobry started discoursing, as French intellectuals are wont to do, about how D.C. was essentially held hostage by a cartel of 140 IQs who run This Town.
Now, these people are pretty smart, and many people would say that’s the problem. When you have that kind of intelligence and you’re close to power you’re frankly dangerous, absent some kind of worldview that discourages the worst technocratic utopian impulses and constantly reminds you of how selfish and flawed human nature is. You’re smart enough to dream up and implement a lot of answers to big problems but not smart enough to come up with many actual solutions to what are at root very complicated problems requiring a lot of collective sacrifices to fix. Or, worse, you fail to recognize that some basic problems of governance are tied to the problems of human nature—and you can’t fix that.
But Gobry’s ultimate point about the problem with D.C.’s leadership was that in the 21st century the people who really get stuff done and shift paradigms tend to have radically different emotional and intellectual frameworks that often exist outside of what we conventionally see as “smart.” In the business world this is widely recognized and discussed—Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, et al. are a bunch of weirdos and we admire them for it, even when their behavior might be a problem. Ironically for our purposes, Musk’s tweets have gotten him in legal trouble, and no one has diminished Jobs’ genius even though he might be dead because of his misplaced and decidedly unscientific faith in alternative medicine.
In politics, such unorthodox behavior is a liability—or at least it was until Donald Trump came along. D.C.’s cognoscenti are naturally losing their minds because they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that Trump’s eccentricities might mean he’s capable of insights that are beyond them. That last point is key, because it causes establishment D.C, to uncharitably see anyone who recognizes Trump’s insights as valuable on some level as also being stupid or in the sway of some “cult.”
Now I’m emphatically not saying Trump is self-evidently a genius just because his discourse operates far outside what passes for acceptable in D.C. Ironically, he seems to exhibit the same kind of weird intellectual insecurity that Biden does, constantly saying things such as “throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart” and “I have all the best words” etc. (Although I confess I did find it amusing that when Hillary Clinton accused him at a presidential debate of not paying any federal income tax and he responded “That makes me smart,” because it was, for once, a metacommentary on him being smart.)
But for all of Trump’s foibles and mistakes, unlike Biden the man has an actual track record, both in his business and political career, of at key moments having really good and wildly counterintuitive instincts. Maybe a lot of it didn’t result in super-substantial achievements, and it must be said, Trump’s success owes a lot to inherited wealth.
But he certainly has at times run rings around the establishment in New York and DC, has buildings all over the world with his name on them, and got himself elected leader of the free world. His presidency, even with impeachment proceedings and lots of erratic behavior, has been a success on several fronts for Republican voters and the country generally—two confirmed SCOTUS justices, widespread deregulation, and 3.5 percent unemployment with positive economic indicators across the board.
That’s not nothing, and a contrast to Biden. Is there a figure in America with Biden’s level of name recognition who , again, would stump the average citizen if asked to name something he had specifically accomplished? (No piggybacking on Obama’s accomplishments.)
But Biden’s lengthy and lackluster-bordering-on-disastrous political career isn’t an issue for him or an indictment of his intelligence, according to the people who run D.C. That’s because he’s been wrong in all the ways that support the hubristic notions of a bunch of people with 140 IQs and Ivy League degrees.
Meanwhile, Trump demonstrably confounds the same well-credentialed, intellectually inbred people who expect to dominate the nation’s capital. To date, there have still been next to no attempts to understand the guy, or what voters saw in him, beyond a lot of self-reinforcing jokes about Drumpf being a stable genius.
The end result of all this, if I understand it right, is that a former six-term senator and vice-president told an Iowa voter he is too dumb to demand answers about the gross corruption of his drug-addled son that he obviously enabled. It’s hard to imagine a better metaphor for how politicians are patronizing and entitled.
As for the relatively sedate reaction to this exchange, no matter how much popular discontent ordinary voters express, the orders have gone out. We must not under any circumstances let them labor under the delusion they might have better ideas than those currently running the country, especially when such a delusion might get in the way of all the money people are making off of politics or otherwise cause any upheaval in Washington.
Perhaps it’s understandable that people have concerns about Trump’s destabilizing outbursts, but it’s also true that Trump’s presidency has illuminated lots of hypocritical ways that D.C. pretends that erratic behavior, bad judgment, and corruption is acceptable or even savvy, so long as it preserves the status quo or otherwise serves entrenched interests. In contrast to the way Trump’s insults are treated, it’s otherwise hard to explain how Biden gets a pass on calling a reasonable Iowa voter a fat, unintelligent, liar.’
UPDATE: Article has been edited to clarify that Biden challenged two different voters to IQ tests.