Joe Biden’s DNC speech last Wednesday was quintessential Biden. The vice president smiled that impossibly disarming smile as he interacted with the raucous crowd. He openly teared up as he remembered his son Beau, who died of brain cancer last year. He asked the audience to hold their boos and cheers so that he could fully deconstruct Donald Trump’s catchphrase from The Apprentice. He threw down a callback to the greatest moment of his career and earned a standing ovation when, in reference to Donald Trump’s promise to help the middle class, he declared, “That’s a bunch of malarkey!” He spent a good minute praising Michelle Obama for her own speech, saying, “I don’t know where you are kid, but you’re incredible,” which is the kind of phrasing that would probably sound considerably more patronizing and less endearing if pretty much anyone other than Biden had said it.
The speech encapsulated everything that makes Biden so damn lovable. It also served as one last opportunity to reflect on why—even after the warm emotions engendered by Hillary Clinton’s historic acceptance of the Democratic nomination—the left has long found it far easier to embrace Biden than it has Clinton. That includes the calls last year for Biden to challenge Clinton for the 2016 nomination, despite the fact there was never really a coherent argument for the vice president as the more progressive choice.
As others have detailed, Biden’s voting record in the Senate was slightly to the right of Clinton’s. For all the criticism of Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, Biden has a much longer history of sponsoring pro-banking legislation, in part because his state of Delaware is home to so many credit card companies. There’s maybe a tiny bit of daylight to argue a liberal case for Biden in terms of foreign policy—most reporting on President Obama’s first term indicates that, as Secretary of State, Clinton was the more hawkish voice even so, Biden voted for the Iraq War in 2004 just as Clinton did. And then there’s the Violent Crime Control Act, for which Clinton has rightly been criticized during the campaign merely for supporting as First Lady. Her reference to “super predators” absolutely required an apology, but Joe Biden wrote the damn bill in the first place.
The argument for the left’s embrace of Biden over Clinton can’t plausibly come down to policy, which means we’re in the more nebulous territory of narratives, optics, and personalities. Biden himself offered a good hint as to the nature of his appeal in his DNC speech: “Folks, I have—No one ever doubts I mean what I say, it’s just that sometimes I say all that I mean.” Yes, the man charmingly botched his line about how he charmingly botches his lines. By this reckoning, Biden is authentic because he can’t help but be, because he’s not nearly slick or controlled enough to do anything but tell the unvarnished truth. That directly contrasts with the familiar narrative of Hillary Clinton as the cool, calculating political operator, someone for whom it‘s supposedly difficult to tell what she genuinely believes in. But how did those divergent pictures get shaped? And to what extent should we understand those differences in terms of gender and sexism?
Before we get into that, an important caveat is that this can’t be a one-to-one comparison. After all, Hillary Clinton is running for president and Joe Biden isn’t. This election season has provided ample opportunity for Clinton’s opponents to rekindle all the old criticisms of Clinton, but it was only three short years ago that she consistently had positive net favorability ratings of 30 points or higher. Biden only ever rivaled those numbers in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 election. Hard as it might be to imagine now, Clinton was overwhelmingly well-liked when she was seen as an essentially apolitical Secretary of State, and she’s become steadily less favorably viewed as she’s returned to politics and campaigned for the most powerful office on the planet, with all the intense vetting that entails. That she has faced variations on these same basic criticisms for nearly a quarter-century might make them feel more intrinsic to her character, but this drop in favorability is what most presidential front-runners experience. Even supposed scandals like Benghazi and her email server likely only received so much attention because Clinton reentered the presidential fray. If Biden had run this year, he too would have been held to account for the negative aspects of his record. It’s easier to focus on Biden’s personality instead of his record when his public role as vice president is essentially President Obama’s hype man.
Allowing for all that, let’s look at the data to see where our popular understandings of Clinton and Biden come from. The first thing to understand about the Joe Biden narrative is that there really isn’t one before he becomes vice president. Whereas Clinton has been an almost universally known figure since 1992, a Gallup poll found as late as August 23, 2008 day after Barack Obama announced Biden as his running mate—that more than half the country either had never heard of or had no opinion of Biden, even after 35 years in the Senate and his own failed presidential bid earlier that year. Google Trends data show the American public had virtually no interest in Biden before August 2008, meaning his Iraq War vote, his work on the Violent Crime Control Bill, and his mishandling of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing left no direct impact on the public consciousness. Clinton, by contrast, has always been too well-known to ever have much chance of leaving her mistakes in the past.
The biggest spikes in search engine interest in Biden all came during election seasons: in October 2008, when he debated Sarah Palin; in October 2012, when he made up for Obama’s lackluster first debate with Mitt Romney by dismantling Paul Ryan; and, to a lesser extent, in a few months in 2015, as rumors swirled he was considering a presidential bid. Nothing he actually did during his vice presidency particularly registered, though there was a barely noticeable uptick in May 2012, when he declared his support for marriage equality and forced the president to do likewise, and a slightly bigger one in March 2010, when he was heard on a live mic calling the Affordable Care Act “a big fucking deal.” To the extent Joe Biden is remembered for anything specific, these are what we’re dealing with.
That all fits with the one search term—beyond the more prosaic likes of “vice president,” “Barack Obama,” “Sarah Palin,” and “Paul Ryan”—that pops up repeatedly in Google’s search history for Biden: “gaffe.” And let’s go back to journalist Michael Kinsley’s famous definition of that word: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” What was once Biden’s greatest political liability, something the right still halfheartedly mocks him for, has become his overriding asset, the ultimate proof of his essential honesty.
Now let’s consider something President Obama said of Hillary Clinton in his own speech last Wednesday. In recalling their 2008 primary fight, Obama observed, “Let me tell you, it was tough, because Hillary was tough. I was worn out. She was doing everything I was doing, but just like Ginger Rogers, it was backwards in heels.” That line offers the best clue as to how sexism fits into all this. And when I say that, I don’t just mean the obvious shit, the “selling a shirt saying a woman could be president is offensive to family values” brand of sexism. I mean the subtler things, the things we would all do well to keep interrogating in ourselves, if only because it’s so easy to not notice.
Part of the reason Hillary Clinton can come across as calculating and controlled goes to that line of Obama’s, to the impossible expectations of perfection that come whenever a woman tries to succeed in a historically male-dominated arena. It’s not just that Hillary Clinton has to be better than men simply to earn the same amount of credit. She’s also expected, like Ginger Rogers in her dances with Fred Astaire, to make it look effortless, graceful, elegant. That’s a ridiculously unfair expectation—and let’s not pretend a Hillary Clinton who did make it all look effortless wouldn’t face the exact opposite criticisms for being suspiciously slick. In any event, Clinton can understandably struggle to clear this impossible hurdle, which helps explain why she struggles to connect with even some of those who generally agree with her politics. Contrast that with Biden, whose entire charm is rooted in the fact that he makes nothing look effortless.
None of which means it’s bad to like Joe Biden! Nor is it necessarily wrong to disagree with or even dislike Hillary Clinton. This case can illustrate a general point even as the specific circumstances add important nuance. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Clinton’s calculations in messaging and policies go beyond what sexism can explain, that they are also tied up in the murky politics of triangulation her husband championed in the 1990s. The success of more iconoclastic female politicians like Elizabeth Warren might also suggest something similarly 1990s-inflected about Clinton’s approach, that it’s no longer necessary in 2016 for a female candidate to consciously try to be all things to all people. This however understates the greater challenge of running for president compared with being a vocally progressive senator, and it more generally takes an unjustifiably optimistic view of how much the country as a whole has let go of old prejudices.
Leave Clinton out of it entirely and go back to Biden: Can you imagine any woman as gaffe-prone and unpredictable as Joe Biden becoming a credible national politician? And before you mention his 2008 opponent, Sarah Palin hasn’t been credible to anyone outside her diehard supporters in at least five years (and that’s an extremely generous estimate). Honestly, I’m not sure there even are any truly national female politicians outside of Clinton, Warren, and maybe Nancy Pelosi, which is its own problem.
Given all the madness and rancor of the 2016 election, it’s perfectly reasonable to ignore the troubling aspects of Biden’s record and enjoy his goofy charm one last time. That’s what he’s there for. And none of this should obscure the need to examine closely Clinton’s record, policies, and promises, nor should it insulate her from criticism from the left, right, or center. Again, Clinton is the one who ran for president, so it’s absolutely right she be vetted—and more crucially, challenged to reckon with and improve on past mistakes, which is part of why contested primaries are so important—in a way Joe Biden hasn’t been. Such inconsistencies in how we think of different public figures aren’t always the worst thing in the world, but we better be damn sure we understand where those inconsistencies come from.