Joe Biden Enters Democratic Debates With Decades Of Experience

Jun 25, 2019
Originally published on June 25, 2019 7:24 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Tomorrow night, Democrats running for president will debate in Miami. Some candidates are expected to focus their fire on Joe Biden. He's the most recognizable candidate. He's leading in early polls. And his experience on the presidential debate stage goes back more than 30 years. So NPR's Scott Detrow went to the videotapes to get a sense of what we might see.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: There's a lot of Biden debate footage. And most of it places him square in the middle of a different political era - debating Cold War military spending in 1987...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: I would cut the Star Wars system. I would cut the MX system. I would cut the B1 system.

DETROW: ...Taking shots at a short-lived Republican frontrunner in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Rudy Giuliani - I mean, think about him. Rudy Giuliani, there's three - there's only three things he mentions in a sentence, a noun and a verb and 9/11. I mean, there's nothing else.

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: There's nothing else. And I mean it sincerely.

DETROW: Republican Dan Senor has watched all of it.

DAN SENOR: The Palin debate, and there were all the primary debates. Then there were - hold on - then I watched some of his Senate stuff, then his committee hearings.

DETROW: As an adviser to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign in 2012, Senor ran debate preparation for vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. All told, Senor figures he watched 50 to 75 hours of Joe Biden debates.

SENOR: And my wife said, it's like Joe Biden has moved into our apartment. Like, she would hear his voice all the time.

DETROW: Senor's take? Biden's reputation as an undisciplined speaker just doesn't apply to debates. Take the 2008 vice presidential debate with Sarah Palin. Biden's team worried he'd look patronizing or condescending if he went after Palin on policy. Four years later, Senor and other Ryan advisers expected Biden to do the opposite - interrupt, attack. They were right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: And when we look weak, our adversaries are much more willing to test us. They're more brazen in their attacks, and our allies are less willing to trust us...

BIDEN: With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And why is that so?

BIDEN: Because not a single thing he said is accurate. First of all...

RADDATZ: Be specific.

BIDEN: I will be very specific.

DETROW: Still, all of Biden's debate-stage experience doesn't really apply to what he'll face in Miami. In the 1988 and 2008 campaigns, Biden was on the far edge of seven or eight candidates' stages. He often went 20 or 30 minutes at a time without getting any questions. This time, Biden will be right in the middle, literally. Democratic strategist Patti Solis Doyle says that's a much different situation.

PATTI SOLIS DOYLE: Not only do you have the field of opponents going after you, you also have the moderators going after you. You know, you get all the attention.

DETROW: Solis Doyle was Hillary Clinton's campaign manager in 2008, where Clinton was in that spot for most of the early debates. This week, opponents like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are expected to target Biden's long Senate career and votes he took in very different climates of Democratic politics. Biden's debate history highlights that long record. Go back to that zinger about Rudy Giuliani. Here's the very next thing Biden said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: He is genuinely not qualified to be president. Here's a man who brags about how he made this city safe. It was the Biden crime bill that became the Clinton crime bill that allowed him to do that.

DETROW: That mid-90s legislation is now viewed as a liability, something that contributed to longer prison sentences and disproportionately punished African Americans. Biden still defends parts of it, and a campaign adviser says he won't walk away from it on the debate stage. In 2007, Biden also fielded this question from CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOLF BLITZER: If you don't think there needs to be a fence, why did you vote for that legislation?

BIDEN: Well, the - that fence was - the reason I voted for the fence was that was the only alternative that was there. And I voted for the fence related to drugs. You can - a fence will stop 20 kilos of cocaine coming through that fence. It will not stop someone climbing over it or around it.

DETROW: Several other candidates on that stage voted for the bill in question. But in 2019, no Democrat is advocating a fence or wall on the border. Given all the shots likely coming Biden's way and Biden's strategy so far of running like he's a presumptive nominee, Republican Dan Senor has some advice.

SENOR: Having studied Biden's debate performances as much as I have, if I were advising his team, I would simply say, just get in and get out. You know, the - it's like the old Chili's slogan. Get in, get out, get on with your life.

DETROW: Indeed, a Biden adviser says the campaign knows other candidates are looking for breakout moments, but argues Biden doesn't need one. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.