There has always been a thawing-out-of-something-frozen quality to a potential Joe Biden candidacy, an understanding that the man himself might be out of step with these times, but that anachronism might serve him—and the Democratic Party—well. Hardscrabble Scranton Joe, after all, was never going to be the Gen Xer who live-streams his teeth cleanings, but he’s the guy who remembers what it was like to make an honest dollar for an honest day’s work on the assembly line.
This is why Biden is the front-runner, despite having not yet declared his candidacy. Some part of the Democratic establishment believes that his ability to conjure the past might somehow return a deeply divided country to consensus politics—mostly through his presumed ability to win back the white working-class Clinton voter of 1992 who morphed into the Trump voter of 2016. Underlying that belief is a somewhat desperate hope for these fractious times: Biden will return the country to a more peaceable union, where the differences between Americans no longer exceed the differences between America and the rest of the world (or America and the rest of the Milky Way, for that matter).
Inevitably, though, Biden’s age and his career and his old-timer’s disposition have brought with them other, less appealing realities: controversial positions steeped in the divisive politics of the past, support for policies and personalities later proved to be deeply problematic, and public behavior that has remained largely uncensored and unchecked since he first entered the political arena.
In the current presidential race, Biden’s inclination toward physical contact, more than his embrace of Democratic centrism or conservative Supreme Court nominees, is his radiocarbon date: the thing that fixes his age most precisely, that tags him as a creature from another era. This is not to say that Biden won’t have to continue explaining his support for the 1994 crime bill and his role in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, but the recent accounts of the former vice president’s penchant for head kissing and nose rubbing have raised the most serious questions to date about Biden’s disconnectedness from these times.
The stories and videos and photographs of Joe being Joe are creepy and inappropriate or charming and loving, depending on who you are and what you think, but they are not things that politicians do anymore, to anyone, and for good reason. There is no consensus as to whether behavior of this sort is creepy or charming, and no standardized test by which one can prove it is the latter and not the former.
The pro-Biden argument stipulates that a man should not be held accountable for behavior that was (apparently) acceptable as late as the first half of 2017, behavior that many people—including some of the women in question—still take no issue with. But look past #MeToo to the era that preceded it, and it becomes clear that behaving this way actually went out of style some time ago—along with referring to women as honey, even if they are sweet and so are you.
On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—who happens to be, at 79, three years older than the former vice president—offered some advice to Biden. “Join the straight-arm club,” Pelosi advised, explaining that when she meets people, she acts as if both parties have colds. Pelosi is from Biden’s generation, but she has—insistently and successfully—kept up with change and attempted to manage it. Biden, for all his strengths, has not: He has made anachronism his source of charm. This week, it’s his weakness.
In recent days, Biden and his team have taken a more pugnacious attitude toward the criticism arising from his public behavior. His spokesperson, Bill Russo, told The New York Times: “These smears and forgeries have existed in the dark recesses of the internet for a while … To this day, right-wing trolls and others continue to exploit them for their own gain.” Russo then went on to warn against a “cottage industry of lies.”
It’s an odd playbook for a potential Democratic nominee—replace “right-wing trolls” with “Soros-funded left-wing conspirators,” and you effectively have the modern-day conservative playbook. But for a politician who so far has relied on a winsome nostalgia for the past, it’s the rare strategy rooted more firmly in the present. Having done that, Biden now has to demonstrate that he’s capable of weaving the best—and not just the basest—elements of our contemporary social fabric into his campaign.