OPINION: Biden suffers from cognitive impairment. Here’s how that affects the Democrats.

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"DSC_0448" by KentonNgo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Daniel J. Lane, Writer

“There are definitely moments,” Democratic senator (and then-presidential candidate) Cory Booker told CNN viewers last fall, “when you just wonder.” Booker was referring to former Democratic vice president and presidential candidate Joe Biden’s speech habits, which to some minds (like Booker’s last September) have suggested that the 77-year-old is suffering from cognitive impairment. In response, Biden’s defenders point to his long history as a stutterer; in January, The Atlantic ran a long piece on that history, apparently designed for just that very purpose. 

But which is it? Should Americans celebrate a man who struggles with a condition beyond his control or fear the consequences of sending yet another aging, psychologically uncertain Baby Boomer to the White House in times that appear to call–more than ever in the history of the nation–for mental agility? Maybe the real question is, why are Americans presented with such underwhelming choices?

Questions about Biden’s acuity long predate the current presidential campaign. “Stand up Chuck, let ’em see you,” Biden demanded of former Missouri state senator Chuck Graham during the 2008 presidential campaign. Graham has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 16 following an auto accident that rendered him a paraplegic. Twenty years earlier, in 1988, Biden was operated on for two brain aneurysms; both operations reportedly held “risks of long-term impact to brain functionality.” Biden was only diagnosed after he had ended his then-current campaign for the Democratic nomination, eventually won by Michael Dukakis. 

The longstanding gossip about Biden received a new lease on life at the beginning of March when, in a speech in Texas, the current Democratic frontrunner appeared to forget the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the Delawarean said, “all men and women are created … you know, you know the thing.” Slip-ups like these—and they are not difficult to find on YouTube and elsewhere online—signal what some observers, like The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, refer to as “Biden’s serious cognitive decline.”

 But the trouble isn’t really about the “cognitive” part of Greenwald’s allegation—it’s in the “decline” part. Biden has been making similarly troubling remarks for his entire career. 

In Sept. of 1987, during his first presidential run—which took place before many of today’s voters had were born—Biden gave speeches that lifted lines from then-British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock without attribution. Throughout that campaign and many that followed, Biden said things that, at best, stretched the truth. Biden supporters have often blamed these “gaffes” on poor staff work. But perhaps that’s not the best response for a candidate who claims to be an advocate “for all of us,” as his campaign website puts it. 

Since 2016, Democrats relentlessly hammered at Donald Trump’s supposed cognitive impairment: in 2018, for example, liberal magazine The Atlantic asserted that the president’s behavior fit “a larger pattern of odd and often alarming behavior.” Yet, despite many of the candidates who campaigned for the Democratic nomination being under 60 years olds—including Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg—the party has apparently settled upon a candidate vulnerable to similar charges. To be sure, the race is not over yet—as of this writing, after “Super Tuesday II,” Biden holds a large but not-insurmountable lead. But no matter who the party ends up nominating this year, it’s certainly a moment that should cause Democrats to wonder.

 

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