Former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden will be on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Wednesday night (CBS, Global, 11:35 p.m. ET). It’s his first late-night appearance since announcing his presidential campaign in April.
His absence from the late-night arena is a bit odd, since his rivals, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and, among others, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, seem to be ubiquitous figures there, chatting away with Colbert, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel. But Biden has his own strategy, which is largely about being above the fray. Now with summer over, the actual fray starts getting serious and Biden is getting serious, too.
Getting elected to national office in the United States is largely a matter of managing the theatre of television, airing TV ads and using social media strategically. Some are good at it, and some are hopeless. You can tell that Beto O’Rourke just isn’t cut out for a national campaign. What Biden faces now is real scrutiny. He’s leading in the polls and is a moderate, but all the cool kids, plus Sanders and Warren, want to be socialists. He’s in a tricky position, and the unspoken narrative of the next while – the one that might be spoken about a lot, later on – is about Biden’s downfall.
Biden’s tactics border on the bizarre in the age of Donald Trump. He and his team have balked at responding to Trump’s vitriol on Twitter. He ignored a wave of criticism about his hugging-and-touching style of engagement with others. His gaffes about names and dates raise a mini-storm of outraged reaction that dissipates into nothing. Biden himself seems mystified about the outrage. His view is that he meant well and therefore he deserves some slack.
Mind you, those gaffes have led to a sustained thread of jokes by late-night comics about his age and lack of sharpness. Not long ago, Colbert made fun of Biden’s habit of making reference to something his father said to him: “He used to say, ‘Son, the Vikings are coming for all of us, and they will end this village.’ ”
That’s the hole that Biden needs to plug by finally going on late-night TV and reminding the audience and the mockers that he’s not that ancient at 76 and can be self-deprecating about his acuity and occasional conflations of truth and fiction.
Right now, Biden’s campaign is riding entirely on his electability. He’s just released a TV ad in Iowa (easily found online) that is startling in its plainness. There is footage of Trump and of white nationalists marching. The narrator intones, “We know in our bones this election is different. The stakes are higher. The threat more serious. We have to beat Donald Trump. And all the polls agree Joe Biden is the strongest Democrat to do the job.” There is footage of Biden with Barack Obama and Trump is called “an erratic, vicious, bullying president.”
There isn’t much to it. It has one central message – there is no point in voting for someone else, someone not guaranteed to beat Trump on election day.
The next Democratic debate is next week, on Sept. 12, and airing on ABC. It will further winnow the field and make it clear who Biden actually faces as real rivals. His status as the only plausible candidate is at stake. The lineup and podium order are already available and being closely studied. Biden will be in the centre with Warren to his left and Sanders to his right. It already looks like terrific drama is coming, and it will be three hours long, compared with two hours in each of the first two debates.
The debate will be the first time that Biden, who was battered in the first debate and uninspiring in the second, will face Warren in such a forum. Warren, Sanders and Biden are all in their 70s, but Biden’s the one who looks and acts like it. He’s the butt of jokes that actually undermine him. That’s why he’s springing into action and doing the rounds of the late-night shows, at last.
If, that is, at 76 he’s actually capable of springing into action. Late-night jokes will determine the outcome to that question and, as it stands, Biden needs late-night appearances more than any other candidate.