June 30, 2022

What we learned from watching 10 hours of Joe Biden debates

  • Insider reviewed more than 10 hours of video footage from Joe Biden debates dating to the first of his three presidential campaigns in 1988, and as Barack Obama’s vice presidential running mate.
  • Biden notched his best debate performances against Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012. There, he sized up his opponents and appeared relaxed and confident.
  • During debates when he’s on a crowded stage of challengers, Biden has frequently stumbled. That’s something he won’t have to worry about during a one-on-one duel with President Trump.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Joe Biden performs best in debates when he’s facing just one opponent and not on a crowded stage full of competitors. Despite his reputation as a gaffe machine, Biden is often a deliberate and confident speaker in big moments with the television cameras rolling.

Those are two of the main takeaways from an Insider review of more than 10 hours of Biden’s past political debates, a journey that went deep into the CSPAN archives in anticipation of Tuesday night’s first in-person showdown in Cleveland between the Democrats’ 2020 White House nominee and President Donald Trump. 

What’s clear from the videos is that Biden isn’t shy about showing off his decades of policy expertise. He also easily loses his temper when challenged. And he has a familiar go-to line — “That’s a bunch of malarkey!” — whenever he hears something that doesn’t sound right.

The debates Insider watched started with Biden’s first run for president, which ended after only three months in 1987 amid accusations that the then Delaware senator failed during his only appearance in a Democratic primary debate to attribute quotes to a top British politician.

We also revisited Biden’s two debates as Barack Obama’s running mate — first in 2008 against then Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and four years later in 2012 against Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. 

Here’s what else we found of note:

August 1987: A rhetorical aside feeds plagiarism accusations

Biden got just 18 minutes of screen time during his one and only appearance during a presidential primary debate in the 1988 cycle. But all it took was just one comment to do his White House campaign some serious damage.

In his closing remarks at the”Economics of America” debate at the Iowa State Fair during the summer of 1987, Biden cribbed from Neil Kinnock, who was then the leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom.

The 44-year old senator had been trying to make a rhetorical point by asking the audience why he was the only person in his family to go to a university. He said he wasn’t any better than the rest of his ancestors “who worked in the coal mines in northeast Pennsylvania” and then added it was because “they didn’t have a platform upon which to stay in.”

Turns out Biden’s anecdote mirrored Kinnock’s words from a few months earlier at a political conference, and an aide to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis flagged the slip up to a reporter. Biden’s presidential campaign soon unrivaled amid more speech lifting and accusations that he plagiarized in law school. 

In Iowa, Biden’s debate stumble overshadowed what was an otherwise solid performance where he stood out for his talk of “hope” and his push for rural America.

“The United States economy has to be revitalized, not just for the sake of America, but for the sake of the whole world,” Biden said during the debate, which also featured then-Sen. Al Gore and Dukakis, who’d go on to win his party’s nomination before losing in the general election to George H.W. Bush.

“We are the world’s last best hope. If our economy fades, will Japan take over the protection of the free world? Will our European allies do that? The answer is clearly no,” Biden continued. “We must succeed, not only for ourselves but for the world.”

In all, it was a civil debate where the six Democratic candidates politely sat next to each other and responded to questions from a moderator and each other.

When it was his turn, Biden quizzed Sen. Paul Simon about why he was committed to tax loopholes. The Illinois Democrat then seen as a front runner for the 1988 nomination immediately denied the question’s premise.

Biden also argued that Americans don’t believe Democrats are fiscally responsible, and he urged an accounting of federal spending following President Ronald Reagan’s two-term tenure that left open the prospect of cuts to beloved programs.

“The fact of the matter is Reagan has run these deficits up, but they don’t believe we’re responsible. That’s why any Democrat who proposes any new program better be prepared to say precisely how he or she is going pay for it,” Biden said. “And that’s precisely what I’ve done. Every program that I put forward. In fact, I indicate where I’d pay for it.”

Then-Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden and then-Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin talk after the 2008 vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 2, 2008.

Ron Edmonds/AP

October 2008: ‘Hey, can I call you Joe?’

In a debate moderated by Gwen Ifill on October 2, 2008, Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, rushed to shake Biden’s hand.

“Nice to meet you,” Palin said with her microphone on full blast. “Hey, can I call you Joe?”

Biden cautiously approached his rival. She was young and a newcomer. Biden was the veteran politician. And he had to try to show off what his political expertise would mean to the country for the next four years without trying to trash Palin to his own detriment.

Obama’s running mate emphasized the struggles of the middle class. He predictably mentioned his blue-collar hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He also snuck in references to his shopping at Home Depot to paint himself as the average Joe.

But Palin fought back with quips such as “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

“With all due respect, Americans are craving something new and different,” Palin said as Biden grinned ear to ear in the same shot.

Biden appeared relaxed. He often laughed. And he was prepared for immediate fact-checks.

When Palin accused Obama of having voted for a tax hike for Americans making $40,000 or more, for example, Biden quickly noted that her running mate, GOP presidential nominee John McCain, and Obama, both senators at the time, voted the same way on a procedural budget vote.

Besides the talk of Scranton and what the middle-class wanted — a common refrain now in Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign — he also said this in 2008: “This is the most important election you will have ever, ever have voted in — many of you since 1932.”

Biden and Paul Ryan debate on October 11, 2012, in Danville, Kentucky.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

October 2012: A cringeworthy moment about Biden’s speech patterns

One of Biden’s strongest debate performances came on October 11, 2012, when the then vice president teed off against Ryan, Republican Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Biden appeared relaxed. He laughed frequently. He once mouthed “that’s not true” as Ryan questioned the Obama administration’s response to the attack one month earlier on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the death of the US ambassador and three other Americans. 

Moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News asked if it was appropriate for Romney and Ryan to ask for an apology from the Obama administration regarding the attack “right in the middle of the crisis.”

“On that same day, the Obama administration had the exact same position,” Ryan replied, implying that Obama had wanted to apologize for the attack when the president had indirectly called it an “act of terror” one day after it happened. 

Ryan’s comments made Biden shake his head, utter a denial, and bite his lip.

It wasn’t the first time Ryan appeared to get under Biden’s skin. The vice president resorted to his signature “malarkey” phase about seven minutes into the debate when his GOP rival said defense cuts were making America look weak and opening the door for allies to “test us.”

Eleven minutes later, Biden did it again during a back-and-forth about Iran.

“We Irish call it ‘malarkey,'” Biden said in disputing Ryan’s claim that the Obama administration had “watered down” sanctions to Iran for two years.

Then in an argument about the economy, Ryan quipped about Biden’s “words.”

“The vice president very well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,” Ryan said to laughter in the room. Biden too was laughing.

It’s unclear whether Ryan was talking about Biden’s gaffes or speech pattern, a cringeworthy moment in retrospect given Biden’s lifelong speech impediment.

Biden, Sanders. and Harris during a Democratic presidential primary debate, on June 27, 2019, in Miami.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

June 2019: ‘I do not believe you are a racist’

Biden had a poor presidential primary debate performance last June when he appeared on stage with nine of his fellow Democratic rivals in Miami.

Most notably, while standing two lecterns away from Kamala Harris, the California Democratic senator accused Biden of working during the 1970s to oppose student busing that was designed to integrate schools.

Harris, who’d go on to become Biden’s running mate, prefaced her accusation with “I do not believe you are a racist” as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders stood awkwardly sandwiched between the two.

She also called comments Biden had previously made about having cordial working relationships with two former segregationist senators “hurtful.”

Biden responded by calling Harris’ attack a “mischaracterization” and said he did not praise racists. He also touted the Obama administration’s civil-rights accomplishments and argued that his entire political career was framed around the fight for civil rights.

“I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed,” Biden said.

Biden also visibly struggled at a mid-February debate earlier this year alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sanders.

A wide-eyed Biden spoke rapidly and aggressively. His eyes bulged. And he came ready to attack Bloomberg, whose late entrance to the race and large infusion of cash scared him and many of the other primary opponents. Bloomberg’s candidacy was all for naught, but no one knew it at the time.

“I’m the only one on this stage that has actually gotten anything done on health care,” Biden said. “OK. I’m the guy the president turned to and said ‘Go get the votes for Obamacare.'”

Biden held a pen and pointed it at the camera frequently.

In a crowded 2020 primary race, Biden had a hard time differentiating himself from his opponents, despite being ready with talking points on nearly every issue at hand.

He kept his answers safe by citing his record, both as a senator and as a vice president. But even his appearance on the stage — as an older white man — stood out as the Democratic Party tried once again to diversify its base with more female candidates and minorities, such as Harris.

It was a clear example of Biden’s weaknesses when debating more than one candidate.

Biden and Sanders debated March 15, 2020, from a Washington DC television studio in the 11th and final Democratic debate of the 2020 primaries.

Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

March 2020: ‘Have one voice’

A more confident and relaxed Biden returned on March 16 in a CNN and Univision debate with Sanders, a one-on-one in which the eventual nominee could show his strengths.

The country was already under a cloud of fear as the pandemic’s toll began to show its devastation. And the debate was moved from a planned audience in Phoenix to a CNN studio appearance in Washington without a crowd.

Biden seemed forceful in his pandemic advice. His experiences as vice president during the Ebola outbreak helped differentiate himself from Sanders even further.

“Sit down and do what we did before with the Ebola crisis. What is needed. And have one voice. One voice like we did every day,” Biden said. “We met in that crisis in the situation room. Laying out. So we lay out overall for all the nation what the best proposal is and how to move forward.”

Biden said governors at the time were doing the best they could.

“But it should be directed from the White House from the situation room — laying out in detail like we did in the Ebola crisis,” Biden said. “And we beat it.”




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