Biden's flub shows why candidates should be allowed to bring notes to debates

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
Joe Biden (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

When you are 76 years old and running for the most important job in the world, you should be extra careful not to flub your lines on stage.

Former Vice President Joe Biden broke that rule Wednesday night in his closing statement, when an appeal to the audience to join his campaign went awry. In his closing statement at CNN’s Democratic debates, instead of asking viewers to text “Join” to a cellphone short code, he told them to “go to Joe 30330” — appearing to reference a nonexistent website, although the domain was quickly registered (presumably as a prank) to redirect to other candidates’ websites.

Which raises the question, why couldn’t Biden have just written what he meant to say on his shirt cuff — or a 3-by-5 card — and taken it to the lectern with him?

The short answer is that DNC rules do not allow candidates to bring materials onto the debate stage, although they are allowed to jot down notes as they go. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard appeared to some watchers to be reading from notes in her attack on Sen. Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor, but if so, she presumably would have written them down during the debate, which is allowed.

The rule has been in place for presidential debates for a long time, and it serves the obvious purpose of discouraging candidates from delivering canned speeches. Candidates who at this stage of the race can’t give a coherent, extemporaneous defense of their stance on, say, health care policy, don’t belong on the stage in the first place. (That would have resulted in the disqualification of several contestants Wednesday, but that’s a separate matter.)

But the rule also sets an unrealistic, and arguably pointless, bar for a potential president. How much does a president have to commit to memory to do his job? Rick Perry’s epic fail in 2011, when he could remember only two of the three Cabinet departments he would eliminate as president — a central plank of his campaign — was probably disqualifying, if not for the presidency then at least for his current job as secretary of the one whose name he couldn’t summon: Department of Energy.

But if Biden does become president, he would be surrounded by aides whose job is to remember stuff like that. He would read important speeches from a teleprompter, and he would prepare for important meetings with briefing books and bring a staff. He would — hopefully, and unlike the incumbent — have someone taking notes when he converses with foreign leaders, so if he confuses, say, the Baltics and the Balkans, there will be a transcript and a way to go back and set the record straight.

As someone who has had to give up wearing cargo pants because he can’t keep track of the contents of more than two pockets, I sympathize with Biden, and I also recognize that the most important job in the world might be too important to entrust to someone who will turn 80 while he holds it.

But that’s not a judgment that has to be made on the basis of how much he can hold in his head for two and a half hours of stressful debating.

Next time, Joe, write it on your shirt cuff.

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