Debate flub fest: When will Democrats start judging Joe Biden by his actual words?

Here's a winning platform position for a Democrat who wants to be president: If elected, I'll commute the sentences of Bernie Madoff, the billion dollar Ponzi-schemer, and Michael Cohen, the lying Trump fixer, and a host of other crooks who were wise enough to avoid physically assaulting their victims.

Crazy, right? Yet in Thursday night's Democratic debate, former Vice President Joe Biden said: "Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime."

It wasn't Biden's only strange utterance, but certainly the most confounding. And as best as I can tell, few people caught it or cared about it, starting with ABC News' four moderators and the nine other Democratic candidates on stage.

Biden's complete statement: "Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime. As — when we were in the White House, we released 36,000 people from the federal prison system. Nobody should be in jail for a drug problem. They should be going directly to a rehabilitation. We build more rehabilitation centers, not prisons."

A worrisome Biden flub fest

Perhaps Biden meant to say "nonviolent drug crime" or "certain nonviolent crimes." But, really, is anyone listening? Do words even matter?

Jump to the end of Thursday's marathon flub fest, when George Stephanopoulos asked each candidate to tell about "the most significant professional setback you've had to face." He wisely stressed professional, seeking to avoid the predictable "Dad was an immigrant, Mom scrubbed floors, and four of us lived in a single room" answer.

Former Vice President Joe Biden at the Democratic debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.
Former Vice President Joe Biden at the Democratic debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.

Biden went first, saying, "I never counted any professional setback like I have as a serious setback. There's things that are important. Things that are unimportant." Then, following a brief interruption by protesters, Biden explained that, according to his father, "the only obligation that really matters, the most important thing, is family."

This led him to, "Kierkegaard said faith sees best in the dark." And then the genuinely tragic stories of the car crash that killed his wife and daughter and the disease that took the life of his son — heartbreaking pieces of Biden's bio that we all know well, but which have nothing whatsoever to do with the moderator's question. Biden ended his ramble with: "There are real heroes out there. Some real heroes."

A campaign of epic importance

Was anyone listening to the words? Or were cable-TV pundits blinded by the breaking news that Biden had made it through a three-hour debate without what they like to call a "major gaffe" and without hitting his head on the microphone?

Speaking of words, at one point Biden answered a question from moderator Linsey Davis by suggesting that kids coming from “a very poor background” would benefit by having a “record player on at night,” thus exposing them to 4 million words. Unfortunately, even that many words would not have helped Biden's answer make much sense.

Rise above: Don't judge Democrats on a take-it-to-Trump scale. Last thing we need is a nasty nominee.

I realize that I risk being overly harsh about the former vice president, whom I admire and who did, after all, serve in the U.S. Senate for an incredible 36 years and for eight years was Barack Obama's right-hand man, helping to guide the nation out of financial crisis, crafting landmark health care reform and elevating our standing around the world. Moreover, Biden's a decent man: the anti-Trump.

But he's also the front-runner in a presidential campaign of epic importance. Like all the other Democrats in the race, he deserves to be scrutinized and judged as carefully as Democrats scrutinize and judge Donald Trump. The actual words Biden speaks should mean something.

When asked whether he and Obama were wrong to pull troops out of Iraq so quickly, Biden said, "No. It wasn't wrong to pull them out." What he said next is too long and too disjointed to repeat here but, as the transcript shows, made little sense and concludes, "My son spent a year in Iraq and I understand. It made — and we were right to get the combat troops out. The big mistake that was made, which we predicted, was that you would not have a circumstance where the Shia and the Kurds would work together to keep ISIS from coming, from moving in."

Voters see what they want to see

I had hoped that the first three Democratic debates would be more successful in separating the top tier candidates. Instead, the process seems to be cementing allegiances.

Perhaps voters have been so conditioned by cable TV and social media that they are increasingly seeking reenforcement rather than reexamination of issues and candidates. I can't recall any presidential primary in which voters were so determined to see what they wanted to see in candidates' performances.

Forget about what other voters might think: Celebrate the diverse 2020 Democratic candidates and don't fret about 'electability'

If you're a Bernie Sanders supporter, you saw another example of real passion and a social revolution; if you're against the Vermont senator you saw a hoarse and tired old guy defending socialism. Fans of California Sen. Kamala Harris praised a very clever opening statement Thursday night that concluded, "And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News." But others found Harris' extended laughter and loose demeanor unsettling.

And so it went, up and down the line, bringing us back to Joe Biden, who was either too unsteady to be president, or just "Joe being Joe" and the best hope for winning back the White House. So far, it appears that many voters and pundits are not listening carefully to the actual words. They don't need record players so much as they need decoder rings.

Peter Funt is a writer and host of "Candid Camera."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden made a mess of the debate, and Democrats must pay attention