From Rope-A-Dope To Cellar Dweller: Biden His Time

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In 1974, Muhammed Ali rose to the level of a transcendent sports figure when he defeated heavyweight champion George Foreman and reclaimed the premier world boxing title. Realizing he couldn’t trade punches with the fearsome and heavily favored Foreman, he developed an innovative ring strategy called the “rope-a-dope.” Ali covered up his upper torso with his arms and leaned back into the slack ring ropes, taking temporary punishment as the powerful Frazier punched himself out until Ali flattened him in the eighth round. 

It was a shocking tactic that led to a stunning result. Without that unexpected victory in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, Africa, Ali would have been an important boxer, but not an internationally acclaimed sports luminary.

One might say the presumptive Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden has taken Ali’s stratagem to the extreme. Rather than standing in the arena and taking his licks, Biden has taken the staircase down to the basement. Let’s call the Biden tactic:  The Cellar Dweller.

Biden stays below ground to avoid answering questions in a freewheeling press conference or talking spontaneously with inquisitive voters. One can hardly blame him. He’s displayed such an embarrassing and alarming propensity for verbal gaffes, non-sequiturs, and just plain brain freezes that his Invisible Man act is the best possible strategy.

In an ordinary year, he could not get away with it, even playing to a heavily favorable press corps that viscerally detests incumbent President Donald Trump. But this is not an ordinary year. This is the year of the pandemic.

Just as the COVID-19 virus has been a political disaster for President Trump and his roaring economy, it has provided astounding benefits to Biden. One is inclined to call the pandemic a “blessing in disguise” for the former vice president, except there’s no need for disguise. COVID-19 has given Biden the means to burrow into — rather than run for — the presidency. Every single day of his surging non-campaign, Biden should give thanks to Nature or Nature’s God or Chinese Communist bio labs or Wuhan markets or who-or-whatever has caused the incredible surge in his poll numbers.

In those halcyon pre-pandemic days, Trump was sailing along with an economy whose growth seemed to assure him re-election. Certainly, no peacetime 20th Century Chief Executive had been denied a second term with such good economic news. Then the pandemic intervened, shutting down the economy, and flipping Trump’s poll numbers upside down. One month he embodied Reaganesque optimism, the next Jimmy Carter malaise.

The beneficiary:  “Sleepy” Joe Biden, of course.

And never a more propitious time existed for sleepiness, even somnambulism.

COVID-19 effectively put a stop to the Democrat presidential primary process, a godsend to Biden whose campaigning had been, to be charitable, somewhere between uninspired and spotty. And the timing could not have been better for Biden, who had rolled up a series of primary wins thanks to landslide support among African-Americans. 

Most importantly for Biden, the virus and campaign shutdown took him off the stage. No more mediocre or bumbling debate performances were asked of him. No more town halls in which he might blurt out the most ridiculous things. No more press conferences or even spontaneous Q&A with friendly, sometimes fawning, reporters requiring him to think on his feet.

As Trump’s favorable numbers got crushed, Biden’s were inflated, not because of anything he did, but because of what he didn’t do. Usually in life, the success formula dictates:  Something is better than nothing. Or as pre-cancel culture Woody Allen put it:  “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”

 Biden has reversed that bit of common sense. In Biden’s case, 100 percent of political success is just disappearing. Exit, stage left, of course.

John McCain rode the “Straight Talk Express”; Joe Biden escaped to a “Subterranean Silent Slumber.”

Biden’s slumber demands he sacrifice his natural, usually overbearing talkativeness. During his 35 years in the United States Senate, he had a reputation as an empty barrel who would speak rapidly and vapidly about virtually any subject. His chatterbox tendencies upended his first presidential campaign when he copied word-for-word the autobiographical speech of British Labor politician Neil Kinnock. Plagiarizing is hardly a crime in politics, but in this case Biden filched not just a man’s words but his entire life’s story as well.  

Even an old-fashioned blowhard like Senator Joe Biden couldn’t get away with that.

Unfortunately, Biden’s reckless words did not always hurt himself only. In the battle over President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork, the Delaware Democrat chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. He produced — due to his plagiaristic habits, we cannot say “wrote” — the “Biden Report,” a left-wing attack on Bork’s judicial record. In his later book about those smears, The Tempting of America, Bork actually did write:  “the ‘Biden Report’ so thoroughly misrepresented a plain record that it easily qualifies as world class in the category of scurrility.”

To this day, Biden remains unrepentant for his assault on Robert Bork. In one of his more accurate and coherent presidential debate moments, the pro-abortion Biden proudly declared, “When I defeated Robert Bork, I made sure we guaranteed a woman’s right to choose for the better part of a generation.” 

In an ironic tagline in his book, Bork referred to Biden’s presidential hopes collapsing due to his masquerading as Neil Kinnock. “During the hearings,” Bork wrote, “Senator Biden’s presidential aspirations came to a sudden end, probably for all time.” Little could the great jurist, who died in 2012, have predicted Biden’s freakish COVID-19 stroke of luck. At 77 years old and counting, Biden must be the only senior citizen whose life and prospects have been extended and enhanced rather than shortened and tormented by the deadly virus.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the 2020 election, Biden has certainly had a remarkably long political life. He was first elected to political office in 1970, a full half-century ago. To put that in some perspective, in 1970 The Beatles broke up, the first Earth Day was celebrated, the My Lai Massacre took place in the midst of the Vietnam War, the Gremlin was introduced by American Motors, a car company that went belly-up way back in the 1980s. In 1970, The Odd Couple premiered on television, Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas were star NFL quarterbacks, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jimi Hendrix died, and Melania Trump was born. 

That was 1970. And Joe Biden was running for political office then, just as he is now.

Muhammed Ali was in the midst of a very different kind of campaign that year. As a result of his refusal to be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War, Ali was stripped of his boxing title and denied licenses to fight in state after state. Following three years in boxing exile, he was finally permitted to box professionally again, and so in 1970 began his historic comeback. Finally, in October 1974, Ali employed the rope-a-dope to win back the heavyweight boxing title, a supreme sports achievement. The champ continued fighting until 1981, when he finally hung up the gloves for good.

By contrast, Joe Biden’s Senate career was just getting into high gear in 1981, when he rose to ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was from this perch that he was elevated to Judiciary chairman in 1987, giving him the opening to sabotage Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination. After Ali’s retirement, Biden remained in the Senate for more than a quarter of a century, held the vice presidency for two terms under President Barack Obama, and ran for president three separate times.

Coincidentally, both Biden and Ali were born in the same year — 1942. After taking too many blows in too many fights in the boxing ring, Ali lost his gifts of “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee” both as a pugilist and verbalizer. He could no longer proclaim:  “I am the greatest.” But as his gifts receded, his humanity shone through, and where he was once controversial, he became universally admired and beloved.

Biden’s gifts are also now fading. The politician who loved being in front of the microphone and camera avoids them like the plague. The senator who previously never turned down an interview, rarely accepts them today. The garrulous tub-thumper who could harangue listeners for hours now stumbles through phrases and sentences. The campaigner who loved being out on the trail, pressing the flesh and talking with voters, now hides away in his cellar. 

In this lifelong quest to grasp the Presidential Seal, Biden has adopted an all-encompassing variation of the rope-a-dope, continually dwelling in the cellar and counting on an election day “vote-a-dope” win. In his past two presidential runs, Biden has fallen on his face. In those campaigns, Biden was everywhere, blabbering all the time. Now, he’s safely cooling in his crypt, seeing few, speaking with fewer still. Maybe there’s a lesson here:  A little Joe Biden goes a long way.

If less is more, then Biden might just pull off his biggest campaign victory 50 long years after his unceasing political ascent began. And nearly that many years since boxing opponents fell for Ali’s canny rope-a-dope, will American voters succumb to “vote-a-dope”?


Joseph Tortelli is a freelance writer. Read other columns by Mr. Tortelli here.