There were some moments during CNN’s seven-hour town hall marathon on climate change that had rarely if ever been heard on a national news forum.
“Can you quantify the reduction in CO2 attainable from geoengineering strategies you propose?” Andrew Yang was asked. (He couldn’t or didn’t.)
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What about banning plastic straws?
“I think we should,” Senator Kamala Harris said, while acknowledging the short half-life of paper straws.
Why did you support the removal of the grey wolf from the endangered species list? Because, Senator Amy Klobuchar said, their number had risen high enough to make them no longer endangered.
But for former Vice President Joe Biden, it was a not-quite debate with an unhappily familiar quality: a well-planned attack that left him grasping for an explanation. As with other criticisms of Biden, it may or may not have been fair. But the Democratic front-runner remains a continuing target of opportunity that he seems ill-prepared to defend.
The question came from Isaac Larkin, a doctoral student at Northwestern University and a Bernie Sanders supporter, who began by referencing a study that demonstrated a 40-year history on the part of fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil and Gulf to hide the baleful effects of carbon on global temperatures. Then he asked: “How can we trust you to hold these corporations accountable when you are holding a high-dollar fundraiser held by Andrew Goldman, a fossil fuel executive?”
As Biden began to answer the question, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper interjected. Cooper quoted at length from the report denouncing the fossil fuel companies, and then read from Goldman’s bio. Hours earlier, The Intercept had reported: that “Andrew Goldman, a co-founder of Western LNG, a natural gas production company based in Houston, Texas, is co-hosting one of two high-dollar fundraisers Biden will attend in New York on Thursday. Western’s major project is a floating production facility off the northern coast of British Columbia designed to provide Canadian gas to markets in northeast Asia. Goldman and Biden have deep ties: Goldman served as an adviser to Biden while he was in the Senate and was the Northeast director of finance for Biden’s 2008 campaign.” (Seemingly, the Biden campaign either did not see the Intercept story or did not realize that it would likely be an issue at a climate town hall.)
The Sanders campaign posted a screen grab of Larkin’s question and proclaimed flatly that Biden was lying and had violated his pledge not to take campaign funds from fossil fuel executives.
It was left to Cooper, not Biden, to offer a clarification: Goldman had no executive responsibilities with the company, but was rather an investor.
Biden took pains to explain that his staff had combed through Securities and Exchange Commission records to ensure that no fossil fuel executive was giving him money. If it turned out they were wrong about Goldman, he said, “I will not in any way accept his help.”
Will that be enough? Or will it linger the way Al Gore kept defending a fundraiser he once attended by saying there was “no controlling legal authority” that said it was wrong? Neither Sanders nor Senator Elizabeth Warren raised the question in their CNN appearances, which came right after Biden’s (although Warren did make a general point about fossil fuel contributions to politicians). But maybe they didn’t have to.
This issue can’t be separated from the broader fact that Biden’s appearance at the town hall was less than impressive. He repeatedly interrupted himself to jump from one thought to another. When he was asked whether he would ban fossil fuel exports—an issue on which other candidates had disparate but relatively clear views—Biden instantly pivoted to a long account of his efforts on behalf of high-speed rail.
Even the shallow matter of what we now call “optics” went badly for Biden. He chose to sit through his appearance—Harris, Sanders, and Warren all stood—and by the end of it, a burst blood vessel in his left eye was noticeable.
Yet for all of Biden’s well-reported troubles, he has remained the 2020 front-runner from the moment he announced his candidacy. By now, he and his campaign have to be aware of the political adage: “Sooner or later, every front-runner takes a punch.” For Biden, those punches are flying, and he does not seem prepared to deal with them. Eventually, unless he starts to defend himself better, one of them is going to floor him.