Joe Biden's withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race doesn't make much immediate difference in the standings, since no candidate has significant support, but it's a milestone in the longer history of the Democratic Party, because it marks a final stage in the disappearance from presidential politics of the inspirational speech.
Biden's ability to get Democratic audiences in Iowa and Mississippi to their feet, cheering and with tears glistening in their eyes, is what attracted a lot of talented insiders to his campaign and convinced them that a senator from a small state with at best a limited record of legislative achievements could get most Americans to vote for him to be president. With Mario Cuomo out of the race, with Jesse Jackson plainly unable to win, Biden was clearly the most inspiring speaker in the race, with Dick Gephardt giving him only pallid competition. He was the closest thing to the heir to a tradition that goes back through the Kennedys to Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan.
But the ability to give an inspiring speech isn't very important to voters anymore. On Labor Day 1960 some 100,000 union members came to Cadillac Square in Detroit to listen to John F. Kennedy launch his fall campaign. On Labor Day 1968 the renamed Kennedy Square was vacant: union leaders explained that members were all in their cottages up north and wouldn't come downtown to hear some politician speak, even one as eloquent as Hubert Humphrey. This year the fight for the Democratic nomination takes place sometimes in Democratic dinner halls filled with perhaps 1,000 activists, but more often before 12 or 20 or 60 people in Iowa and New Hampshire living rooms, back yards, auditoriums or luncheonettes. In these forums Joe Biden found he had to trim and tone down his expansive, inspirational rhetoric.
The problem was not just style. Even before he started using Neil Kinnock's speech word for word, Biden's generational rhetoric had a tinny sound. It never precisely matched his own experience or the experiences of "my generation."
The Democrats' tradition of inspirational rhetoric has always spoken for the downtrodden, for the "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," as Franklin Roosevelt put it in 1937. But in 1987 nothing like one-third of the nation is ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished, and only a small segment of voters -- as Jesse Jackson is finding or will find -- regard themselves as downtrodden and helpless. "The dream will never die," Edward Kennedy told the 1980 Democratic convention. But the dream has to a very substantial extent come true, thanks in large part to the Democratic politicians Kennedy and Biden celebrate and seek to imitate.
Ironically, Biden recognized this when he sat down and approved policy papers; he advocated not grand departures and radical change, but, like most of the other Democrats this year, sensible and often marginal modifications of current policy.
The rhetoric came not from his policy but his personality. Up through his teen years Joe Biden had a stutter, and he says that one of the most difficult things he did in high school was to stand up and deliver a graduation speech. Now he almost seems to overcompensate, to speak and say things when he'd do better to be quiet.
Although he doesn't like to discuss the subject, it must have taken great determination and even courage to overcome this handicap. He has made his living as a trial lawyer and his career as a politician with his ability to speak; he set up his own law practice with no distinguished law school record behind him and no important local connections. In speeches to small groups and one-on-one conversations -- no TV ads at all, no second takes -- Biden convinced Delaware voters to elect him to the United States Senate at the age of 29.
Now his tendencies to think with his mouth open and to say things about himself that don't really fit the facts have ended his presidential candidacy. His withdrawal has left the Democrats with a field that is mostly television-cool, of men and possibly a woman who have served much of their political careers in the House, where the amount of time one can speak is strictly limited, or in a governor's office, where the consequences of what one says can be disastrous.
It has been 20 years since the Democrats nominated a candidate of genuine oratorical strength, and longer since one led them to victory; for years since Democrats and journalists have been looking for the candidate who can electrify a crowd and make an emotional appeal that will lead a nation to help the downtrodden. Now it seems pretty clear that, aside from Jesse Jackson, they won't find one this year, and that the voters aren't looking for one anyway.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.