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Joe Biden, Ukraine, and the ‘Goldwater Rule.’

President Biden with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska in Kyiv, February 20. (Photo by Evan Vucci/ / AFP/Getty Images)

There is in psychiatry something called the “Goldwater rule,” which holds that it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a psychiatric evaluation of a person he has not examined and received authorization to speak publicly about. I am not a psychiatrist, but, in the spirit of the rule: I am happy—proud, even—that Joe Biden went to Kyiv and said (or tried to say) all the right things, but his halting, sometimes slurred speech did not do him any favors with Americans who worry that he is not up to the job with which he has been entrusted. 

What Biden sounded like, to my ear, was drunk. Of course, he wasn’t drunk—like his immediate predecessor in the office, he is a teetotaler. But Biden is 80 years old and is not what any honest observer would call an astoundingly sharp 80-year-old. There are such men, but Biden is not one of them. He stumbles, mumbles, and wanders. He has better and worse days. There is—I think even such admirers as he has must agree—good reason to think that, even with the most liberal assumptions, he is not fit for the job.

When Sen. Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, many psychiatrists—most of them cowards speaking from behind the veil of anonymity—exploited and abused the prestige of the medical profession to electioneer against the Republican standard bearer. They offered very specific-sounding diagnoses, as psychiatrists (and their bastard offspring, psychoanalysts) often do: One diagnosed Goldwater with “chronic psychosis”; another charged that he was a “paranoid schizophrenic”; another claimed that “Goldwater has the same pathological makeup as Hitler, Castro, Stalin, and other known schizophrenic leaders.” Many of these opinions were offered in response to a Fact magazine survey asking psychiatrists about Goldwater’s psychiatric fitness for the presidency. The American Psychiatric Association lambasted the magazine and its “purported ‘survey’” and promised that it would “take all possible measures to disavow its validity.”

The psychiatric profession’s long and horrifying history of allowing itself to be coopted by repressive regimes—or happily doing their dirty work—was a common theme in the history of the 20th century, particularly in the Soviet Union, where dissent from official socialist ideology was often repressed by means of psychiatric “diagnosis” and coercive “treatment.” The wider tendency of the medical profession to seek to use its medical authority as a political weapon (see, for example, the attempted medicalization of the gun-control debate) is all too frequently observed in the United States, which is one of the reasons that Nikki Haley’s loose talk about imposing medical “competency” tests on political candidates is a foolish piece of demagoguery. Consider the education establishment’s redefinition of “competency” (in this case “cultural competency”) to mean the unquestioning submission to certain political orthodoxies.  

There are people who insist that Biden is “senile” because they are his political rivals and they want to hurt him, but there are also people who in good faith believe that he is not up to the job and that this presents real risks to the country and its government. Unlike the armchair diagnoses of Goldwater, we need not assert that Biden is suffering from any specific malady, such as Alzheimer’s disease or Lewy body dementia. Because many of us wish to be liberated from the burden of our own judgment by the act of deputizing experts to do our thinking for us, there is a tendency to want a specific, clinical diagnosis before we come to a judgment on Biden. But it is unlikely that such a diagnosis will be forthcoming and, in any case, it is unnecessary: Biden is old and weak and often unfocused, and we have the evidence of our own eyes and ears to attest to this.

I am not suggesting that we get into the 25th Amendment process for removing Biden from the office to which he was, owing to the political unseriousness of the American people, legitimately elected. But we must be honest with ourselves about the state of the administration.

Speaking of the 25th Amendment, there is a part of it with which many Americans are not familiar: If Biden wants to nominate a new secretary of state or a Supreme Court justice, this requires the approval of the Senate—but if the president wishes to choose a new vice president, this requires the approval of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, which currently is under Republican control. There are many Democrats who wish to be rid of Vice President Kamala Harris, whom they have rightly judged to be a political liability with no likely political future of her own, but the only way Biden is getting rid of Harris is by dumping her from the ticket and getting reelected in 2024. It is very difficult to imagine House Republicans voting to approve any new vice president Biden might conceivably choose. Mitch McConnell took a lot of heat for running out the clock on Merrick Garland but, far from paying a political price for this, he harvested a bumper crop of political benefits. Kevin McCarthy, who serves at the mercy of a dozen or so howling moonbats, would have no incentive at all to help Biden replace Harris—and with the vice presidency vacant, McCarthy would be second in line to the presidency with only the oldest-ever incumbent between him and the Oval Office. That’s a storyline more appropriate to a political thriller, but it is something to keep in mind if your current Kremlinology tells you Harris is going anywhere.

Biden is stuck with Harris, and Democrats—and the country—are, it seems, stuck with the both of them, however doddering the man in charge of the executive branch of the federal government may be. It is tempting to write that with only a little sensible political calculation, Republicans could put themselves in an unbeatable situation. But if you think the coming election is foolproof, then you don’t know the fools in question.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.