Why Joe Biden's gaffes don't hurt him much.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 24 2008 3:48 PM

Biden's Gaffe Immunity

He misspeaks so often, it's hardly news—and hardly damaging.

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Why? It's possible people don't care because he would only be vice president. But that hasn't stopped the gaffe police from monitoring everything Sarah Palin says. Another explanation is that the media give Biden a free pass. But this ignores both history—the media were almost singlehandedly responsible for ending his presidential run in 1988, when they exposed his plagiarized speeches—and current events: The media regularly report Biden's gaffes (as well as McCain's), but they are mostly forgotten.

The better explanation is more theoretical. There are basically three kinds of gaffes, and Joe Biden appears to be immune to all of them. Informational gaffes are when you get your facts wrong (John McCain mixing up Sunni and Shiite); message gaffes are when you get your policy wrong (Biden saying he opposed clean coal plants in the United States); and political gaffes are when you offend some interest group perceived to be important to your success (Hillary Clinton referring to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in discussing Obama's candidacy). Each can be damaging, depending on the candidate and his weaknesses.

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Informational gaffes don't hurt Biden because, whatever his imperfections, he's generally seen as worldly and knowledgeable. Message gaffes don't matter because, even if it's a headache for the campaign, they make him sound authentic. (If he thinks the ad is "terrible," that's just his honest opinion!) And political gaffes don't damage Biden because, well, he's so darned congenial. Even John McCain likes him. He'll attack, but he's rarely nasty. The only real insult he's hurled this campaign was criticism of Rudy Giuliani's campaign as nothing more than "a noun, a verb, and 9/11."

Adapting Biden to the general election hasn't just been about avoiding gaffes. It's also about infusing him with Obama's message—and style. Biden's stump speech now climaxes with the repetition of "Imagine a world …" followed by various Democratic fantasies. Some of his poetry about "angels' wings" and "shining lights" sounds downright Barackian. He maintains his unmatched ability to work a room—at the NJDC event, he told a joke about a Jewish crew team. But it's clear at these events that he's addressing the cameras in the back as much as the local crowd. His remarks about McCain and Bermuda immediately became national news.

These two adjustments—the attempts to eliminate gaffes and the adoption of Obama's smooth style—will be tested at the vice presidential debate Oct. 2. There, Biden's gaffe immunity will not protect him. The McCain campaign takes umbrage almost instantaneously, and dissing Sarah Palin could be construed as sexist. And the vast TV audience, much of it seeing him for the first time, may be less familiar with his gaffe history—and less forgiving of his gaffes.

Until then, Senator, gaffe away. When Obama picked Biden, some Democrats suggested that Biden's unpredictable tongue would become a distraction. Others criticized him as being too "safe." They're both right. He is a gaffe machine—but he's harmless.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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