Biden's Gaffe Immunity
He misspeaks so often, it's hardly news—and hardly damaging.
When Joe Biden described an Obama ad attacking John McCain's inability to use a computer as "terrible," the world acted as if the Joe-pocalypse had finally arrived. Jonathan Martin of Politico called it "perhaps his most off-message statement yet."Newsday dubbed him "gaffe-a-minute Joe."National Review's Victor Davis Hanson said it raised "serious concern whether Biden is up to the job."
Please. Biden's blunder couldn't matter less. Not because gaffes never matter—they can, if they play into public perceptions of the candidate's character—but because Joe Biden is gaffe-proof. Whatever traps he sets for himself, however many minorities he offends, he always seems to wriggle out. It's almost as if, by committing so many gaffes, he has become immune to their effects. "Joe Biden Makes Gaffe" is the new "Dog Bites Man."
In the past week, Biden hasn't disappointed. When the federal government announced the AIG bailout, Biden said it was a bad idea. (The official campaign stance at the time was neither support for nor opposition to the bailout; Obama gently chided Biden for going off-message.) In Ohio, Biden said he's against clean-coal technology. (That was his stance in the primaries, not Obama's current stance.) And in an interview with Katie Couric, he said that when the markets crashed in 1929, "Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the princes of greed. He said, 'Look, here's what happened.' " (FDR wasn't president then, nor did television exist.)
As a result, the Obama/Biden campaign was on alert Tuesday. Biden addressed a crowd of about 150 at a community center in Woodbridge, Va., about an hour outside Washington. During the primaries, this would have been an informal event—Biden might have rambled for a bit, mostly from memory, before taking questions from the audience. This time he was all business. The dais/teleprompter setup seemed better suited to an arena than a small gym. Biden read his speech, shook hands, and took off. At one point, a Secret Service guy nudged closed the rope barriers separating the press from the rest of the room. A Biden spokesman said he uses the teleprompter sporadically. He had some new material about McCain supporting Bermuda tax shelters that he wanted to get right. But you can also see why the Obama campaign may see the value of the teleprompter: It's like a verbal leash.
Later that day, after a speech to the National Jewish Democratic Conference, an Obama staffer picked off reporters trying to worm through the scrum surrounding Biden. We dutifully returned to our pen. It would normally be fine to talk to Biden, the staffer explained, but this was a private event, not a campaign event. Yet Alexis Rice, communications director for NJDC, said it was entirely up to the campaign who gets to talk to Biden. "I'm happy to have as many reporters as possible talk to Biden," she said.
Clamping down is a campaign's way of reasserting control. If a candidate can go off-message in an interview with Katie Couric, how can he be trusted to greet reporters at a rope line? Better to run a tight ship than risk a candidate running his mouth.
But it's hard to see Biden's runaway mouth doing much damage. Just look at the history. Biden drew glares when he suggested that in Delaware, "you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent." Later, he called Obama "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Careers have ended over less. But Obama bailed him out, saying he knew Biden meant well. Those two gaffes could easily have created the narrative that Joe Biden is a racist. But that didn't happen.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Sen. Joseph by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press.