Biden’s Gaffe Immunity

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

Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph Biden 

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.

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.

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.