Why Joe Biden Gets Away With It

Joe Biden grinning ear to ear at a mic.
A reason to smile. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner, has had a peculiar couple of weeks: The points on which he’s been historically weak—women’s rights, mass incarceration, and plagiarism—have surfaced again, as weak points are bound to do, but if his responses on all three fronts have muddied his record, they haven’t done much damage to his vaunted “electability.” He’s reiterated his support (before retracting it) of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds like Medicaid from paying for abortions. He’s defended his 1994 crime bill, which contributed (many believe) to America’s mass incarceration problem. Asked at a recent event whether he’d “commit to reducing the prison population by half,” Biden claimed that the woman asking—whom he addressed as “kiddo”—had been “conditioned” to say it was a bad bill. But “we should not be putting people in prison for drug offenses,” he added, omitting that he was one of the architects of the war on drugs and had specifically criticized then-President Bush’s plan because it didn’t “hold every drug user accountable.” Finally, his campaign was found to have plagiarized some policy language.

Of the aforementioned items, the plagiarism might be both the least concerning and the most instructive. While Biden’s campaign seems to have copied some language from the BlueGreen Alliance and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, this, as Politico points out, is far from exceptional. Plenty of other campaigns have done much the same thing. The issue for Biden is that the incident hooks up with a reputation problem: an earlier instance of plagiarism that caused him to pull out of the 1988 presidential race.

What remains concerning about that history is Biden’s tendency to enthusiastically claim life experiences that aren’t his own, whether because it’s politically advantageous or rhetorically exciting to do so. He didn’t just use hefty chunks from a published law review for a 15-page paper in law school. He didn’t just lift some phrases from Bobby Kennedy. In 1987, Biden started borrowing not just language but biographical details from U.K. Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, citing nonexistent coal-mining ancestors and wondering aloud why he was the first in his family to go to college (he wasn’t). Biden also lied—repeatedly, and despite being repeatedly corrected—about marching for civil rights. He has (correctly!) said that he helped in other ways, but he did not march; that didn’t stop him from claiming he did and inviting people to “remember” those brave actions with him. Why would someone do this?

One answer might help explain Biden’s appeal today. In certain environments, and contemporary politics has become one of them, lies and mistakes become love tests: If you mess up enough for long enough, while convincing people you’re on their side, plenty of folks will come to find your mistakes not just negligible but charming. They’re proof of your humanity.

The plagiarism cost Biden in his 1988 run, back when he was still closer to his wunderkind origins (the lying about marching didn’t seem to hurt him, though). But neither the plagiarism nor his other statements seem likely to cost him much now. For one, it will take a lot to undo Biden’s decade-old recasting as a wacky, spontaneous, white-haired foil to Obama’s professionalism, youth, and polish. He became a principle of not just levity but messiness that people found personally appealing. For another, Trump is so boorish and dishonest that many voters struggle with what standards, if any, are even worth maintaining anymore. It disturbed people in 2007 when Biden described his then-rival Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” but the incumbent is a champion of birtherism. Voters don’t seem to have arrived at anything like a clear consensus on what compromises to make.

It’s always a challenge figuring out which parts of a politician’s history are worth attending to when they’ve been around for as long as Biden has. His positions have evolved on a number of issues, and voters are inclined to credit candidates for apparent progress. Biden went from voting for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 to defending gay rights in 2012. He supported the invasion in Iraq, then called it a mistake. He initially (in 1973) said he believed Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided—and repeatedly (in 1977 and again in 1981) voted against allowing federal funds to pay for abortions for women in cases of rape or incest, bragging to supporters in 1994 that he’d done so “on no fewer than 50 occasions.” But far from leading the fight, his progress has been grudging and reluctant. Those hoping Biden’s present position on women’s rights would put more distance between Biden then and Biden now might be less disappointed than confused: Biden told an ACLU member in early May that he supported repealing the Hyde Amendment. Then his campaign said he’d “misheard.” Last Wednesday his campaign confirmed that in fact he still supported the Hyde Amendment. This Thursday, he said he no longer did.

Any politician with a record as long as Biden’s has to tell this “evolution” story convincingly and well. Biden’s success on this score is spotty. His appeal despite that makes it interesting. In a weird way, his frankness about his self-contradictions—“I make no apologies for my last position. I make no apologies for what I’m about to say,” he said Thursday as he reversed himself on the Hyde Amendment—bestows upon him a kind of flexibility that allows him to claim (for example) that he won’t accept donations from corporate lobbyists, and then kick off his campaign with a fundraiser held at the home of the head of lobbying for Comcast.

People support Biden for a lot of reasons (a desire to beat Trump counts). But a significant part of his success has been getting much of the public to see his flaws and lies as lovable, well-meaning, and proof of his honesty (which these days means something more like “authenticity”). This is prime political terrain very few figures manage to carve out. In the authoritative book about the 1988 campaign, What It Takes, for instance, Richard Ben Cramer gives a remarkably positive spin to Biden’s lies about marching for civil rights while his advisers (who had warned him to stop) look on. “Still, this was also the reason they were working for Biden,” he writes, “for the abandon with which he stretched himself (and not just by exaggeration) to touch a thousand lives a day … for the talent, extravagant effort, the generosity of spirit that made every event with Biden a festival of inclusion.”

It is not “generosity of spirit” to lie about your past and your service and your bravery so a crowd will like you. Some might call that narcissistic and self-serving. I’d argue, then, that the generosity here lies more with the audience (Cramer included), who seems willing to interpret Biden’s stretching the truth as Biden stretching himself. To hear Cramer tell it, lying to make yourself look better is proof of graciousness and warmth toward those whose admiration you crave (and whose votes you need). A selfish act becomes a noble accommodation.

But there’s no denying that this is the kind of generous reading Biden inspires. People really, truly like Biden. They believe he means well, however many times he messes up. They want to give him the benefit of the doubt—that’s just Joe!—and many think being a “gut politician” (as he calls himself) is the only real strategic counterweight to Trump. This is a real and impressive power. If the erratic and famously “electable” front-runner has one enduring advantage, it’s a long history of branding himself as undisciplined and constantly evolving (but not too quickly). The latter makes him hard to pin down. The former lowers expectations. The combo makes him more immune to scandal than most. (And it tantalizes his more progressive supporters with the hope that he might be “better” on whatever issue they care about than he used to be.) It also means, of course, that he can give a sober statement about respecting the personal space of women and then turn it into a punchline at every campaign stop.

It’s also not just possible but proven that America holds powerful men with established patterns of misbehavior to lower standards. There is a certain kind of person who acclimates those around him to his defects (or tantrums, or improprieties). The extreme version of this is sometimes described with the “missing stair” theory—the idea being that there are people who present as clear and obvious a challenge as a missing stair in a house. Instead of fixing it, everyone adjusts. People step over it until the missing stair becomes less an obvious problem than something each individual feels responsibility to work around. After enough time, the people who object to the missing stair are the odd ones. This is just the way he is, and confronting it won’t do any good. When his Kennedy remarks were called out, Biden said they’d been typed for him. Questioned about what he meant by calling Obama “bright,” “clean,” and “articulate,” Biden said others knew perfectly well what he meant. Asked to apologize to Anita Hill, Biden passively regretted what had happened to her. In his younger days, once challenged on his academic history, he attacked his interlocutor by saying, “I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect.”

Those tactics may sound familiar. Joe had an unfortunate week, but his “gaffes” are so firmly a part of his identity now that the absence of mistakes gets reported on in the New York Times. These errors aren’t likely to do him much harm—gaffes never do—and so Biden’s supporters are probably right: Given this skill set, he may indeed be the person best equipped to run against the man who has almost perfectly programmed his public to preemptively overlook lies and mistakes while arguing he deserves the most powerful position on earth.