Biden Fires Up the Gaffe-o-Matic


On the stump, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden likes to say that John McCain is disconnected from ordinary Americans. But lately it seems like Biden is the one who's "out of touch"--at least with his own campaign.

When Barack Obama selected Biden as his running mate late last month, the punditocracy immediately predicted that the Delaware senator's predilection for saying stupid stuff at regular intervals--the term of art is "gaffe machine," I believe--would prove detrimental to his new boss's presidential bid. Until now, though, Biden's loose tongue hasn't been much of problem. It's not that he hasn't slipped up on occasion; he has, after all, admitted that Hillary Clinton "might have been a better [veep] pick" and asked the wheelchair-bound Missouri politician Chuck Graham to "stand up" at a rally. But so far, Biden's bloopers have been eclipsed by the planet-sized celebrity phenomenon known to us earthlings as Sarah Palin--a good thing for the body politic, given that most of his mistakes to date have been of the "totally irrelevant but typically distracting" variety.

Not anymore. In the past few days--just as Palinsanity has begun to die down--Biden has made a series of strange public statements that suggest he's either at odds with Obama on key policy issues or that he isn't aware of what Obama believes. Individually, they've served to cloud Obama's message on matters of substance; taken together, they suggest that someone in Chicago should give the guy a good talking to. If he or she can get a word in edgewise, that is.

Biden's string of slip-ups started last Monday. Asked by NBC's Meredith Vieira whether the Fed should bail out insurance giant AIG, the senator said no: "I don't think they should be bailed out by the federal government." Unfortunately, the remark had more in common with McCain's initial position on the bailout (instinctive opposition) than Obama's carefully cultivated claim that he would not "second-guess" the government. When the bailout went through, both Biden and McCain bowed to reality. But the shift left Obama in a tricky position--as Matt Lauer pointed out this morning on "Today." Noting that Obama had been hitting McCain for flip-flopping on the AIG bailout, Lauer asked the Illinois senator how he could criticize his Republican rival when his own running mate had made the same mistake. His answer? "I think Joe should have waited, as well." Awkward.

The past few days have been even worse. Speaking Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Biden not only acknowledged that the wealthy would pay higher taxes if if he and Obama won the White House but said that doing so would be "patriotic." "It's time to be patriotic," he said. "Time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to help get America out of the rut." Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, emphasizing that Obama would raise rates on rich folks (instead of saying that he'd lower them on the middle-classes) was clearly off-message--and the "patriotism" sound bite gave the GOP something catchy to hang its "redistribution of wealth" hat on. Accompanied by a sarcastic ad, McCain's response was scathing: "Raising taxes in a tough economy isn't patriotic. It's not a badge of honor. It's just dumb policy." Expect to hear more on Biden's idea of patriotism before Nov. 4.

Incredibly, though, the senator seems to have saved the worst for last. Asked last night by Katie Couric on the "CBS Evening News," Biden delivered what has to be most off-message statement yet: that one of his campaign's own ads--the spot released earlier this month mocking McCain for not being able to use a computer--was "terrible." "I didn't know we did it and if I had anything to do with it, we would have never done it," he said. The campaign was soon forced to issue a less-than-convincing clarification in Biden's name. (Apparently he'd "never seen" the ad.") Meanwhile, video surfaced this morning of Biden telling a rope-line environmentalist in Ohio that he and Obama "are not supporting clean coal" in America--even though Obama, well, is. McCain quickly pounced, using Biden's error to pivot away from Wall Street and make the case that Democrats don't support comprehensive energy solutions; conference calls and ads are in the works. Biden may have opposed the technology in the primaries--he's on record as saying "clean-coal ... is not the route to go in the United States"--but he should probably brush up on his briefing books (or pay attention to his own speeches) now that his boss disagrees.

Don't get me wrong. I think that the GOP should take a page from Chicago's book and stop sequestering Palin from the press and the public as if she were a show pony instead of a potential vice president. And I hate that "gaffes"--often little more than trivialities--tend to dominate the political conversation in this country. But Biden's latest spree is more than an irrelevant testament to his uncontrollable verbosity. It's actually making Obama's message on substantive matters like taxes, energy, AIG and McCain more difficult to hear. In an election, that hurts the candidate more than anyone else. But what happens if Obama and Biden are elected? Having a vice president who's eager to hold forth on any subject--even when what he's saying bears no relation to administration policy--could get pretty complicated. Distracting a campaign is one thing. Distracting a president, a political party and, by extension, the country? Awkward doesn't quite cover it.

In the primaries, the senator showed an admirable sense of self-conscious restraint. Asked during the first Democratic debate whether he'd have the "discipline" he'd "need on the world stage," Biden delivered the perfect answer: "Yes." Nothing more, nothing less.

Obama might want to remind him of that exchange the next time they talk.