At War With His Mouth

Joe Biden has spent a lifetime in the shadows of Democratic presidential candidates, wondering why the spotlight wasn't on him. The Delaware senator, now the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is perhaps his party's most senior statesman on foreign policy. He was a fixture of the Senate Democratic cloakroom before anyone in Washington knew who Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama were. With a heavyweight legislative record, Biden, like so many senators, has looked in the mirror and wondered why he is always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

A quick answer came in yesterday's New York Observer. In the midst of heaping praise on Obama, Biden mentioned that his Senate colleague was the "first mainstream African-American" candidate who was "articulate and bright and clean." Biden quickly sought to clarify the remark—that he hadn't meant any sort of aspersion on African-Americans or their hygiene habits—but the damage was done. By Thursday, it looked like Biden's pithy words in the little pink paper may have done in his long-shot presidential candidacy for good.

If the gaffe does destroy Biden's chances, few in either party will be particularly surprised. The senator's biggest enemy has always been his own mouth. Last year, he bragged about his potential appeal to Southern voters by noting that Delaware was "a slave state." Before that, he'd expressed his enthusiasm for his state's changing demographics by noting "you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have an Indian accent." It is a credit to Biden that, considering this record, hardly anyone is suggesting he might actual harbor racist feelings. He simply cannot control what comes out of his mouth.

The sad thing, of course, is that he tries. During Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings, Biden earned national ridicule for asking endless questions that featured colorful tangents on his Irish grandfather and his Ivy-League educated son. I remember talking to Biden in that (comparatively minor fracas)—he was clearly hurt by the criticism. But he also heard it. He told me that he was working on curtailing the excess verbiage and would try his best to reign it in before he announced a 2008 campaign. So much for that.

But there is a more important lesson in the Biden foible, a cautionary tale for other Democrats running in 2008: Every mistake counts triple this time. Why? Well, all the obvious changes that geeky political reporters love to write about-24-hour media cycles, the vigilance of the blogosphere and this nifty new contraption called YouTube, for starters. But each gaffe will count extra this time for a more simple, old-fashioned reason—the Democrats running this time know how it's done. It's hard to remember the last time the Democratic primary field had so many contenders who've been there before. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton knows how to run for president. So does John Edwards. So do some of the second-tier candidates. As a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Chris Dodd knows more about the Democratic primary calendar than most people who end up being the party's nominee. Ditto for Bill Richardson. These are professionals, candidates who aren't going to squander years of preening practice for some rookie's mistake.

That might be a good thing for the party. The most amazing thing about Howard Dean's infamous "scream speech" in 2004 wasn't that it destroyed his candidacy—it was that he had risen so far so fast before the yelp heard round the world brought him tumbling down. A first-timer, Dean was an unpolished, at times reckless, candidate who most likely wouldn't have even made it to Iowa had he been facing a more seasoned foe. When Dean showed his true colors, the most disciplined, experienced candidate for Democrats to glom on to was John Kerry—who went on to show his own rookie weaknesses time and time again.

Experience isn't everything, of course, as Biden himself should know. He sought the nomination in 1988 and has had more time than any of the current candidates in either party to sit and stew over old mistakes. Some errors you can learn from; others you're doomed to repeat. Biden's serial hoof-in-mouth problem may actually boost Obama in the short run, by giving him yet another jolt of free publicity, while appearing to rise above the fray and position himself as the better man. But there's a red flag for Obama in the Biden saga, too. Should the golden rookie slip up, the pros around him will make it that much tougher to recover. As Biden could tell his esteemed colleague, if only he could pull his foot out of his mouth long enough to say it.