Joe Biden has a history of gaffes, but what do they mean?

Throughout his career, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has suffered from a series of self-inflicted flubs. Unlike President Donald Trump, Biden has been held accountable by the media and the public for his gaffes. So far, none of President Trump’s slips of the tongue have derailed him.

Far from being the “Teflon president” like Ronald Reagan on whom mistakes did not seem to stick, Biden faces a media that continually looks for gaffes and attempts to establish a pattern. At the same time his political opponents use his verbal mishaps against him. President Trump has already questioned Biden’s fitness for the job by implying that his gaffes demonstrate his intellectual incapacity to lead the country.

The question is: Will the mistakes influence voters?

The list of Biden’s gaffes is long and varied. In his first run at the presidency in 1987, Biden was caught using a portion of a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. The other shoe dropped with the revelation that he had plagiarized law school papers while a first-year student at Syracuse University School of Law in 1965. With charges of plagiarizing haunting him, he left the race.

As the 2008 presidential race began to shape up, Biden made a rather patronizing description of Barack Obama, characterizing him as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Racial stereotypes also came up in 2006 when Biden said, “You cannot go into a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.”

Despite earning a degree in history, Biden got confused about timing when he talked about how Franklin D. Roosevelt got on television to talk about the stock market crash of 1929. Unfortunately for Biden, the crash happened before FDR was president. In a bit of self-effacing modesty after being chosen as the vice presidential candidate, Biden said that “Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more than I am to be vice president.” As the vice presidential candidate Biden was sent out to bolster the egos of local campaign supporters. In South Carolina he called on a local state senator to “stand up and let the people see you.” The only problem was that the intended recipient of the compliment was confined to a wheelchair.

Vice presidents traditionally serve as unvarnished supporters of the president’s policies. When the threat of swine flu gripped the country, President Obama tried to walk the fine line between heightening concern without engendering panic. When asked about travel during those perilous times, Biden commented that he would tell his family not to travel, sending shock waves through the travel industry. He spent the next few days with “what I meant to say” statements.

At the signing ceremony for Obamacare, Biden leaned over to President Obama describing the event as a “big (expletive) deal,” only to have the remark picked up by the microphone and covered extensively by the media. Many voters were offended by the comment. During the pre-nomination season this year, Biden had to apologize for saying that Black voters “ain’t Black” if they intended to vote for President Trump.

To his credit, he got through the Democratic convention without a gaffe. The question is not so much whether Joe Biden is prone to gaffes, but rather what they mean and how they should impact our vote. To the degree that a set of gaffes implies intellectual shortcomings or moral turpitude, such mistakes will rightfully push a voter away from Biden.

Gaffes are less critical to the voting decision if they simply reflect a slip of the tongue. For some voters, primarily those already in the Biden camp, the lack of a smooth programmed candidate who makes no mistakes could be a positive factor revealing the unvarnished human side of Joe Biden.

If history is any indication, Biden will make more gaffes. The question is not if, but when. With the pandemic, more controlled settings as he attempts to connect with voters virtually may prove to his advantage. It is now up to the voters to determine the impact of gaffes relative to policy positions and other personal characteristics.

Stephen Frantzich (4frantzich@gmail.com) is a retired professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of “O.O.P.S: Observing our Politicians Stumble: The Worst Candidates Gaffes and Recoveries in Presidential Campaigns.”

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