The Freewheelin’ Joe Biden

Just when Joe Biden was cooking up a nice little redemption story, he goes and steps in it—again.

“Senator implies minorities to blame for bad schools,” announced a graphic on MSNBC Thursday afternoon, the kind of damning headline that no amount of spinning by any politician can undo.

For the record, the Delaware senator and presidential candidate’s latest verbal crime came in an interview with the Washington Post’s editorial board, when after a typically prolix dissertation on federal education policy, he compared Iowa’s mostly white public schools to the heavily black schools in Washington, D.C.

“There’s less than 1 percent of the population of Iowa that is African-American. There is probably less than 4 or 5 percent that are minorities. What is in Washington? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you’re dealing with,” he was quoted saying. His campaign quickly sought to clarify the remark, arguing that he was trying to point out the socio-economic disparities between impoverished inner-cities and middle class areas.

Not that it matters.

The Washington Post’s own headline declared, “Biden stumbles in interview.” And one of the paper’s editorial writers, appearing on MSNBC, pronounced the comment “offensive.” The occasion also allowed MSNBC to declare a trend, reminding viewers of Mr. Biden’s previous racial controversies: His infamous—and almost certainly misunderstood—“clean” and “articulate” comment about Barack Obama to the Observer back in January, and his off-hand remark two summers ago that “you can not enter a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have an Indian accent.”

It’s not that he has much of a chance of claiming the Democratic nomination—he doesn’t now, and he didn’t before this latest imbroglio. But, after a disastrous campaign launch earlier this year (thanks to Obama-gate), Mr. Biden had rather amazingly maneuvered himself toward some decent consolation prizes: his dignity, an elder statesman role within the Democratic Party on foreign policy, a potential appointment as Secretary of State, and a (very remote) shot at the vice-presidency.

That he has even been mentioned in connection with the vice-presidential slot—presumably on a Hillary Clinton-led ticket, since Mr. Obama doesn’t appear to think highly of him—is a testament to the surprisingly favorable impression Mr. Biden has made this year. With almost no money and little media attention, he’s maximized his few opportunities for exposure, shining in debates and talk show appearances. In particular, he’s impressed opinion-shapers and many party activists by skillfully communicating detailed policy proposals for Iraq and Darfur, largely steering clear of the Senate-speak that typically paralyzes someone in his shoes. Maybe, some had come around to thinking, his experience and powerful public style could give next year’s Democratic ticket that ever-elusive “gravitas.” But his comments to the Washington Post are an instant reminder of the risk for Democrats in putting their chips on Mr. Biden. You never know when he’ll next open his mouth in an effort to make some well-intentioned point, only to offer—among hundreds of other stream-of-conscious words – some devastating sound bite. And now that the pattern is established, the bar has been lowered: When the media is actually paying attention to him, virtually everything Mr. Biden says will be subject to the same “Is this another Biden shocker?” treatment. Given all of the potential vice presidents on the Democratic side, you can be assured that no nominee will assume the risk of Mr. Biden.

Similarly, he’s in danger of being remembered by the general public more for his verbal slip-ups than for his genuine foreign policy savvy. It’s been exceedingly difficult for him to get the average voter’s attention: His tireless and meticulous work this year has netted him sporadic bursts of good press, but nothing compared to the feeding frenzies that ensue when he makes “controversial” comments. Of course, it’s the feeding frenzies that the average voter—and the late night comic—actually notices, meaning that Mr. Biden runs a very real risk of becoming just another caricature, the political equivalent of Al Campanis.

None of this is particularly fair, particularly when you consider that Mr. Biden is suffering at the hands of a media that often decries how reserved, rehearsed and inaccessible most politicians are Mr. Biden is none of those things. Much like John McCain in 2000, he willingly opens himself up to the press, and anyone else who listens, putting his entire rambling thought process on display whenever he answers a question—only to get burned when a line or two is then extracted from his monologue and used as the frame for a controversy.

Mr. Biden is not a racist and is not racially insensitive. He’s also not boring. But in politics in the year 2007, that may be the biggest crime of all.

The Freewheelin’ Joe Biden