A Biden Gaffe Is in the Eye of the Beholder

The biggest knock on Joe Biden, back when Barack Obama was still mulling his running-mate options, was his propensity to commit gaffes. And in the two months since he was chosen, Biden has in many ways lived up to his reputation for indiscipline – particularly this week, as his prediction that a President Obama would be tested by a “generated” international crisis has given the G.O.P. an opening to stoke fears about Obama’s seasoning.

Obama, who surrounded himself on Wednesday with a collection of reassuring national security graybeards, certainly didn’t seem pleased to be answering Republican charges that his own running mate has doubts about his experience and preparation (even though Biden made a point of saying that Obama has “a spine of steel”) while media outlets trotted out the “best of” Biden gaffe reels that they reserve for such occasions.

It’s easy, as the talking heads go into overdrive on the Biden-blunder story line, to conclude that the most pessimistic forecasts have been validated and that the Delaware senator has proven himself to be a liability to the Democratic ticket. But that would be wildly inaccurate.

For one thing, there is no evidence in polling that, for all the media fascination they have generated, Biden’s “gaffes” have hurt him or the Democratic ticket – probably because they mostly aren’t gaffes in the traditional sense.

When, for example, Biden tried to calm an anti-Hillary audience member in New Hampshire with the self-deprecating suggestion that the former first lady might have been a better VP pick than him, it created a stir. Can you believe he did it again?! But what did he actually do? To most people, it looked like Biden was just trying to be polite – a far cry from a traditional gaffe (like Gerald Ford’s seeming on-air liberation of Eastern Europe in a 1976 debate), which calls the candidate’s fitness for office into question. Biden’s “gaffes” are gaffes mostly because the media has characterized them as such.

When it comes to his “generated” crisis comment, Biden’s off-message words almost certainly won’t hurt Obama – in fact, they might even help (however unintentionally). It’s understandable that the McCain campaign would play up Biden’s words, but the experience card doesn’t favor McCain the way it once did.

With three immensely reassuring debate performances (and a high-profile endorsement from Colin Powell, which was dominating the news as word of Biden’s remarks broke), Obama has crossed a crucial threshold with most voters – the same threshold that “inexperienced” candidates like Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter each cleared. And don’t forget Biden’s role in this. Polls have found that around 90 percent of voters believe he’d be ready to serve as president. He was put on the ticket to help reassure voters, and none of his tactically questionable statements have diminished his strength in this area.

Moreover, thanks to Sarah Palin, the experience angle now cuts against the G.O.P., too. Unlike Obama, she has failed to use the fall campaign to satisfy the concerns raised by her thin resume, and her wobbly performances in interviews and in the vice presidential debate – even as conservative pundits insisted that she was excellent – have prompted voters in the middle to doubt McCain’s judgment, one of his calling cards before the Palin pick. Not surprisingly, a poll this week found that the top concern of voters about McCain isn’t his health care plan, his Iraq war views or his ties to the Bush White House but rather Palin and her qualifications.

In this context, Biden’s comment may actually prove helpful. With voters forced to confront once again the matter of Obama and the “commander-in-chief test,” they may be surprised to realize how comfortable they’ve become with the idea of him serving as president – and how unnerved they’ve become by the idea of a President McCain or (especially) a President Palin.

Contrast that with Biden’s impact on Obama’s chances.

The cynical view — the one that fits in nearly with the gaffe-machine narrative — has it that Biden hasn’t made much news and that when he has broken through the media clutter, it’s been by sticking his foot in his mouth. Actually, though, Biden’s day-to-day stump speeches have received about as much (or little) press attention as running mates have traditionally received; it only seems microscopic in comparison to the celebrity treatment of Sarah Palin. This isn’t Biden’s fault. No other Obama running mate (except maybe Hillary Clinton) would have been given the Palin treatment.

This also explains why Biden’s gaffes have received disproportionate attention: Traditionally, VP candidates have only made national news when they’ve strayed off-message. The main content of their speeches mostly goes unnoticed; only “gaffes” make news. That is the life of a VP candidate (and, as Bill Clinton learned this past winter and spring, of a surrogate, too).

To many junkies who follow politics every day, Biden has been a never-ending river of wayward remarks this fall, and, thus, a clear liability. But they forget: The voters who decide elections aren’t 24-hour news junkies. Because the media has stressed the theme so much, these voters are generally aware of Biden’s reputation for gaffes, but that doesn’t follow that this matters to them. That Biden accidentally asked a handicapped man to stand up is a harmless triviality to them, nothing more.

This doesn’t mean that VP candidates don’t matter at all to these voters. They pay attention when VP’s are chosen and deliver their convention speeches and they (generally) watch the vice presidential debate. It’s in these occasions that a VP nominee proves his or her worth (or lack thereof) to the national ticket.

By this standard, Biden has been a clear success. When he was introduced in August, voters learned about his deep foreign policy experience and his compelling personal story and he delivered a strong convention speech that reinforced these themes. And in his debate with Palin – the most-watched VP debate of all time – he made no notable mistakes and performed masterfully in the foreign policy portion of the debate. When it was over, Biden was judged the winner in every reputable poll, generally by wide margins.

Palin is a different story. Her introduction to the public was rocky, although she redeemed herself – temporarily, as it turned out – with a mesmerizing convention address. But her horrific performances in a series of television interviews in September turned the middle of the electorate against her, a verdict that she failed to overturn in the debate. She will end this campaign as a goddess to the right, but something of a punch line to the middle of the electorate. Not even half of all voters believe Palin is qualified for the presidency.

Thanks to his debate performance, convention speech and national security reputation, Biden has improved his ticket’s odds of winning. The same can’t be said of Palin.

A Biden Gaffe Is in the Eye of the Beholder