Do Biden’s Gaffes Matter?

To listen to the meda, Joe Biden's recent gaffes and malapropisms are a major story. For regular Americans, though, they don't seem to matter.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell argues that the media’s concentration on what in the end amount to minor gaffes on the part of Joe Biden is a distraction and that these gaffes don’t really matter:

Though I don’t have an estimated number, and I’m not sure if anyone really tracks this, there are thousands of us in America who closely follow politics on a daily basis. That includes members of the national media, and some in local media organizations, and those of us who make our living from politics. To us, gaffes by candidates are huge news; sometimes they wind up featured on the front page of newspapers. But often, average Americans don’t think that what we insiders consider a gaffe truly is a gaffe — or they really don’t care whether candidates are prone to gaffes. 

An example of the former was when the media made a big deal about Biden saying, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” which he immediately corrected by saying, “Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids.” If you played an excerpt of his comments to an average voting-age American, he or she likely would say, “Okay, tell me what was wrong with that?” Yet, we political elites made a big deal about it. 

The best examples of Americans not caring about gaffes can be found in the electoral success of Ronald Reagan, who was prone to telling stories that were confusing and often inaccurate, and George W. Bush, on whom we could count for at least a gaffe a week. As I recall, President Reagan carried 49 states in his landslide election, despite his many gaffes, and “W” twice was elected president. 

When it comes to Biden — to use the hot phrase of the month — it’s “baked in” with the American people that he makes gaffes. They see it as a reflection of his passion, emotion and the fact that he doesn’t utilize prepared remarks when speaking publicly. It actually makes him appear genuine, authentic. And his gaffes are not outright lies; they’re likely the result of a faulty memory or some confusion about the facts. 

If Biden becomes the Democratic Party’s nominee, let’s remember he would be running against a “Liar-in-Chief” who probably makes misstatements two or three times a week, at least. And just for contrast, compare Biden’s gaffe about the “poor kids” to President Trump‘s performance on the Fourth of July, when he said: “Our army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do, and at Fort McHenry, under the rockets’ red glare, it had nothing but victory.” 

Trump’s gaffe about taking “the airports” during the Revolutionary War was astounding. Though he blamed a broken teleprompter, we asked, is he the stupidest man ever to become President of the United State? But the president did not suffer any lasting consequences from his ridiculous statement. His approval rating didn’t deviate because gaffes simply don’t matter to the average voter. 

And all of us smart, smug media members and politicos should face up to the fact that we are gaffe-prone, too. 

Rendell makes clear in his opening paragraph that he is a Biden supporter, and one can take his words as an effort to divert attention from Biden’s tendency to make embarrassing gaffes. That being said I think Rendell is on to something when he argues that pundits, journalists, and political analysts put far more importance on these gaffes then the general public does.

First of all, the concentration on these malapropisms comes from people who spend most of their time watching and following politics, something that simply isn’t true of the average American. Indeed, I would imagine that most Americans were far too busy over the summer working and spending time of their families to even notice the gaffes that were causing many in the media to clutch their pearls in shock and horror, and to openly speculate about whether they were signs of mental deterioration on Biden’s part or simply, and more likely signs that candidates who are spending a lot of time campaigning are going to occasionally misspeak. This is especially true of a candidate like Biden who has a history of typically amusing gaffes that goes back many years. As Rendell says, when it comes to such candidates the gaffes are largely baked into the cake and, often, seen by members of the public as, in some sense, part of the charm of the candidate.

Second, as Rendell also goes on to note many of the most popular politicians of recent memory have issues with gaffes in the past. Reagan did it, Bush 41 did it, Clinton did it, Bush 43 did it, and Obama did it. The public didn’t care then and there’s little reason to think that they’re going to care now. This is especially true given the fact that the Biden’s gaffes, like those of past politicians, are generally benign and, more often than not, based mostly in truth that, due to the fog of memory or for other reasons, have become conflated. Sometimes, it’s as simple an explanation as the fact that the candidate or politician in question is simply tired and misspoke. Because we live in an era where everything that a politician says in being recorded and can be uploaded to YouTube in a matter of minutes, though, even the most minor gaffe can become a viral sensation that pundits and opposition latch on to as proof that there’s something “wrong” with the candidate.

There is a point, of course, at which “gaffes” become something more serious, and lead to wholly legitimate questions about whether or not a candidate or politician is experiencing declining mental acuity. These are legitimate questions about any candidate and most especially one that has reached the age of a candidate such as Biden, Trump, Sanders, or Warren. There’s no sign, though, that Biden’s gaffes are evidence of anything serious and unless that changes I think it’s somewhat irresponsible for people, most of whom are not medical professionals, make judgments like that based solely on what they see on television.

In any case, whether or not Biden’s gaffes matter is something that will ultimately be up to the voters. So far at least, they don’t seem to matter very much. In that respect, Rendell is right and perhaps the rest of us should stop jumping on the gaffes as if they were major stories. Most of the time, they aren’t.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Joe Biden, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    I have a question: Potatoe?

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  2. CSK says:

    In conversations with Democratic women friends, I’m getting the clear message that Biden’s history of nuzzling/sniffing/massaging female strangers is more troubling to them than his verbal misfires.

  3. Kylopod says:

    Regular Americans? Give me a break. Once the election year rolls around his gaffes could well start to matter to “regular Americans,” but if they do it’ll be for one reason, and one reason only: because the media tells them that those gaffes matter. “Invented the Internet” didn’t hurt Gore until the media made a big deal out of it, nor did the Dean Scream, or Hillary’s emails, or any of the rest of the largely manufactured controversies. The only reason it’s not making a dent currently is because the vast majority of “regular Americans” aren’t paying a lick of attention to the race. Biden isn’t teflon. It just happens to be sleeping hour at present.

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  4. Bill says:

    @CSK:

    In conversations with Democratic women friends, I’m getting the clear message that Biden’s history of nuzzling/sniffing/massaging female strangers is more troubling to them than his verbal misfires.

    More troubling about Biden is what former Sec of Defense Robert Gates wrote about him– “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,”

  5. KM says:

    In any other time in American politics? Hell yes. Biden is well-known for being gaffe-prone so it’s not an occasional thing for him. Every time he talks, it’s something else that requires an “clarification”. He’s been at this for far too long to not have picked up on this failing but he shows little signs of learning from his mistakes – he just bumbles in to the next gaffe without any effort to *stop* making gaffes. Additionally as @CSK notes, Biden’s got a paternalistic misogyny streak and touchy tendencies. It’s not uncommon in men his age, especially men of power who see it as benevolence wherein we see it as condensation or worse. He’s the nice older gentlemen that might have important insights / help you need but you make damn sure to stay on the other side of the table and just grit your teeth when he unintentionally insults you. Every woman knows someone like that – watch at parties or meetings for the guy women have long conversations with but make sure there’s 10ft of space (or a buffet table) between them at all times. There’s a reason for that.

    But in the age of Trump where he tweets out utter lies, surrealist fantasy and garbage hourly? That norm went bye-bye in 2016 and he’s been kicking it’s corpse ever since. I know we expect higher standards in our candidate but this isn’t nearly the career killer it used to be. Now, if he ends up debating a women (likely Warren) in the final run and keeps on doing it….. that might be the nail in his coffin. Trump got away with being a creep to Hillary since he’s an actual creep. Biden’s not so he needs to get a handle on this crap now or he’s going to pay for it later.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    These things matter or don’t as they fit a media narrative. “Potatoe” mattered because there was a preexisting (true) narrative that the boy wasn’t terribly bright. W’s struggles with the English language fit the good old boy I’d like to have a beer with narrative. Gore’s statement that he funded development of the internet was twisted by GOPs into “I invented the internet” to fit a narrative of arrogance. If the narrative remains affable old uncle Joe this stuff won’t hurt. The GOPs will spend a pile of money to change that to a narrative that Old Joe’s past his use by date. If they succeed his “white kids” remark, which he immediately caught and corrected, will matter more than Trump saying with a straight face that 1812 soldiers seized the airports and a delayed attempt to blame it on teleprompter, as though a competent individual wouldn’t have fixed it on the spot.

    Commentary on an earlier tread about amateur remote diagnoses aside, we all need to work to establish a narrative that Trump is losing it.

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  7. Fortunato says:

    “I’m not sure if anyone really tracks this” (# Biden gaffes)

    umm.. Fox ‘News’? Hate Radio? Russian trolls?
    Should Biden win the primary you can count on Douche’ & Co. clipping a lifetime of gaffes together an running them in a continual loop – probably with that burning Jeep from Benghazi!!-Benghazi!! fame as a backdrop.
    And god only knows what the internet fiends will invent and disseminate. They’ll have a diaper clad Biden spinning tales of that time his Binky played a vital role in bringing peace to the Ottoman empire. Grandpa Gaffe will be a key GOP strategy should Biden be our victor.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time putting much faith into anything coming from Ed Rendell. Sure he’s an uber-seasoned pol (of the shiv wielding class) and no doubt much brighter than I, but he’s another of our septuagenarian class of Dems whose ‘best before’ date long ago expired.

    p.s. it struck me as odd that Rendell would lump Clinton and Obama in with our gaffe prone Presidents (strongly disagree).
    After checking the referenced article, I don’t find such a claim.

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  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    The more substantial Biden “gaffe” is his recent claims to have always been against the Iraq War, when he was in fact initially in support of it and only changed his mind several years in. More substantial because in this case it’s not just a slip of the tongue, but rather a deliberate attempt to rewrite history to make himself look more favorable.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    The problem with Biden is the gaffe that has not yet happened. Seeing gaffes people who pay attention to politics understand that sooner or later, he’ll say something that as @Kylopod: points out, happens to catch on with the media. It’s the same problem I had with Klobuchar. That she’s a bitch to her staff is a character flaw, but 14 months of cringing in anticipation of the next horror story, that’s a political problem.

  10. al Ameda says:

    Rendell makes clear in his opening paragraph that he is a Biden supporter, and one can take his words as an effort to divert attention from Biden’s tendency to make embarrassing gaffes. That being said I think Rendell is on to something when he argues that pundits, journalists, and political analysts put far more importance on these gaffes then the general public does.

    I think Rendell is right, but let’s not kid ourselves, Trump lowered the bar for everyone.

    The biggest problem Biden has is being perceived as the ‘anointed one’ by the Democratic Party establishment. The Party is still beating each other up over the perception that Hillary was the chosen nominee well in advance of the convention. It’s part of the reason – which includes his mixed performance and the lack of energy and enthusiasm surrounding his candidacy – that his polling numbers are stalled.

  11. Fortunato says:

    @KM:
    1) great analysis
    2) I know we expect higher standards in our candidate but this isn’t nearly the career killer it used to be.

    Respectfully, I think the jury is still out on Number 2.
    Yes, the Republican base has proven they’ll ignore wholesale buffoonery, wanton mal-governance and brazen criminality in their president/party. But it may be perilous to infer, even in small degree, such deliberate malfeasance to those on the left. It’s safe to say the vast majority of Dems, if necessary, would hold their nose and vote for anyone but Trump.
    But what if a hug happy, 77 year old, gaffe prone Joe continues to stumble late into the game? What if he proves incapable of getting Gen Xers, Millennials and suburban women off the couch on Nov 3? (not hard to imagine such a scenario)
    What if, for instance, we would lose to apathy as few as 80,000 of these voters scattered throughout, for example, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania?

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  12. Scott F. says:

    @gVOR08:
    The “Trump is losing it” narrative is weakened considerably when it can be argued that the Democratic candidate is also losing it.

    Anybody who doesn’t think the media will beat on the gaffe drum until next November hasn’t been paying attention. Trump will bring out some dumbass nickname like Jumblin’ Joe and its Hillary’s emails all over again.

    Biden’s gaffes matter because they take away a major line of attack on Trump.

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  13. KM says:

    @Fortunato:

    But what if a hug happy, 77 year old, gaffe prone Joe continues to stumble late into the game? What if he proves incapable of getting Gen Xers, Millennials and suburban women off the couch on Nov 3? (not hard to imagine such a scenario)

    I think it would come to down to:
    (A) 70+, overly-touchy in the past, slightly misogynistic and racist, gaffe-every-over-day white male named Joe you’re kinda meh about
    or
    (B) 70+, actively grabby in I-need-a-shower kinda way, overtly misogynistic and racist, gaffe-every-5-seconds thanks to TV and Twitter white male named Donald you can’t freaking stand

    Biden is not Trump, not by a matter of degrees but by leagues. It’s like classifying a stubbed toe with a broken femur because they both “hurt”. Yes, they do share some worrying tendencies but that’s frankly because they’re older white men from a certain time and culture. I’m not really concerned with suburban women or Millenials picking Trump over Biden because Biden gaffes. At this point we classify it as “old man yells at cloud” mentality and is why younger candidates are doing better. But picking Trump, the epitome of boorish behavior in the presidency, over Biden isn’t something that’s gonna appeal to women. Biden may sniff your hair but Trump will straight up grab your ass or worse.

    The folks we need to worry about are the same as last time – the BernieBros who followed Bernie but went straight to Trump when Hillary took the nomination, those who “protest-voted” for Stein because Hillary wasn’t pure enough and those who just plain won’t vote for a woman (because there’s a real chance the nominee will be Uterine-American again). We’re already seeing the BernieBros make noises about not supporting anyone but him and people getting panicky that not supporting Biden before the primaries is going to cost us the election. People my age and younger are watching Trump burn our future to the ground and won’t have it. There’s no “on the fence” with us – it’s the older crowd that need to accept they might have to vote for a woman / gay / black / not-Boomer. Guess who’s in those states you mentioned that could cost us big?

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  14. Gustopher says:

    I think that if Biden is the nominee, we will see the media double standard, where only Democrats face consequences.

    From Fox and Trump we will get nonstop “Biden is going senile” to push the narrative.

    From the mainstream media we will get “well, it’s hard to tell if someone is going senile, and each candidate has played loose with facts and Biden being unable to remember which school shooting kids saw him when is just as bad as Trump declaring that the English seized the airports in 1812 before drooling and making bubbles with his drool and flinging poo at a brown person. And really, we only expect better from Biden, so that’s the real story.”

    From the left media we will get “Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren don’t have these problems, we should have nominated one of them.”

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  15. DrDaveT says:

    @Bill:

    More troubling about Biden is what former Sec of Defense Robert Gates wrote about him […]

    If Bob Gates thinks you’re wrong on national security and foreign policy, is that a plus or a minus?

  16. MarkedMan says:

    This entire convesation is shortchanged by Biden’s appearance on Colbert. Here’s the first. There’s twomore.