He needed an easy target, and for his long-awaited return to HBO, the late Robin Williams settled on the incumbent vice president. “We still have great comedy out there,” Williams said on stage at Constitution Hall. “There’s always ramblin’ Joe Biden.”
And the riff killed. The crowd just a couple blocks from the White House howled at the expense of the National No. 2, and Williams had no shortage of impressions and material to deliver:
Biden says the craziest things — Even people with Tourette’s go, “No. No! What is going on?”
Biden might be crazy — Joe is like your uncle who’s on a new drug and hasn’t got the dosage right. “I’m proud to work with Barack America.” He’s not a superhero, you idiot!
Biden needs to be sedated — Come here! “When FDR was on television…” There was no TV back then! Come here, Joe!
The skit ended with Williams mock-Tasering an elderly and imaginary vice president to the ground. It was just a year into the Obama administration, and the title of the comedy special was “Weapons of Self-Destruction.”
A decade later, and Biden continues to provide material. Even confined by coronavirus to the bowels of his Delaware home, Uncle Joe has been and remains comically inarticulate, inexplicably insensitive on race, and inadvertently funny. This time, however, his many gaffes have not led to any self-destruction. Far from it. The former vice president continues to thump the current president in the polls. The RealClearPolitics national average shows Biden ahead by 6.4 percentage points.
Either gaffes just don’t ruin a candidate as they once did, or the electorate is willing to cut Biden slack after four years of Donald J. Trump’s presidency/reality TV show. Either way, there is a lot to overlook. The presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party has had a summer that surely has his primary opponents wondering how they ever lost to the guy.
When time was running short during a May interview on “The Breakfast Club,” host Charlamagne tha God asked for one more question. “You’ve got more questions?” Biden told the African American interviewer. “Well, I tell you what: If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” He later apologized for the exchange by saying he “shouldn’t have been such a wise guy.”
But there was no apology after Biden mocked an African American journalist for supposedly doing drugs. Errol Barnett of CBS asked if the candidate had taken a cognitive abilities test, as Trump has. “Why the hell would I take a test? Come on, man,” Biden exploded. “That’s like saying to you, before you got on this program, if you’d taken a test. Were you taking cocaine? … What do you think, huh? Are you a junkie?” A spokesman later defended the rough rebuttal by saying it was “a preposterous question” and the response “showed the absurdity of it all.”
While political junkies were still debating that exchange, Biden followed up the controversy with another. During an interview with members of the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Biden shared some demographic thoughts. Asked about returning to the negotiation table with the Cuban government, he said yes and then went off on a tangent.
“And by the way, what you all know, but most people don’t know, unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes about different things,” Biden explained.
“Uhh… did Joe Biden just say that Black people are all the same?” the Trump campaign tweeted, suggesting that the whole exchange was racist.
“If you look at the full video and transcript, it’s clear that Vice President Biden was referring to diversity of attitudes among Latinos from different Latin American countries. The video that is circulating is conveniently cut to make this about racial diversity, but that’s not the case,” Biden senior advisor Symone Sanders told RCP.
That explanation, combined with past precedents, would indicate that Biden’s remarks won’t cause him much trouble. His record on race was already under scrutiny, particularly his opposition to mandatory school busing and his authorship of the 1994 Crime Bill, when the candidate compared white and minority children. “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” he said last August in Iowa. And then after a pause, he clarified: “Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids — no, I really mean it. But think how we think about it.” A spokeswoman for the campaign told the New York Times that Biden had “misspoke and immediately corrected himself.”
Correction came more swiftly when he claimed during the fifth Democratic primary debate that he was endorsed by the “only African American woman that’s ever been elected to the U.S. Senate.” The crowd groaned and Kamala Harris laughed. The African American senator from California threw her hands up in exasperation and shot back, “Nope. That’s not true. The other one is here.”
Journalists wondered at the time whether the elder statesman had simply forgotten that Harris existed. Embarrassing but hardly fatal, the gaffe is long forgotten. Nine months later, the second African American woman elected to the Senate has, in fact, endorsed Biden. What’s more, she is a front-runner to be his running mate.
Republicans have watched in wonder as the Democrat walks away again and again unscathed from so many mistakes. They dream of the moment when Biden finally places his foot in his mouth and can’t remove it. Their fantasy is it will come during the presidential debates. They might do well to remember the words of former Rep. Pat Schroeder. The Colorado Democrat famously said of Ronald Reagan that he had “perfected the Teflon-coated presidency: He sees to it that nothing sticks.”
Reaganites would consider it sacrilege to compare Uncle Joe to the Gipper, but he’s not running against Ronald Reagan. He’s running against the un-Reagan. The former vice president keeps rambling, as Robins Williams would put it, and yet nothing sticks, perhaps because of who he’s facing in November. Columnist Paul Waldman recently argued in the Washington Post that the gaffe is dead, and “for that, we can thank Trump.”
Yet, the Waldman theorem only explains Biden of the pandemic era, not Biden of the last three decades. His has been a career defined by explicit hot-mic moments (“This is a big f—— deal,” he told Obama before that president signed the Affordable Care Act), questionable rhetoric on race (“You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or Dunkin Donuts,” he once quipped, “unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking”), and occasional, unintentional hilarity (once, he bit his wife’s finger on stage in Iowa; another time he told students at Howard University that both he and Obama were recently tested for AIDS).
But Biden has an uncanny habit of stepping in it and then stepping over controversy and into prominence. He launched his second failed bid for the presidency in 2007 and promptly sized up one of his competitors, then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” He ended that cycle as Obama’s No. 2.
Four years later, it was clear that time spent one beat away from the presidency did not temper his sensibilities. Stumping for a second term with Obama in 2012, he told a mostly African American audience that, if Mitt Romney won the White House, Republicans would “put y’all back in chains.”
Such words have hardly slowed Biden’s rise. On the contrary, he owes his coming nomination to support from the African American community. He was losing, and losing badly, in the primary race when he ducked out of New Hampshire. He had watched Sen. Bernie Sanders take first in that state and then saw the Democratic socialist carry Nevada. A young, obscure mayor named Pete Buttigieg, who has never won the popular vote in a state-wide election, secured the most delegates in Iowa. By the time South Carolina rolled around, autopsies were already being prepped. The only thing left was to note the time of death.
When the wheels of his plane rolled to a halt in South Carolina, Biden was not subtle. Forget the other early races, he told a crowd at the airport, “We haven’t heard from the most committed constituency of the Democratic Party.” He meant, he said, “the African American community, and the fastest growing segment of society, the Latino community.”
Reading the stage directions may have made his advisers wince. But black voters loved it. Biden carried South Carolina and then went on to an impressive sweep on Super Tuesday. Soon he will accept the nomination and then go head-to-head with Trump. His strongest support comes from the African American community — those voters who, conventional wisdom suggests, would be most offended each time he puts his foot in his mouth.
If current polling holds, regardless of the inevitable gaffes ahead, Robin Williams might be right a second time: “There’s always ramblin’ Joe Biden.” The Democrat may soon “ramble” his way back into the White House. This time, as president.