I just watched the Hardball segment on Vice President Biden’s statement, to a mixed Virginia audience, that the Republicans would put “y’all back in chains.” Chris Matthews’s defense of Biden was an extended exercise in tu quoque: Some birthers make up stuff about where Obama was born, and Newt Gingrich called Obama the “food-stamp president,” so Republicans have no standing to complain about Biden’s rhetoric. I think Matthews is fundamentally mistaken. First of all, it’s right to object to outrageous statements even if people on both sides occasionally resort to them. It’s a matter of standing up for the truth. Second, on the specific point of birtherism, it is one thing for random crackpots to indulge in it — it’s a free country; people can believe in UFOs, birtherism, Sasquatch, whatever — and something else entirely for a major-party vice-presidential nominee to endorse such talk. (If my old friend Paul Ryan started ranting about how Obama was born in Kenya, or was a secret Muslim, or any such fringe twaddle, believe you me, I would object. What I would not do is go on TV and say, “That’s okay, because the Democrats say mean stuff too.”)
Third, and finally, on Gingrich and the “food-stamp president” comment: Far from exculpating Biden, this comparison indicts him all the more — because the two comments are exactly similar in the most important regard. They both use phrases with emotive racial connotations in a way that partisan supporters can (albeit implausibly) deny if they’re called on it. Gosh, I wasn’t making a racial point at all in associating the black guy with food stamps, I was just criticizing the president’s harmful economic policies! And now: Gosh, I wasn’t suggesting that Republicans favor slavery, I was just using “chains” as a metaphor for their harmful economic policies! I would even suggest to Chris Matthews that Biden’s racial dog whistle was marginally more explicit than Gingrich’s: He said “put y’all “back” in chains” — in a state where, before 1865, one particular ethnic group was, in fact, in chains.
I have mentioned before in this space (here’s one example) my affection for Vice President Biden, an affection that has survived many dumb things he has said. But I think this comment of his wasn’t just dumb, but constitutes race-baiting. I saw a clip in which he later defended the statement, and I urge him not to double down on it any further. An apology is in order: “I misspoke and I’m sorry. I know Republicans don’t want to enslave anyone.” If you don’t trust my advice on the matter, Mr. Vice President, consider this: Your defenders are comparing you to Gingrich.