Politics & Policy

The Trouble with Joe

The vice president speaks in Durham, N.C., August 13, 2012.
The vice president is an embarrassment to the White House.

The Obama campaign told the Hill on Tuesday that it “is confident Vice President Biden will be an effective foil” for Paul Ryan despite Biden’s latest gaffe. I’m not so sure, and neither are some Democrats.

Biden’s rhetorical belly-flop yesterday was a doozy. He first told a largely black audience in Danville, Va., that he hoped they could help Obama win North Carolina. He followed that up with the claim that Mitt Romney wanted to “unchain Wall Street.” He then switched to a comic down-home accent and bellowed, “They’re gonna put y’all back in chains!”

#ad#Willie Geist, a co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, was blunt: “If Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate, said that to an African-American audience, there would be calls this morning for him to get out of the race, for Mitt Romney to withdraw from the race. There’s a double standard.”

But there has been a double standard for Joe Biden for decades, and almost every reporter in Washington knows it. Last night, a frustrated Rudy Giuliani acknowledged it on CNBC. “I’ve never seen a vice president that has made as many mistakes, said as many stupid things,” he told Larry Kudlow. “I mean, there’s a real fear if, God forbid, he ever had to be entrusted with the presidency, whether he really has the mental capacity to handle it. I mean, this guy just isn’t bright. He’s never been bright. He isn’t bright. And people think, ‘Well, he just talks a little too much.’ Actually, he’s just not very smart.”

Biden has been very lucky that the national media have largely given him a pass until now. American history for the last half-century has been replete with Republicans who have been portrayed by the elite media as dim or addled — from Dwight Eisenhower to Gerald Ford to Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle to, of course, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. No Democrat with comparable national stature has been saddled with a similar reputation. The media have tended to explain away Biden’s strange statements and unforced errors by saying, “Oh, well. That’s just Joe, you know.” Or they casually admit, “Well, he just talks a bit too much,” and then move on.

In the middle of a hotly contested presidential campaign, that may now be changing. In the Washington Post yesterday, Alexandra Petri discussed “the trouble with Joe” and took the VP to task for “periodically alarming outbursts” that are unbecoming of the second-highest office in the land. “He inspires the sort of discomfort one feels upon introducing one’s fiancé to Grandpa after he has had a Scotch too many,” Petri scolded. “His cringe-inducing gaffes . . . inspire less anger than embarrassment.” A New York publishing source told me that “Biden is now seen as a Catholic Sam Goldwyn, and that’s not a good place to be.” Sam Goldwyn was the legendary Hollywood producer who was known for malapropisms (“A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on”).

The White House has to worry that for the next 82 days Joe Biden will be under tremendous scrutiny — especially given the fact that Paul Ryan has become such a media-attention magnet. Everyone is anticipating the October 11 debate between Biden and Ryan. Biden’s penchant for off-the-cuff remarks doesn’t inspire confidence that he won’t unintentionally blurt something out when facing Ryan. For example, he embarrassed the Obama administration recently by prematurely revealing he was “comfortable” with gay marriage — forcing his boss to suddenly endorse gay marriage on a timetable not of his choosing.

Biden’s erratic statements certainly should make Team Obama nervous. I’ve no doubt that some Democratic strategists would love for Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to swap jobs and bolster the Democratic ticket with a little Clinton magic. But there’s no evidence that Hillary would take that deal. If she wants to run, she is already the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination and would gain no advantage by being yoked to Obama, her old adversary, for the next three months if they lost or the next four years if they won.

So Democrats are stuck with Old Joe, who will turn 70 this November. It’s said that few people vote for a presidential ticket based on who is filling the No. 2 slot. But some do, and they may matter in a very close race. It’s likely that by the time this campaign ends, a lot of people will be more nervous about Joe Biden being a heartbeat away from the presidency than about Paul Ryan.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO and a co-author of the newly released Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk (Encounter Books).

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