Do Joe Biden’s Gaffes Still Matter in the Age of Trump?

Former Vice President Joe Biden at The Graduate Center of CUNY in the New York City, July 11, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
The Democratic presidential frontrunner’s unforced errors continue to multiply. He’s hoping voters won’t care.

To those Democrats who hope he possesses the magic formula for beating President Donald Trump, former vice president Joe Biden’s latest string of gob-smacking gaffes is a sign of authenticity and even lovability.

To those Democrats who doubt that the 76-year-old veteran of nearly five decades of political warfare is the man to lead their party in 2020, Biden’s predilection for making verbal errors is proof that he isn’t up to the task. Biden’s inability to speak impromptu without putting his foot in his mouth reminds them of how badly he flopped during his previous two presidential campaigns. They (and many Republicans) hope that his mistakes will derail his path to the nomination. And even if he does succeed in becoming the Democratic presidential nominee, they assume that his mistakes will cost him the general election.

There are some good reasons to believe the Biden skeptics. The former vice president’s mistake-filled campaign rollout, debate performances, and appearances on the trail in the early going haven’t inspired confidence. His endless string of apologies and rationalizations for his past political positions on issues such as busing and crime, not to mention his treatment of Anita Hill, have angered the party’s left-leaning base, which will likely have a bigger say in determining the nomination than it had four years ago. His age may also count against him.

But Biden’s ability to stay atop the polls despite all of these problems should give pause to those who assume that his endless gaffes will be his undoing. As much as his mistakes reflect a lack of verbal discipline and a sketchy command of policy details, such shortcomings may no longer matter as much as they once did in American politics.

As Biden’s defenders never tire of pointing out, his gaffes are no worse than the ones the current commander-in-chief makes on a near-hourly basis. Four years ago, most pundits were sure that with each successive controversial statement, Trump had committed campaign suicide. What few outside the Trump camp understood was that the more Trump spoke in an unpresidential manner, the more his supporters liked it.

Can Biden expect the same indulgence from Democrats? Probably not, since he doesn’t have the same kind of fervently loyal fan base that Trump has, and mainstream Democrats who like him do so in spite of his flaws, not because of them.

But it may not matter, because the rise of social media and the end of the era in which mainstream media and broadcast outlets dominated the dissemination of political news have radically altered the way gaffes are received in a presidential campaign.

In the past, when a critical mass of TV talking heads, print editors, and reporters decided that an incident was damning, that generally determined the controlling narrative about a candidate. In today’s news environment, with the proliferation of Internet news outlets and the increasing number of voters who get their political news from Facebook and Twitter, not even the most appalling gaffe will necessarily be viewed as having the same importance, let alone the same decisive impact, as it might have in an earlier era. With so many Americans exclusively consuming news that reaffirms their political beliefs, there are fewer chances that a verbal error will persuade a voter to think ill of someone he likes.

Nevertheless, even the most sympathetic reading of Biden’s statements — and not every left-wing cable-news commentator or New York Times columnist will show him mercy — isn’t going to help if he can’t go a few weeks without providing Trump an opportunity to claim that he isn’t “playing with a full deck.”

Democrats who have spent the past three years bashing Trump for not behaving as if his words (or tweets) matter may find it hard to ignore Biden’s mistakes forever. Those who see his ability to connect with working-class white voters as the silver bullet that will make the bad dream of 2016 go away may also worry that his propensity for verbal gaffes will make it harder for him to stand up to Trump’s inevitable onslaught next fall.

But for now, Biden’s staying power in the polls demonstrates that a presidential campaign’s success isn’t necessarily determined by the candidate’s ability to avoid mistakes. Like Trump before him, Biden just might blunder his way into the general election in spite of himself.