Vice President Joe Biden did it again. Speaking at a Virginia rally Tuesday that included hundreds of black supporters, he warned that Republican efforts to loosen bank regulations meant, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”
Imagine if Paul Ryan said something so foolish and inflammatory. Surely there would be the kind of indignation aroused by Ross Perot when he said “you people” in addressing an NAACP convention in 1992. Or the indignation caused by Bill Clinton when he noted during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama won a state primary that Jesse Jackson also won.
But Biden gaffes are treated by most liberals in the mass media as just “Joe being Joe.”
As Democratic leaders try to demonize Ryan, it’s fair to ask if there’s a double standard in coverage of the VP candidates. Biden has a long history of saying things that would have elicited ridicule by the same people who loved to mock Sarah Palin for her gaffes.
Have any prominent Democrats ever publicly warned that Biden is “only a heartbeat away from the presidency”?
Apparently there’s a double standard in judging remarks that seem racially insensitive. When Biden opposed Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination he had to apologize for saying, "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man." Later Biden said his “compliment” was taken out of context, a common excuse in politics.
But now that Biden is on the ticket with Obama he didn’t have to apologize for saying, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.” Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said the president would have “no problem with those comments.”
OK, so Biden made two insensitive comments. Surely we can forgive — oh, wait. There was also that candid video on C-SPAN where he told an Indian-American: "In Delaware, the largest growth of population is Indian-Americans, moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking." But apparently he was joking when, during a speech in New Hampshire, he broke into an Indian accent.
At the rally Tuesday where he made the “chains” gaffe, he imitated the sign language woman and said, “You’re gonna have trouble translating all this! That poor lady, she’s gonna have tendonitis by the time she finishes this.”
Again, can you imagine what Democratic leaders would say if Ryan sounded so foolish? Rather than being amused, they’d say it was revealing, disturbing and proof that Romney made a terrible mistake in picking him.
To be fair, many of Biden’s cringe-worthy gaffes were due to ignorance, not prejudice. Speaking at a rally in Missouri, he called on a paraplegic state senator in a wheelchair to “stand up” before acknowledging, “What am I talking about?” In Florida, he called the Everglades the “Ever-gators.”
Sometimes his gaffes are just instances of his being foolishly indiscreet. Speaking to the House Democratic caucus before the 2010 election, he said this about the president’s $900 billion economic stimulus package: “If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong." The president was dismissive of Biden’s remark at a press conference: "I don't remember exactly what Joe was referring to, not surprisingly."
Imagine if Ryan said such a thing about Romney’s economic plan — that “there’s still a 30 percent chance we’re going to get it wrong.” Pundits would call it a game-changing blunder.
Three weeks before the 2008 election, Biden was equally candid when he told donors at a private fundraising event: "Remember, I said it standing here, if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."
Again, imagine if Ryan said such a thing about Romney: "Remember, I said it standing here, if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."
If you are a strong Obama-Biden supporter, perhaps you don’t believe that Ryan gaffes would trigger more negative news coverage than Biden gaffes. That’s understandable.
“Why is this joke funny?” an anthropologist-comedian asked people at a comedy club, in an NPR story last week. He discovered that humor is quite relative. "People's implicit beliefs, unconscious beliefs and preferences, matched what they found funny.”
The theory of humor relativity is supported by plenty of evidence from the political lab. Partisans laugh at mockery of politicians they hate, but resent mockery of pols they like.
A similar relativity is seen in the way people view gaffes. When Biden says something foolish, liberals will continue to see it as an innocent mistake, just “Joe being Joe.”
In conclusion, as Biden might put it: Remember, if you don’t remember anything else I wrote — watch, Ryan will say something that will be treated like an international crisis. And Biden will be one of those who condemn him for it.
Todd Domke is WBUR’s Republican analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.
This program aired on August 15, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.