Thursday’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan had a few memorable moments, but one of them passed by so quickly that it would have been easy to miss. It came just after Ryan got off his best zinger of the night. Biden had just pounced on Romney’s secretly recorded remarks at a fundraiser in which the GOP presidential candidate stated that the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income taxes refuse to take responsibility for their own lives and expect government handouts.
“With respect to that quote, I think the vice president well knows that sometimes the words don’t come out of your mouth the right way,” Ryan said.
That part is being celebrated on conservative blogs as a Ryan slam dunk. Less frequently mentioned is Biden’s response. “But I always say what I mean. And so does Romney.”
This brings up a couple of competing explanations for political gaffes. One is that they just tend to be slips of the tongue from tired politicians whose mouths sometimes get ahead of their brains in live appearances. Then there is the “Kinsley gaffe,” named after my former boss, syndicated columnist Michael Kinsley, who wrote, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth -- some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Biden falls into the Kinsley camp on gaffes, and presuming he’s right, it’s instructive to compare some of Biden’s more celebrated gaffes with Romney’s to see what they say about what each politician really thinks.
We’ll start with Biden, because he is renowned as a master gaffer. His most notorious recent gaffe happened in May, when he said on a TV talk show that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. This got Biden in such hot water, because it made President Obama’s then-confusing stance on same-sex marriage look wishy-washy, that the VP was largely banished from the airwaves. He still made scripted statements, such as at the Democratic National Convention, but didn’t take part in a national TV interview until Thursday.
Biden has also gotten in trouble for a couple of race-based comments, one of which appeared to be race-baiting while the other seemed downright racist. At a campaign stop earlier this year in Virginia, Biden told a largely black crowd that Romney wanted to “Unchain Wall Street -- he’s gonna’ put y’all back in chains.” Even worse, back when he was running for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 campaign, Biden commented about then-opponent Barack Obama that he was “the first mainstream African American who’s articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Or there was the time in 2009 when, at a point when the nation was in a lather about the swine flu, Biden told people that he advised his own family not to travel on airplanes or the subway for fear of picking up germs, a message that deeply annoyed the travel industry and contradicted administration policy.
Biden has plenty of other whoppers, but most of them can be categorized as embarrassing memory mistakes or errors of judgment related to open microphones, such as the time he told a wheelchair-bound Missouri lawmaker to stand up and take a bow, or the time he stood too close the mike after introducing Obama during the signing ceremony for the healthcare bill and, in what he supposed was a private aside to the president allowing for the use of an expletive, said, “This is a big ... deal!”
So if all these things are true, what have we learned about Biden? He genuinely supports gay marriage and isn’t afraid to say so. He has some ambivalent and stereotypical attitudes about race (one also can’t forget the time that, once again unaware he was being recorded, Biden opined that, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent”). He is a germophobe. He has the kind of memory lapses not uncommon among people past middle age. He is, at least when he thinks he’s speaking in private, a lover of four-letter words. And he often exercises bad judgment when it comes to staying on his administration’s message.
Now, on to Romney. His most damaging gaffe is the one that started this whole discussion, the 47% comment. More specifically, what Romney said is: “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it. ... My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
There are others along the same lines. “Corporations are people, my friend,” Romney told a heckler in a campaign appearance last year. “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? People’s pockets, my friend. Human beings.” Or there is the leaked comment Romney made at another GOP fundraiser in May, referring to the fact that his wealthy and politically powerful father George Romney was born in Mexico. “And had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot at winning this. But he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico. He lived there for a number of years. I mean, I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino.” Asked on a morning talk show last month whether someone making $100,000 a year was in the middle-income bracket, Romney responded, “No, middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less.” In a campaign event in Iowa last summer, Romney said of Obama that he “says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
Romney’s other gaffes, like Biden’s, are too numerous to mention here, but most of the other talked-about boo-boos were either poor word choices, such as when he said he “likes being able to fire people,” in reference to health insurers, or diplomatic blunders, such as when he pooh-poohed British preparations for the Olympics during a visit to London, or the time he criticized a statement put out by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo before the facts about frightening attacks there and at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, were fully known.
So what does this tell us about Romney, presuming, despite his own efforts to walk back many of these comments, that he was actually telling the truth when he spoke them? It suggests that he is an elitist who is either too self-centered, too lazy or too politically cynical to learn even the most basic truths about lower-income Americans. They suggest he believes that corporations to have the same rights as people even though they are top-down organizations whose profits are distributed unevenly, whose money is spent by people who didn’t necessarily work to earn it and whose decisions are made not by the majority but a tiny management and investor elite. They suggest he knows absolutely nothing about the challenges of Latino immigrants in the United States. They suggest his idea of government cutbacks is slashing firefighters, police and teachers, precisely the group of government workers that most Americans would agree it’s most crucial to fund. And if he is elected, he’s going to need a lot of on-the-job training when it comes to foreign policy.
Biden’s hidden racial stereotypes, perhaps revealed by his very public Freudian slips, are troubling. Romney’s apparent contempt for Americans of all walks of life who didn’t share his privileged upbringing, nor the other advantages that allowed him to accumulate a fortune, is more so. Which is all the more troubling given that one of these men is a relatively powerless vice president, while the other aspires to be the most powerful person on Earth.
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