Yesterday, I made my first appearance on local TV since 2005, during the Adscam story that briefly made me a curious intrusion on Canadian politics. It’s not for a lack of invitations; KMSP has been asking me to appear for quite a while, but the timing has always been bad. Last night, though, the stars aligned properly and I made an appearance on the 9 pm news, for what was supposed to be a discussion about surviving gaffes in politics, which is the topic of my column today for The Week. Instead, Carrie Lucking of the progressive group Alliance for a Better Minnesota ended up debating Todd Akin’s comments, which is pretty much what I expected. Toward the end, I grew tired of hearing the term “gaffe” applied to Joe Biden’s “chains” comment, and explained the difference:
Let’s be clear on both counts. Akin’s statement on the legitimacy of a rape claim being suspect in the case of pregnancy isn’t your garden-variety gaffe; it’s an exposure of some very muddled and factually-deficient thinking, for which Akin deserves all of the castigation he’s been getting. However, Akin wasn’t smearing his opponent or attempting to incite fear and hatred into a campaign to benefit himself. That’s what Joe Biden did with the “chains” comment, which as I wrote last week was no gaffe at all. It was a deliberate and malicious strategy.
Todd Akin has at least apologized for his boneheaded assertion. Neither Biden nor the Obama campaign has apologized for their smear.
Meanwhile, my column offers three reasons why the two incidents have had different impacts on the narrative:
1. Timing is everything
Republicans reacted quickly to distance themselves from Akin, in part because of the content of the remarks, but also because of a looming ballot deadline. Even though Akin won the nomination in a primary two weeks ago, the state Republican Party could still replace Akin — at least until 5 p.m. CT on Tuesday. The looming deadline marks a point of no return. Had Akin offered his views on the relative legitimacy of rape claims and the ability of women to purge hostile sperm a week later, it would be much more difficult to replace him; in fact, it would take a court order. Under those conditions, would organizations like the NRSC be as willing to cut Akin off and lose Missouri? Possibly, but more than likely they would have found less drastic ways to express their distance and displeasure.
In contrast, despite the speculation that arose after Biden’s latest controversial statement, there is no practical way to replace Biden on the Democratic ticket short of a medical emergency. In order to make a change like that, the Obama administration would have had to prepare the political environment for months, easing Biden out at a time when it would not have looked like a desperation move. When Sarah Palin publicly called for Obama to drop Biden, that route was all but taken off the table.
2. Have somewhere to hide
Biden had another advantage over Akin — he could get off the campaign trail to let the anger die down. That’s also true for politicians who act as surrogates for other candidates; DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz reportedly got benched when the Obama campaign discovered that her media appearances made her the least-liked surrogate on their roster. Unfortunately, Akin is the GOP candidate in Missouri’s Senate race, not a surrogate or a running mate. If he wants to win, he has to run — and that means no hiding.
3. The more you gaffe, the safer you are
That may sound counterintuitive, but consider the lack of attention to Biden gaffes at this stage of his career. The media is so used to Biden gaffes that only the true aficionados even collect them anymore. Had Akin been as well known and the media as inured to his verbal missteps, Akin’s comment about “legitimate rape” might not have caused as much outrage.
After being caught plagiarizing British Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s speeches in 1987 — right down to adopting Kinnock’s family history as his own — Biden has hardly relented in his gaffe production. A few years ago, Biden tried adopting an Indian accent to describe his customer experience at 7-Eleven. Even in this past week, Biden mistook the century in which we live, asking, “[W]here’s it written we cannot lead the world in the 20th century in making automobiles?” The Los Angeles Times reported last week that the White House stopped providing transcripts from Biden events two months ago; Politico reported at the same time that Biden’s handlers try wheedling the media into editing Biden’s statements to cover his gaffes.
To which one can probably add this: it’s easier to survive a gaffe or scandal if one is Democrat. Would an exposed plagiarist ever get a chance to be on a Republican national ticket in a presidential election? I think not; the media would be (conveniently) outraged over such history. Or how about this endorsement of China’s brutal one-child policy, a “gaffe” that took place one year ago today?
Yeah, I think if a Republican had said that, the media would still be talking about it today. As they should be with Biden, too.
Note: It was a pleasure to meet Carrie Lucking and debate her; we had a very nice conversation both before and after the segment. Also, it felt good to be able to stand during that segment without any back pain.