Mike Littwin: For Biden, the issue now is when a gaffe is more than a gaffe
Fair and Unbalanced
You’ve probably heard of Joe Biden’s latest gaffe, which wasn’t actually a gaffe, but something maybe worse. It certainly wasn’t funny. And Biden took a hard pass on the chance to put it down as just another Uncle Joe goof.
He didn’t say, as he did last December, “I am a gaffe machine, but my God what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth.”
The truth — the real truth — is that electability is the whole of Biden’s campaign. He says he doesn’t know if he’d even be in the race if it weren’t for the fact of Donald Trump. Biden is running on the notion that we need to be rid of Trump if we ever hope to Make America Normal Again.
MANA? Why not?
Even though the latest polls show all the leading Democrats beating Trump one-to-one and Biden himself says that any Democrat should be able to beat Trump, Biden is still the leader in the clubhouse. The latest Quinnipiac poll has Biden beating Trump by 14 points. And yet.
Here’s the story: Before a New Hampshire audience, Biden tells of a Navy captain, who, while under fire, made his way down a 60-foot ravine in Afghanistan to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade. It was 2008 in Konar province, and an American general had asked Biden to take the trip to pin a Silver Star on the war hero. And here’s where the story breaks your heart.
“He said, ‘Sir, I don’t want the damn thing!’” Biden said of the heroic captain. “ ‘Do not pin it on me, sir! Please, sir. Do not do that! He died. He died!’ ”
The hero didn’t think he deserved the medal. The person he tried to rescue had died.
As The Washington Post describes Biden’s telling of the story, the room went silent.
“This is the God’s truth,” Biden told those in the audience. “My word as a Biden.”
You know the kicker by now. Nearly every detail in the story is wrong. Biden had apparently confused details from three different stories and made them into one.
And even though nearly every detail was wrong, Biden hasn’t backed down when asked about the story. He told Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, “I was making the point how courageous these people are, how incredible they are, this generation of warriors, these fallen angels we’ve lost. I don’t know what the problem is. What is it that I said wrong?”
Is Biden suggesting that it doesn’t matter whether the details are wrong if he’s making the right point? If so, that’s more than a gaffe when you’re planning to face off against the nation’s leading liar.
Biden’s story is true except that it was a young soldier, not a Navy captain. And Biden, who was still a senator at the time, didn’t pin any medal on Army specialist Kyle J. White, who, seven years later, would receive the Medal of Honor for his act of heroism from Barack Obama in a White House ceremony. As far as I know, White didn’t ask Obama not to hang the medal around his neck.
There was another Biden trip to Afghanistan and a story of a reluctant hero three years later in 2011, in which Biden did pin a medal on him. And in an actual 2008 story, Biden was accompanied by Sens. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as they watched a general pin a Bronze Star on someone who had rescued a fallen soldier who had been hit while manning a machine gun. The rescued soldier lived and even returned to combat. All of those stories are compelling and make the same point.
Obviously, no one should think to compare this to Trump’s daily mendacious assault on the truth. Biden didn’t lie. He didn’t try to hurt anyone or say he was the Chosen One. Trump tells lies as a matter of course. The Chinese called. The First Lady knows Kim Jong Un. Vladimir Putin was kicked out of the then-G8 because he “outsmarted” Obama.
The problem for Biden is that if he is the nominee, that’s exactly the comparison Trump and the Trumpists will make.
As to the string of gaffes, Dana Milbank wrote recently that Biden is the Lamborghini of gaffe machines. Of recent vintage: He said “What’s not to like about Vermont?” when he was in likable-enough New Hampshire. He got the wrong decade on the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — “In the late ’70s, when I got engaged.” He got the sites of the recent mass murders wrong. It’s a long list.
You might see that as lovable or overblown or bothsidesism or you might worry that Biden, at 76, would be 78 when he assumed office and — at the risk of inviting ageism here — might have slipped over the years. But the three Democrats leading in the polls are all 70 or older. So, of course, is Trump. And close Biden watchers concede that it’s almost impossible to measure whether Biden is more prone to Bidenisms these days. Biden has always been Biden.
And electability is, as we’ve learned, difficult to gauge. Just a few years ago, it seemed unlikely that a Boulder liberal was the obvious choice to be Colorado’s governor. Meanwhile, in 2016, most people assumed Hillary Clinton was the most electable Democrat and that Trump couldn’t possibly win. I’d say whoever wins the 2020 Democratic primary is probably electable. And I’d say whoever wins the Democratic primary will face a campaign nastier than anything he/she has experienced before.
The war story is just a blip in a long campaign and won’t cost Biden a point in the polls. The big story is Hurricane Dorian and the danger it might bring to the Florida coast.
But if, as in the case of Biden, your entire campaign is based on electability and you know everyone is watching more closely than ever, it’s fair to say that this is the time you’d better be able to keep your story straight.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.