Even before Friday, when the Washington Post reported that one of Joe Biden’s go-to stories on the campaign trail is full of half-truths and inaccuracies, the former vice-president’s penchant for gaffes and misstatements were drawing close attention from the pundit class.
After the Post published its article, which exposed the problems with a story Biden often tells of pinning a Silver Star on a soldier in Afghanistan, the attention increased. So did the number Biden allies jumping to his defense. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell wrote on The Hill that the average voter doesn’t care about gaffes. Former DNC chair Donna Brazile said on Fox News that Biden’s “jumbled” thoughts could happen to anybody. “Sometimes when you have a lot of information in your brain and you try to put it out your mouth, it comes across like you are jumbling the story,” she said.
CNN’s Michael Smerconish said he forgave Biden because there was “no puffery” in Biden’s cobbled-together tale. And New York Times columnist David Brooks defended Biden by saying that at least his false statements were not “mendacious” or “irresponsible.”
Finally on Monday, Biden spoke out in his own defense. After previously telling a South Carolina paper that the war story was fine because the “essence” is accurate, he told NPR that he wasn’t trying to mislead with his version of events. And anyway, he added, the relative accuracy of his campaign stories “are irrelevant in terms of decision-making.”
“That has nothing to do with judgment of whether or not you send troops to war, the judgment of whether you bring someone home, the judgment of whether you decide on a health-care policy,” he said on the NPR Politics Podcast and Iowa Public Radio.
This is the common refrain from Biden defenders. Yes, he may say some silly things here and there. He may exaggerate and jumble stories. He may even let slip an accidentally racist remark. But this is an obsession of the media, not the people. And anyway, Biden’s heart is in the right place, unlike the current occupant of the White House.
It’s also what CBS News heard when reporters asked voters in South Carolina about Biden’s string of cringe-inducing gaffes. “He’s human. It makes him real, not scripted,” one said. “I think his heart is in the right place and that’s what we need right now,” said another. Another added: “I don’t think he does anything more than the average person would do. And I think that’s what makes him likable.”
What this analysis misses is that the GOP, and especially the Trump campaign, will not be eager to give Biden the same benefit of the doubt. Instead, if he’s the nominee, every slip of the tongue or overstatement will be another piece of evidence of what Breitbart News called Biden’s “cognitive decline.” Trump himself has already started on it. And the media will be there at every step to catalogue each misstep. That will help build a narrative, and once narratives take hold they’re hard to let go.
The bad news for Team Biden is that this narrative is already catching on. The best evidence for that comes from the publication that helped craft the persona of Biden as a fun-loving, Busch-drinking, Trans Am–driving uncle. Now, these are the types of Biden stories the Onion is running: