By Clarence Page
OK, we saw this coming, didn’t we? Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has a well-known history of gaffes, spouted another one Thursday night by telling a group of mostly minority voters in Iowa that “poor kids” are just as bright as “white kids.”
That’s awkward. But let us not even try to pretend a moral equivalence between Biden’s racial gaffes and the verbal assaults against minority lawmakers that President Donald Trump has committed on purpose.
Biden’s latest blooper occurred while he was speaking off the cuff — always a risky proposition for the talkative Joe — on the issue of education at a town hall in Des Moines hosted by the Asian and Latino Coalition. “We should challenge students in these schools that have advanced placement programs in these schools,” he says on a video clip from the event. “We have this notion that somehow if you’re poor, you cannot do it. Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”
He paused there for a moment, perhaps to play back in his mind whether he had just said what he meant to say. Some audience members notably broke into applause, indicating that they heard what he meant to say. Over the applause, he added, “Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids, no I really mean it, but think how we think about it.”
Of course, a lot of people soon were thinking about what Biden was thinking and what he said about it.
Biden has been running well ahead of the crowded Democratic race for the presidential nomination, although Elizabeth Warren has been closing the gap in at least one new poll. That poll, released by Monmouth University on Thursday, shows Biden ahead with 28% of likely 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus voters, and Warren moving up to 19% support, compared to 7% in April.
The misfortune of Biden’s latest blooper is in its reminder of questions that have persistently dogged his candidacy. Is the 76-year-old still sharp enough to handle the presidency or even his own campaign? Can he suppress his tendency on the campaign stump to cheerfully talk his way into linguistic and diplomatic potholes? Is he “woke” enough to satisfy the party’s progressive wing? Or do they ask too much?
Who, for example, could forget the gaffe that sank his second presidential campaign? On the day in February 2007 when he launched that effort, the then-senator from Delaware found himself defending comments he’d made a week earlier about his rival contender, then-Sen. Barack Obama from Illinois.
Biden intended to compliment Obama in an interview with the New York Observer when he described him as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
That remark ignited a hailstorm of comments and commentary, including some from black writers, including me, to explain why, among other sensitivities, the adjective “articulate” irritates many African Americans with its implication that, for us, speaking English well must be a monumental feat.
Obama did a lot to redeem Biden’s reputation by naming him to be his running mate, a decision that Biden on the stump never lets anyone forget.
This time I hope Biden doesn’t abruptly drop out as a result of this gaffe, as he did in 2007. At this time of heightened national tensions, some of them stirred up by the president’s base-focused campaign, Americans in both parties need to talk more about where this country is going on race and other identity issues, not less.
And, of course, President Trump has done a lot to lower the bar of decency that used to doom the campaigns of candidates who offended women and minorities, intentionally or not, and he has had many defenders.
On Thursday, for example, a reporter for the conservative Breitbart news site accused Biden of misquoting Trump’s infamous description of the white supremacists at the 2017 Charlottesville clash between racist and anti-racist groups as “very fine people.”
Breitbart picked up on a popular right-wing talking point that notes Trump’s condemnation of the supremacists elsewhere in his remarks — although not as vigorously, in my view, as his declaration that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
I tend to side with Biden after having seen Trump’s remarks in context. Trump’s condemnation of neo-Nazis and anti-racists argues for a moral equivalence between both sides that, on that day of all days, was not deserved by the side that had the white supremacists.
Voters should now have the opportunity to judge Biden and other contenders not just for what they say but also for what they say they really mean.