With Iowa still holding the coveted position as the first stop on the 2020 primary calendar, the Hawkeye State is a constant draw for candidates leading up the first-in-the-nation caucus next year on February 3. The Iowa State Fair is a big venue for candidates where they get to mingle directly with voters from all over the state and take their turn on the state fair Political Soapbox, a special stage set aside for 5-minute political stump speeches.
For former vice president Joe Biden, however, the past few days in Iowa have been rather unforgiving. Ranging from misremembering dates of events to confusing geographical locations, culminating with a statement equating “poor kids” as meaning non-white kids, Biden made many unforced errors which are giving some voters concern over his ability to tackle Donald Trump next year, as the Wall Street Journal reports:
Joe Biden has made a series of gaffes in recent days that reinforced his reputation as an inconsistent campaigner and raised questions among some in the party about whether he is the strongest Democratic challenger to President Trump.
The former vice president’s bumpy ride has played out in national media and at events across Iowa, which hosts the first Democratic presidential primary balloting in less than six months.
The most recent missteps came on Thursday and Saturday as the 76-year-old Mr. Biden worked through a four-day tour of a state where anything short of a first-place finish could seriously damage his prospects for winning the party’s nomination next year.
The most recent slip came Saturday afternoon at a forum here organized by gun-control advocates, where he said he had met as vice president with students after the deaths of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
That massacre happened in 2018 and Mr. Biden left office in January 2017.
The Parkland error followed a gaffe Thursday when he said “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” He quickly added: “wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids,” but the damage was done as it appeared that he had equated wealth and whiteness.
On Saturday, Mr. Biden said he “misspoke” and meant to say “wealthy.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Biden’s misstatements is that everyone, press included, and other candidates, know what he generally meant to say, and seemingly forgive him for the mistake.
There are some analysts and opinion writers, however, who aren’t so forgiving and are reaching back to Biden’s comments about the up and coming Barack Obama as evidence that the “poor kids” remark reveals the way Biden thinks about these issues in his own head.
John McWhorter, writing in The Atlantic, questions Biden’s “gaffes” and wonders whether this is a pattern Democrats need to seriously examine:
But still—“white” kids versus “poor” ones. The reason even Biden’s fans are cringing at this remark is that it implies an equation between being poor and being a person of color, and perhaps also that all high-achieving students are white.
And it isn’t the first time Biden has let slip sociological assumptions of this kind. Who can forget Biden sunnily crowing that Barack Obama, when first running for president, was a godsend in being a “mainstream” African American who combined the traits of being “articulate and bright and clean.”
Besides the memory-friendly ABC sequence of the words, that remark was almost uncannily complete in summing up age-old stereotypes about what it is to be black. Few educated black people are unfamiliar with being called “articulate” for simply speaking about as confidently as their white equivalents; the veiled notion is that the black norm is to be somewhat ungifted with words. Then “bright” harbors a quiet yet pitiless condescension. (After the acclaimed theater director Harold Prince’s passing last week, I think of when the playboy Bobby in Company says to a flight attendant he just slept with but is ambivalent about seeing again, “Look, you’re a very special girl,” and “not just because you’re bright.”) As to noting that Obama is “clean,” little needs to even be said.
Biden’s underlying schema was the one minted in the era of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where being accomplished, poised, and well-spoken was seen as remarkable in a black man; in white men, by contrast, those traits were seen as signs of basic middle-class maturity.
That’s a rather brutal explanation of Biden’s remarks by McWhorter, but he’s not alone in feeling that way. In a sense, he’s arguing the continuation of the line of attack opened by Sen. Kamala Harris in the first Democratic debate. The argument basically sums up as Biden being too out of touch, and too tinged by racially insensitive politics of the past. The allegation is not so much that Biden is racist, but that he came up in an era when soft racism was commonplace and he just can’t shake some of it from his vocabulary and train of thought.
Candidates Focus On Trump, Not Biden
Perhaps a strategy of knowing when to stand back and get out of the way while your rival trips over his own words, Biden’s 2020 competitors haven’t said much about his Iowa gaffes. On the contrary, they’re focused on Donald Trump, the person they’ve labeled as a “white supremacist” over the past few days, according to the New York Times:
Asked in a brief interview with The New York Times if she thought Mr. Trump was a white supremacist, Ms. Warren responded without hesitation: “Yes.”
“He has given aid and comfort to white supremacists,” Ms. Warren said during a campaign swing in western Iowa. “He’s done the wink and a nod. He has talked about white supremacists as fine people. He’s done everything he can to stir up racial conflict and hatred in this country.”
Ms. Warren’s comments amounted to one of the starkest condemnations to date from a leading Democratic presidential candidate about Mr. Trump’s language toward minorities and immigrants. She spoke hours after former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas gave the same assessment of Mr. Trump. Asked by MSNBC if Mr. Trump was a white supremacist, Mr. O’Rourke replied, “He is.”
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“He’s dehumanized or sought to dehumanize those who do not look like or pray like the majority here in this country,” Mr. O’Rourke said.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, another leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, also believes Mr. Trump is a white supremacist. Mr. Sanders was asked on CNN on Sunday if he agreed that the president was “a white supremacist or a white nationalist,” and Mr. Sanders replied, “I do.” A senior campaign official confirmed on Thursday that Mr. Sanders believed Mr. Trump was both.
I went looking this morning for stories that chronicled candidates being asked about Biden’s Iowa gaffes. There were none to find. Either the media isn’t asking campaigns to comment, or the dust hasn’t yet settled on events from the weekend. The most likely response from the other candidates will be one which explains that Biden made a mistake and that they don’t believe he had any racial intentions. Then the shift would be back to Donald Trump.
In the interest of cleaning up all the loose ends, Biden says he “misspoke” last week and meant to say “wealthy kids” instead of “white kids”:
Joe Biden said Saturday that he misspoke when he botched a line about poor children and white children while campaigning in Iowa this week, adding that he doubted anyone misunderstood him.
“Look, I misspoke,” Biden told reporters at a gun violence forum here. “I meant to say ‘wealthy.’ I’ve said it 15 [times]. On the spot, I explained it. At that very second, I explained it. And so, the fact of the matter is that I don’t think anybody thinks that I meant anything other than what I said I meant.”
Taken individually, Biden’s misstatements and misremembering of dates or locations won’t amount to much since he’s had a long political career of making similar types of mistakes. For Biden, it’s already baked in the caked, to some extent. However, it’s there and ripe for the taking if another candidate decides to latch in and basically make an argument that beating Donald Trump will take a much more polished candidate, not prone to these kinds of unforced embarrassing errors on a national campaign trail.