A statement of opinion: Just for starters, let it be said:
Paul Krugman's assessment of Biden's remark is a matter of judgment—a matter of opinion.
Last week, Biden was speaking with a radio host who calls himself Charlamagne Tha God. According to the New York Times, the radio host "has been called out for his own gaffes and homophobic, transphobic and sexist comments."
Not that there's anything wrong with it! That said, Biden forgot the basic rule of modern outrage-era politics:
The politician has to be especially careful about what he says to someone named Tha God.
Ignoring this well-known rule, Biden proceeded to make a remark which had been made about three million times by blue-leaning pundits before him. Because we live in The Age of the Gaffe, this set off storms of complaint, largely among a certain subset of blue-leaning pundits.
Krugman was stating his view about this set of events. Midway through his column, he referred to Biden's fleeting remark as "a harmless gaffe"—but as he started, he stated his basic view of the matter:
KRUGMAN (5/26/20): Last week Joe Biden made an off-the-cuff joke that could be interpreted as taking African-American votes for granted. It wasn’t a big deal—Biden, who loyally served Barack Obama, has long had a strong affinity with black voters, and he has made a point of issuing policy proposals aimed at narrowing racial health and wealth gaps. Still, Biden apologized.Was Biden's off-the-cuff remark actually a "joke?" In the hubbub which has ensued, contradictory views have been stated.
And in so doing he made a powerful case for choosing him over Donald Trump in November. You see, Biden, unlike Trump, is capable of admitting error.
Was Biden's possible joke "a big deal?" Krugman said the comment wasn't a big deal; he also said it was "harmless." Others expressed alternate views.
Last Saturday, the controversy hit the front page of the Washington Post. One day later, it led the National section of the New York Times—and in the Times, inevitability struck:
Readers were told that Biden's remark recalled Candidate Clinton's "hot sauce" remark. That remark touched off a gaffe watch during our last presidential campaign, the one which (ever so barely) sent Donald J. Trump to the White House.
So it has gone in our White House campaigns during this, The Age of the Gaffe.
During this, The Age of the Gaffe, our journalists have helped us that the gaffe can take many forms.
As we noted yesterday, there is the spoken gaffe. But there's also the wardrobe gaffe and the hairdo gaffe, and there's the gaffe of the cheese placed on the cheesesteak.
There's the spousal imperfection gaffe. There's the gaffe of what you order to drink while campaigning in a saloon, lounge, dive, restaurant, private club, hell-hole or bar.
Closely related to the gaffe is the question of whether the politician knows the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. There's the gaffe of crying or seeming to cry, even if major journalists have to dream tears up.
Long ago and far away, when the gaffe was being invented, Michael Kinsley defined the emerging phenomenon. According to Kinsley's formulation, "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth."
Kinsley stated that view in 1984, a year in Walter Mondale was caught making accurate statements in public on at least several occasions. By now, the frontiers of the gaffe have been expanded. Indeed, the leading authority on the topic now offers this gaffe catalog:
The term gaffe may be used to describe an inadvertent statement by a politician that the politician believes is true while the politician has not fully analyzed the consequences of publicly stating it. Another definition is a statement made when the politician privately believes it to be true, realizes the dire consequences of saying it, and yet inadvertently utters, in public, the unutterable. Another definition is a politician's statement of what is on his or her mind—this may or may not be inadvertent—thereby leading to a ritualized "gaffe dance" between candidates...A propensity to concentrate on so-called "gaffes" in campaigns has been criticized as a journalistic device that can lead to distraction from real issues. The Kinsley gaffe is said to be a species of the general "political gaffe."Etcetera and so forth and so on! We'll only note that this catalog of gaffes fails to mention a wide array of possible gaffes, including the wardrobe gaffe, the hairdo gaffe, and the gaffe which occurs when the politician tells a joke which is then excitedly treated as a serious comment.
(See Candidate Gore, September 2000, "union lullaby" joke. See giant mainstream press hubbub which followed. See subsequent extremely narrow win by Candidate Bush.)
Was Candidate Biden telling a joke on that radio show? Did he possibly author a jest or a jibe? Was his comment "harmless?"
Those are all matters of opinion. And Biden's remark was made in this, the tribalized era characterized by the deathless cry, No Offense Left Behind.
Because of the nature of the age, offense was instantly taken. This sent Biden to the front page of the Washington Post, the same front page which, today, is discussing the latest pathological insults delivered by the other presumptive candidate in our coming White House election, assuming some such election actually happens.
For ourselves, we wouldn't have made Biden's comment. We think so-called race is correctly regarded as a "suspect category," and not just under strictures of constitutional law.
We would be extremely loath to make joking remarks in the general area of "race." It's generally a bad idea for a pol to do so, even if he's talking to someone who calls himself Tha God.
For the record, we don't mean to criticize Charlamagne by making such comments. He isn't one of the people who turned Biden's off-the-cuff comment into a front-page gaffe.
Tomorrow, we'll look at a few who did. They were expressing their opinions, just as Krugman later did. Such behavior is of course allowed, though it may not always be helpful or wise.
We're going to close by repeating something we just said. For ourselves, we wouldn't have made Biden's comment.
His comment dealt with so-called race, and for reasons which are blindingly obvious, our brutal history has made that an extremely difficult topic. It's also true that people of various "races" are allowed to support Donald J. Trump.
Clarence Thomas' views, and those of the grandfather who raised him, are part of the American experience too. No group of people has ever agreed on any one topic. No group can sensibly be expected to do so, and no group ever will.
That said, long before Biden spoke, three million blue-leaning pundits had offered some version of his remark, often while killing time on 24-hour cable. Such remarks are occasionally part of the dumbness of Our Own Tribe.
Everyone says what Biden said! Still, a basic reason to avoid joking as Biden did was captured in the account given above:
The term gaffe may be used to describe an inadvertent statement by a politician that the politician believes is true while the politician has not fully analyzed the consequences of publicly stating it.We'd advise against making a comment like Biden's because you know exactly how a bunch of people will quickly and loudly react.
Later in his column, Krugman expressed a view about Biden's opponent this fall, assuming we have an election. Intriguingly, Krugman said this:
KRUGMAN: Trump’s pathological inability to admit error—and yes, it really does rise to the level of pathology—has been obvious for years, and has had serious consequences. For example, it has made him an easy mark for foreign dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un...Is Biden's possible opponent caught in the grip of an actual "pathology?" We'd like to see some major journalist stand on his or her hind legs and examine that question in a serious way.
We'd like to see medical and psychological specialists consulted on that difficult question, but only if they're non-partisan. But until the time when someone is willing to take that route, gaffe culture is going to work its eternal will:
Over the weekend, it had the guy who doesn't seem to be mentally ill on the front page with the guy who apparently is. We liberals often refer to that as "moral equivalence," until we ourselves want to spout.
The age of the gaffe is the age of the quick declamation. Tomorrow, we'll ponder an historical question:
Which politician authored the very first modern gaffe? When was modern gaffe culture born? Who stands as its very first victim?
Tomorrow: Exploration of "the star-making machinery behind the Aperol Spritz," along with "a standout piece on [a journalist's] change of sides in the Kanye vs. Taylor Swift debate."
Plus, who authored the first modern gaffe? Does it go back to Muskie?