It is difficult, at least for me, to remain angry at Vice President Joe Biden, who combines a predisposition toward offensive gaffes with being an obviously decent guy. He currently stands accused of saying the Tea Party “acted like terrorists” during the debt-limit debate. In Biden’s defense, it seems that he was reflecting the intemperate language of others during a meeting with House Democrats. Which also leaves some House Democrats with no defense.
As a rule, it is distasteful and counterproductive to equate one’s political opponents with murderers of the innocent. Claiming that someone has “held the budget hostage” is a metaphor. Calling someone a “terrorist” is an excuse for a fistfight. But Biden’s obvious flaw is foolishness, not viciousness. The first we would forgive a friend; the second is harder to overlook. When Biden later said that Gabrielle Giffords is “now a member of the cracked head club like me,” it was tasteless. But who could accuse Biden of being intentionally cruel toward Giffords? Biden lacks the normal filter of appropriateness. But an unfiltered Biden is not, as far as I can see, an angry or heartless man.
Tossing around a word like “terrorist” slips a little more poison into our political discourse. But so does the taking of exaggerated offense – the political equivalent of flailing in dramatic reaction to a basketball foul. In politics, as in life, the motive of an insult matters.