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Joe Biden’s mounting slip-ups and why they matter

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden corrected himself in Des Moines on Aug. 8 after he compared children living in poverty to white children. (Video: Reuters)

Coverage of political gaffes is often overwrought. Politicians say lots of things with cameras and recorders shoved in their faces, and occasionally they’re going to misspeak. Generally, it’s on inconsequential matters that most regular people don’t actually care about, and it’s just an exercise in, “Look at the dumb thing this otherwise-smart politician just said!”

But former vice president Joe Biden’s performance Thursday in Iowa has got to raise some eyebrows in his party — for a couple of reasons.

For those unaware, Biden at one point said, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids” — then tried to correct himself by saying “wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids.” Earlier in the day, he also referred to former British prime minister Theresa May as her predecessor from four decades ago, Margaret Thatcher — and not for the first time. He also said at one point that Democrats should “choose truth over facts.”

At least one of Biden’s 2020 Democratic opponents is highlighting the “white kids” comment, with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio suggesting that it might betray something more sinister in Biden. “To quickly dismiss @JoeBiden’s words as a mere ‘slip of the tongue’ is as concerning as what he said,” de Blasio tweeted.

Biden’s problem here is twofold: his history and his path to victory in 2020.

The “white kids” comment can’t help but conjure other moments in which Biden said things that were viewed as racially insensitive and stereotypes. The most infamous example was in 2007 when he called Barack Obama “the first mainstream African American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” He also joked in 2006 that, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ unless you have a slight Indian accent.” (The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott assembled some other examples here.)

Layer on top of that Biden’s recent comments about his good working relationship with segregationist senators and his recently unearthed past comments about busing, and it’s not difficult for his opponents to craft a narrative. De Blasio more than hinted in that direction Friday; Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) have done so previously, and it will be interesting to see how they handle these latest comments, especially given that Biden continues to succeed in large part thanks to black voters.

Whatever you think of these particular slip-ups, though — and the Thatcher and “choose truth over facts” gaffes would seem relatively innocuous — the fact that they keep happening is a bad sign for Biden. His calling card in the 2020 race, after all, is being the most electable Democrat, the guy with the stature and sure hands to take on President Trump.

And even if you think Biden is a fantastic public servant and that none of these gaffes were particularly bad, what about the next one? What about the ones that take place after he’s the nominee? Biden has shown an almost unmatched ability to connect with audiences, but he’s also shown himself to be rather ill-disciplined when it comes to speaking off-the-cuff. He’s also shown, at a time when Democrats really want to drive home the idea that the resident of the White House is a racist, that he might not be the best messenger to make that case.

This isn’t to say Biden’s comments are anywhere close to as problematic as what Trump has said, but they would seem to muddy the waters, at least a little. And Trump thrives on muddying the waters.

Think back to 2012. During the GOP primary, it was known that Mitt Romney was capable of sticking his foot in his mouth. Generally, his gaffes were more of the awkward variety, and they weren’t enough to cost him the GOP nomination. Then, in the general election, came the “47 percent” video, in which he said that portion of the electorate was so reliant on the government that it would never vote for him and “take responsibility” for themselves.

Would he have won without it? Probably not. But it was certainly the kind of impolitic remark you’d hope your nominee would avoid like the plague — even in settings that are supposed to be private, as Romney’s was.

“We need to have a real conversation about the racism and sexism behind ‘electability,’” de Blasio said. It might also be time to question some long-held assurances Democrats have apparently had about Biden’s superior electability.