‘Gaffe?’ Who invented this nonsensical term? Its only common usage seems to be among political journalists and pundits, as a euphemistic cliché for politicians’ discrediting behavior. Do normal people, over the course of normal life, ever call it a ‘gaffe’ when somebody screws up? I’ve never heard a waiter accused of committing a gaffe for misstating a lunch special, or heard a corporate CEO who omits key earnings figures described as ‘gaffe-prone’. The word is reserved only for faltering politicians, to place their verbal embarrassments in a special category.
Pundits demonstrate their limited vocabulary and laziness when they characterize Joe Biden’s recent struggles in terms of ‘gaffes.’ Biden’s inability to formulate coherent sentences and recall basic facts are not ‘gaffes’ in the traditional clichéd sense, as any reasonable person observing his performance on the campaign trail could acknowledge. They are mounting evidence of cognitive decline. Yes: unless you’re some miraculous orator, everyone engaged in unprepared speech occasionally flubs a word or mangles a phrase. Barack Obama once said he had visited 57 states in the 2008 primaries, but he obviously meant 47. Nobody really thought Obama believed there are 57 states in the US (although that didn’t stop right-wing trolls from pretending otherwise.)
On the other hand, surely no one can seriously contend at this point that Biden’s constant malfunctions are simply innocuous slips of the tongue which belie a mind that is as sharp as ever. Simply watch back his past debate performances. During the 2007-2008 cycle, he occasionally messed up a word or said something uncouth; in the current cycle, he is inhibited from following his own trains of thought to completion. That’s why his handlers have been providing him with prepared remarks, even in situations where other candidates are speaking off the cuff.
Biden in 2019 is plagued by cognition errors, which impair his ability to communicate. It shouldn’t be surprising that such errors are becoming more frequent with a man who turns 77 years old in November (and who once underwent emergency surgery for a brain aneurysm). But by continuing to refer to them as ‘gaffes,’ journalists obscure the reality of Biden’s situation. The electorate has already priced in that he is ‘gaffe-prone’ – that’s always been a part of Biden’s political persona. By describing his performance thus, you are merely reinforcing his pre-existing image with voters and not damaging him in the slightest. The latest polls appear to reflect this, with Biden’s support remaining almost unmoved in the past five months.
Early on, Biden’s presidential rivals and the many journalists who oppose him apparently calculated that the key to undercutting his electoral hopes would to insinuate that he is a racist. Kamala Harris’s ‘I’m not saying you’re a racist, but…’ potshot at the first debate was the culmination of this foolhardy effort. Shockingly, the VP and close personal confidant of the first black president does not appear to have been weakened by the charge. In South Carolina, with its majority black Democratic electorate, Biden continues to lead by a landslide. The absurd professional class moves to label him a low-grade sex pest or a ‘women belong in the kitchen‘ troglodyte also fell predictably flat.
The way to undermine Biden would be to introduce a new narrative that actually reflects his present condition: he is losing his marbles. A person undergoing clear cognitive decline can’t possibly be the ‘safe’ pick against Trump; rather, he is the riskiest pick of all. Democrats by wide margins believe Biden is the most ‘electable’ candidate and many support him solely on that basis. By emphasizing his cognitive decline – instead of half-baked accusations of ‘racism’ or #MeToo impropriety – the central argument for Biden’s candidacy would evaporate. If you can barely articulate a thought, how in God’s name are you going to withstand the onslaught of Trump – much less preside over the Executive Branch? When journalists trot out the term ‘gaffe,’ they trivialize these concerns and do him an enormous favor. Biden’s destination at this phase in life ought to be a quiet retirement with 24/7 medical assistance, not the White House. Is it too much to ask for professional writers to develop a vocabulary that better captures this dynamic? (Don’t hold your breath.)