No one expresses any surprise when Joe Biden goes off script. He's spent most of his political career providing amusement to observers with gaffes and misstatements, so much so that distinguishing rhetorical fumbles can be difficult. Most recently, the vice president attempted to evoke Teddy Roosevelt when describing his boss' foreign policy, telling an audience that "I promise you — the president has a big stick," which produced laughter that appeared to catch Biden by surprise.
That history played into the initial reception of Biden's remarks Sunday on Meet the Press. David Gregory challenged Biden on the issue of gay marriage, noting that President Barack Obama remains publicly opposed to legalizing gay marriage, while insisting that his positions continue to "evolve." In 2004, for instance, Obama stated that his religious beliefs undergird his support for marriage remaining the union of one man and one woman. Biden, a Catholic, had a different take:
"Look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that."
Biden's comment is an extension of the Obama campaign strategy of continuous distractions.
Initially, news media reported Biden's remarks as an endorsement for state recognition of same-sex marriage, a position which Obama ostensibly opposes. National Journal, for instance, noted that Biden had only stopped short of pledging that a second Obama administration would push for full legalization, as did ABC. CBS evoked Star Trek by reporting that "Vice President Joe Biden went where President Barack Obama hasn't yet gone: In support of same-sex marriage[.]" The Daily Beast told its readers that Biden had "quasi-endorsed same-sex marriage."
The sense that Biden had wandered a little too far off the reservation was enhanced by the reaction from the White House, which insisted that Biden hadn't actually endorsed same-sex marriage, but had just reiterated Obama's position. Obama campaign guru David Axelrod conducted a conference call with reporters to address the controversy. Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent described the effort as an attempt to "clean up Biden's gay marriage mess," and noted that the attention might not benefit Obama:
"But in a way, the confusion over what Biden meant is exactly the point, and again reminds us that Obama's position just won't wash. Obama's claim that he's evolving on the issue, and his very good record on gay rights generally, has paradoxically made it harder for Obama to continue holding out against gay marriage. His 'evolving' position and overall record have left gay advocates fully persuaded that he does favor full equality for gay and lesbian Americans, increasing impatience for him to say so already, and making them all the more certain that his failure to do so is rooted in nothing but political calculation." (Read Sargent's whole piece here.)
Perhaps I'm just a little too cynical, but I don't see this as a gaffe or a "mess" that Obama and his team are interested in cleaning up. This looks more like a deliberate attempt to test the waters on a position change for Obama, for some of the reasons that Sargent states, but for other motives as well.
Consider the coincidence of Education Secretary Arne Duncan offering a corroborating point of view the day after Biden's statement. Brought to MSNBC's Morning Joe to discuss Teacher Appreciation Week, Duncan was greeted by TIME's Mark Halperin with this "icebreaker" question: "Do you believe that same-sex men and women should be able to get legally married in the United States?" Despite the tortured syntax of the query and an objection to the question by a Morning Joe panelist, Duncan gave an ironic "I do" in reply, pushing the issue even farther into the public consciousness, and giving Biden some much-needed political cover.
Nor do the coincidences end there. This comes just after the much-publicized departure of foreign-policy adviser Richard Grenell from the Romney campaign. The hiring of the openly-gay Grenell had drawn some criticism from social-conservative groups, but he had also been supported by national security hawks like John Bolton, who tried to talk Grenell out of resigning, as did Mitt Romney. Nonetheless, Grenell's departure late last week allowed the Obama campaign to paint Romney and Republicans as intolerant.
The timing of Biden's statement looks less like a gaffe, therefore, and more like a way to keep the controversy alive. That may put Obama in a slightly tougher position, assuming that Obama isn't planning a conversion over the summer, but is that a good assumption? Obama has a crisis in enthusiasm on his left, to the extent that he recently lamented to a group of fundraisers that Republican control of the House has forced him to be more centrist than he prefers. Independents do not find same-sex marriage off-putting in general, and few social conservatives plan to vote for Obama anyway. There is very little risk for Obama in a summer conversion to same-sex marriage, and Biden's statement could very well have been a test balloon to see what damage ensued, if any. If Obama sensed significant damage, then Biden's aptitude for gaffes would provide a handy cover.
Even more likely, though, Biden's gambit was an attempt to keep the media preoccupied with issues other than jobs and the economy. It's also no coincidence that this eruption came just 48 hours after another disappointing jobs report. Suddenly, though, the national media seems a lot more interested in an issue where, strictly speaking, the federal government doesn't have jurisdiction. Before Halperin asked Duncan about Biden's comments, Joe Scarborough told Duncan that Halperin plans to ask all of Obama's Cabinet secretaries about their position on same-sex marriage. With the number of jobs in the U.S. declining the last two months, economic indicators showing the nation slipping further into stagnation, and the Senate refusing for more than three years to even pass a budget, aren't there other, more salient topics to ask Cabinet secretaries?
In that light, Biden's comment looks more like an extension of the Obama campaign strategy of continuous distractions. Whether it's the Buffett Rule, the so-called war on women, or Seamus the roof-riding Dog, the Obama campaign will pull out all of the stops to keep the focus in this campaign away from jobs and the economy. Don't be surprised if that includes a re-election campaign conversion on same-sex marriage by Obama — and weeks of media attention to the sideshow rather than the issues that matter most to voters.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why the West should let Russia have eastern Ukraine
- The dangers of our passionless American life
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The amazing resurrection of Mitt Romney
- The essential techniques that every home cook should know
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- 4 strategies for organizing your money, based on your personality
- The real reason conservatives should be outraged that police killed a white youth
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
Subscribe to the Week