Should political candidates be given a pass if they make a misstatement or contradict themselves? The question is not as easy as it seems. Many of us unhappy with the current President cite offensive tweets and comments as evidence of his unfitness for office or his mental decline. Other candidates appear to be subject to a different standard. For example, I’m ready to overlook Biden’s stumbles, at least for now, because I find them inoffensive. Apparently, Biden gets a pass while Trump is held accountable.
Dozens of documented statements by the President are offered as proof of his racism. These comments, many of them included in the more than 17,000 tweets Trump has made since January 2017, are damning. He maligned Latinos as rapists on the day he announced for President and suggested African American neighborhoods are “infested” with crime. Yet last month Trump announced, “I am the least racist person anywhere in the world.” He also condemned racism and hate crime in a speech after the Charlottesville incidents in 2017, albeit while also observing that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
The number of troubling statements by Trump, many intentional but others apparently inadvertent, is in the hundreds. Should he be called on it? Or should he get a pass like the one I extend to Biden? Common sense suggests that Trump should be held accountable for his racism to the same extent the rest of us are. More simply put, Trump’s comments in some cases would get you fired from your job or arrested. Biden’s miscues, while concerning, are benign.
Earlier this month, the gaffe-prone former Vice President commented that “Poor kids are just as bright, just as talented, as white kids.” He also suggested he was VP during the 2018 Parkland shootings. Biden corrected both misstatements, but he’s been making similar misstatements or objectionable comments for years. In 2006, for example, he commented on diversity about his home state: “In Delaware, the largest growth of population is Indian Americans, moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”
Should Biden get a pass because he is a nice guy? None other than President Trump doesn’t think so. Trump commented, “Joe is not playing with a full deck.” He added, “This is not someone you can have as your President, . . .“ If Trump is right, maybe Biden should get out of the race. But Trump himself commented on successful military attacks on airports during the Revolutionary War. And in 2016 he confused 9/11 with 7/11 in a speech about the 9/11 attack on New York when he said, “Because I was down there and watched our police and our firemen down at 7/11, down at the World Trade Center right after it came down…” These and dozens of other comments suggest he may have fewer cards in his deck than Biden.
Should there be a double standard or some sort of attempt to define some gaffes as benign and others not? Maybe, but should candidates, or any other public figure, be given a set of free passes that exonerate their first 10 or 15 mistakes?
There is no easy solution that sets a standard for holding leaders accountable for their words. Any attempt will justifiably be condemned as biased by one side or the other. Given this, maybe a judicial precedent should be looked to as a guide. In 1964, Justice Potter Steward suggested a movie under review as pornography was not obscene. He commented, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
This “standard,” as squishy as it is, will not end the debate on whether Trump is a racist or whether Biden is too old to run for President, but it is a step in the right direction. It suggests that we need to hold candidates accountable for their words but reflects the inherent difficulty in doing so. I’m ready to condemn Trump for his statement and, for the time being, give Biden a pass, at least for now. My rationale: Biden is gaffe-prone but is no racist. I also believe it is premature and ageist to say he is “too old.” His repeated misstatements, however, should be a concern for all. Nobody should get a blanket- free pass. If Biden continues to fumble, like a good football coach, I will reconsider whether he should be in the game. In the meantime, I hope he finds a coach to train him to think first, talk second. Stay tuned.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. He is a former counsel to the House Committee on Education and Labor. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy. He is the former chairman of the National College Access Network (NCAN), a group promoting success in higher education among underrepresented groups, and KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a national leader in strategic foresight and education innovation.