Friday, February 02, 2007

Biden: How to Be Wrong and Right at the Same Time

By Stuart Rothenberg

When Delaware Senator and Presidential hopeful Joe Biden (D) described Illinois Senator Barack Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," he created the ultimate sin: He used inelegant and politically incorrect language to make a perfectly correct point.

While I'm not entirely sure what the Delaware Democrat meant by "clean," and one could argue whether all previous black Presidential hopefuls have been bright or articulate, I think it was pretty clear that Biden was trying to say that Obama is the first African American who is a serious contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination and for the Presidency.

In a written statement responding to the flap, Obama said that Biden’s comments were "historically inaccurate." "Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate," continued the Illinois Senator.

It's interesting that Obama singled out "articulate" in responding to Biden. He did not address the other qualities Biden mentioned, except to say that Jackson, Sharpton, Chisholm and Braun "gave voice" to important issues. And, most notably, he did not address the question of whether previous candidates were "mainstream." That omission was striking, since it goes to the heart of the electability question, which is what Biden really was talking about.

In fact, Biden’s general point was right. None of the previous African American candidates had a chance of winning. Some had checkered pasts and had uttered their own controversial comments (possibly making them not "clean," in Biden’s use of the term). Others simply lacked the national stature and leadership style that credible contenders need. Obama is a different kind of candidate. And that's all Biden meant. But when you are in the national limelight, you better choose your words more carefully.

This item first appeared on Political Wire on February 1, 2007.