When Vice President Joe Biden warned a Virginia rally of hundreds of African Americans that Republican efforts to loosen bank regulations meant “They’re going to put y’all back in chains,” Stephanie Cutter, Team Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said the president would have “no problem with those comments.”
But imagine if Republican Paul Ryan uttered comments like that. Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president would be pilloried for racial insensitivity — and so would Romney. In the fight for civility and substance over pointless hyperbole, Biden may not be the worst offender. But he’s an offender nonetheless, and he should apologize.
Biden has a history of making remarks that would rile up liberals if they were spoken by a conservative politician. Back in 2008, when Biden was running against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, he had to apologize for saying, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
He once told an Indian American, “You can’t go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.” During a January 2012 speech in New Hampshire, he briefly drifted into a foreign accent while imitating a Indian call center worker. At that same rally where he made the “back in chains” crack, Biden also imitated the sign language woman and said, “You’re gonna have trouble translating all this! That poor lady, she’s gonna have tendonitis by the time she finishes this.”
Liberals routinely dismiss Biden’s gaffes as the rhetorical excesses of an overly exuberant speaker — it’s “Joe being Joe.” And there can be something appealing about a politician who throws caution and the script that goes with it to the winds. Yet when conservative speakers get overly exuberant and cross a rhetorical line, they are presumed racist or culturally insensitive, rather than refreshingly free-spirited. One standard should apply.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial contained some similarities in phrasing and structure to an opinion piece by Todd Domke on WBUR.org. The use of the material without attribution was inconsistent with Globe policies, and the Globe regrets the error.