Political Memo: ‘There He Goes Again’? Not Yet, as Biden Avoids Major Gaffes


LOS ANGELES — The mayor of Los Angeles was attempting to praise Joseph R. Biden Jr. to the press, but Mr. Biden’s aides were more focused on shooing the press away.

At the end of a made-for-cameras lunch he shared with Mr. Biden at a taco stand last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti had to raise his voice over a phalanx of Biden staff members, who were attempting to end the question-and-answer session between the former vice president and about 40 reporters and photographers swarming their table.

“I want to say one last thing,” the mayor twice said over the din, before offering his homage: “Los Angeles loves Joe Biden and Joe Biden loves Los Angeles.”

The tape recorders and cameras were soon shut off, and Mr. Biden exited King Taco without having veered off message.

As the famously voluble Mr. Biden makes his first retail campaign stops in the Democratic primary, and grows accustomed to the front-runner status he never enjoyed in his two previous White House bids, his campaign is grappling with how to showcase Mr. Biden’s never-met-a-stranger persona without exposing him to an environment where he may commit a gaffe.

So far, they have struck a safe, if precarious, balance.

Just over two weeks into Mr. Biden’s candidacy, the most notable feature of his campaign may be what hasn’t happened: He has not blurted anything out that delights his rivals, horrifies his aides and reinforces his image as “Uncle Joe,” America’s there-he-goes-again relative who makes you smile and wince in equal measure.

It is early yet — which even Mr. Biden’s friends allow as they hold their breath — and precedent offers good reason to question whether his streak of mostly error-free days can last.

But his staff has sought to mitigate the risk by effectively recreating the trappings of the vice presidency: guarding question-and-answer sessions, selecting safe interview settings and remaining all but glued to his hip when he greets voters on rope lines, dips into ice cream shops and steps out of the black Chevy Suburbans that are indistinguishable from the Secret Service models he once rode in.

There are notes on his lectern to remind him of key policy points, depending on the locale, and his schedule has been carefully planned: He has appeared at nearly as many fund-raisers (five) as he has rallies (six).

Mr. Biden is not dodging the news media. He has taken questions from national reporters and spoken even more frequently to local print and television outlets. And he has opened his fund-raisers to press coverage.

Yet that step toward transparency also doubles as a means of nudging him to stay on script. After courting danger by taking questions from donors at an appearance in South Carolina — Mr. Biden said his nickname for President Trump would be “clown” — he did not ask for audience questions at subsequent fund-raisers.

Mr. Biden is hardly the only candidate to travel with an entourage and tread carefully around the news media — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for example, rarely takes press questions. And Mr. Biden’s aides feel they need to manage his appearances in part because of the sheer demand for access to a famous former vice president and the logistics of, say, moving TV cameras and boom microphones into a taco joint.

Some Democrats wonder whether such a cosseted approach is sustainable for a 76-year-old candidate facing questions about his age — especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the famously demanding activists famously demand accessibility to presidential hopefuls. (Mr. Biden delivered speeches but did not take questions during his first trip to Iowa, though he’s expected to do so in New Hampshire this week.)

[Check out our tracker of the 2020 Democratic candidate field.]

After a speech he has planned for Philadelphia this Saturday, aides say Mr. Biden will turn to delivering some policy proposals, including a foreign policy blueprint.

And some of his longtime friends are urging him not to don a rhetorical straitjacket.

“Handlers can ruin you,” said former Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, adding fondly, “I had the best in the world.”

Shortly before Mr. Biden stopped in to see him last week at his office in Las Vegas’s Bellagio casino, Mr. Reid, who is also given to malapropisms, recalled how his advisers relentlessly sought to steer his debates and news conferences — and how he was better off being his unvarnished self.

“I just think that Joe Biden just needs to be himself,” Mr. Reid said in an interview. “Everybody likes him, he’s a nice guy.”

(Mr. Reid, the former Senate Democratic leader, is not endorsing a candidate, but he said Mr. Biden was “in really a good position” because “people are looking for some stability.”)

Mr. Biden has not been completely without Bidenisms, including two that drew attention to his age: referring to the British prime minister as Margaret Thatcher rather than Theresa May and boasting that he knew even more about foreign policy than Henry Kissinger does.

In the early stages of his candidacy, though, the most powerful check on Mr. Biden has been Mr. Biden himself. To the pleasant surprise of his supporters, he has demonstrated uncharacteristic restraint in the face of temptation.

When a woman yelled out, “You can hug and kiss me anytime!” at a rally near Las Vegas last week, Mr. Biden smiled, made the sign of the cross and, after a pause, simply said, “That’s nice, thank you very much.” It was a markedly different response than before he got in the race, when, in the wake of claims from women that his physical contact made them uneasy, he twice joked about hugging people during a speech to union members.

And when a Biden supporter at the Taco King yelled out his encouragement across the restaurant — “kick that orange ape out of office!” a reference to the well-tanned incumbent — the former vice president not only declined to pile on, he even voiced his restraint. “I didn’t say that,” he made clear to the press scrum.

He has also not taken the bait from his closest Democratic rival in the polls, Mr. Sanders, refusing to return fire when the senator has criticized him. “I will not speak ill of any of the Democratic candidates, I will not do it,” Mr. Biden said in Los Angeles.

His aides believe that the intensely personal criticism he received from women last month, and the subsequent coverage about his longtime penchant for physical contact, was eye-opening for Mr. Biden. It made clear that, as front-runner, he would be under a microscope and face unrelenting scrutiny, two of his advisers said.

It’s not that Mr. Biden wasn’t already aware of the hot lights of the presidential stage. His first White House bid flamed out after he was found to be borrowing from the speeches of others, and his second campaign began with self-created turmoil when he called Barack Obama the first African-American candidate for president who was “clean” and “articulate.”

This time, though, Mr. Biden plainly feels chastened. He reaches for the phones of supporters when he greets them, offering selfies as often as embraces. And when he does hug a supporter, it is usually when he is asked for one or after he asks permission.

Democrats who know Mr. Biden have been impressed with his discipline — but are quick to muse about how he will fare as the campaign wears on, as he grows more comfortable and perhaps less guarded.

“I think they’ve been really, really adroit in the early going,” said David Axelrod, who helped lead both Obama-Biden campaigns. “Clearly, they’re trying to do enough to show the flag but not so much that it exposes him to either mistakes or fatigue. But the pace is going to quicken as the race goes on and you can’t keep him in candidate protection program.”

Mr. Biden will have to become “more venturesome,” Mr. Axelrod added, “because one of the tests for a guy who’s 76 years old is, ‘Can he handle this?’”

For now, Mr. Biden is avoiding risks.

At King Taco, Mr. Garcetti invited two female customers to join him and his guest of honor. When the mayor asked what they did for a living, one of the women replied, “I own my spray tanning business, do you need a spray tan?”

Much laughter ensued, but it was the mayor who shot back with the irresistible rejoinder. “Wrong candidate, that’s the other guy who’s already in there,” Mr. Garcetti joked about Mr. Trump.

Mr. Biden stayed quiet.

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