Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.”
Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
With a story he likes to tell on the campaign trail, former Vice President Joe Biden has once again triggered anxiety about his campaign.
Biden loves to share a memory about traveling to Afghanistan as vice president to mark the heroic actions of a Navy captain who didn’t want the honor. The problem, according to The Washington Post, is that “almost every detail in the story appears to be incorrect. … It appears as though the former vice president has jumbled elements of at least three actual events into one story of bravery, compassion and regret that never happened.”
The revelation has caused another stir. Critics pounced, warning that the misstatements point to Biden’s weakness as a candidate, which will come back to haunt Democrats in 2020. His willingness to play with the facts, the critics say, is the last thing that we need in the age of Trump.
In response, Biden rejects the criticism, insisting that the basic thrust of the story was true.
At some level, this is just one more campaign moment when a candidate makes a gaffe, the media pounces on it and an incident generates a 24-hour conversation before journalists move on.
But at another level, the revelation touches on some deeper questions about the Biden campaign. If “electability” is a candidate’s biggest calling card, debates about missteps are natural and inevitable.
Biden has a long history of making verbal statements that have become politically problematic, most famously with a plagiarism scandal that damaged his 1988 campaign. Democrats want to know how much of this they will be seeing in the fall of 2020 and how much fodder Biden will offer the Republican machine as they line up to decimate his character.
President Trump’s Twitter feed is already warmed up and ready to go. Given the stakes in the election, Democrats don’t want to take any big risks. The same sentiment that makes Biden the front-runner, the notion that he is best positioned to win, can also quickly turn into a liability with moments like these.
Playing fast and loose with the facts also relates to the problems that Biden’s Democratic rivals see in his long record in Washington. On a number of important issues, such as his opposition to school busing to promote integration in the 1970s or his controversial role in the Clarence Thomas hearings, many Democrats feel Biden has been on the wrong side of history. He went too far trying to placate the white male vote at the expense of African-Americans, women, Latinos and others who were becoming a bigger part of the Democratic party coalition.
The inaccuracy he exhibited with the Afghanistan story reflects, in their mind, the way he tries to cover up these elements of his own complex history. The same verbal exploits at work in this case are what he used to explain his alliance with segregationist Sen. James Eastland or his lukewarm response to allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas.
And then there is the issue few like to speak about: his age. At 76, Biden is not a young candidate. At several points in the race so far he has displayed signs that this can be a potential source of trouble. During the Democratic debates, Biden sometimes seemed to have difficulty, running out of steam in his response to Kamala Harris or flubbing the delivery of his campaign website.
Fears that he is not in the right shape for a rigorous campaign are never far from the surface. Even though his two biggest competitors, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are also older than 70, their energy and precision have pushed aside any similar concerns.
There are legitimate questions about whether Biden can withstand the brutal pace of a presidential campaign and, equally relevant, the presidency itself.
All of these fears come right to the surface with a story like this. In any other moment, these might be enough to quash a candidacy.
Yet Biden keeps moving forward and his polls remain solid. The reason is President Donald Trump. All of the ways in which Biden stumbles are nothing compared to what Americans see from the President, certainly in the eyes of most Democrats.
President Trump is the liar-in-chief. President Trump is the king of fogging the public record to hide key parts of his past. President Trump is the politician who is unstable, out of control and incapable of carrying out the responsibilities he holds.
With a president like this, at least thus far, many Democrats are willing to forgive Biden for flaws such as the Afghanistan story – and everything else – and they will still support his campaign. Even most of his progressive opponents would probably back him should the other candidates lose by the time of the convention.
Biden recognizes his problem but also puts it in context: “I am a gaffe machine,” he said last December, “but my God what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth.”
Yes, Trump is the juice that keeps the Biden campaign running strong. As long as the President keeps doing what he does, the serious concerns embedded in this smaller story about his time as vice president will keep fading into the background.