In the pop-culture presidency of the Obama administration, Joe Biden plays an outsize role. He’s the goofy white uncle, loose-lipped and earnest to a fault, who recently became the subject of an Onion biography that imagines the teetotaler as a beer-guzzling Trans-Am worshipper eternally fixated on the summer of ’87.
But while Biden has a tendency to shoot from the lip and stray from the script, it is not without strategic political benefit. On the campaign trial, his warmth balanced Obama’s cool—there’s nothing aloof about Biden. He was dispatched to Rust Belt union halls and rallied the base, embodying Bob Shrum’s eternal “fighting for you” formulation without seeming forced. Hell, the man singlehandedly brought the word “malarkey” out of exile. If Obama is among the most self-monitoring of men, Biden is among the least.
But when it comes to policy, conventional wisdom says the headaches that come with Joe Biden outweigh the benefits. There’s no doubt that he has an overwhelming impulse to step on the message and careen in unexpected directions. But sometimes I think that the “slow Joe” stereotype and consequent face-palms obscure a Columbo-like figure who plays dumb but is really playing the crowd.
Case in point, Biden’s recent gun comments that were widely considered unhelpful to administration efforts.
On Tuesday he sat for a Facebook forum hosted by Parents magazine and responded to a question from one “Kate” about whether families would be rendered defenseless in the (unlikely) event of a reinstated assault-weapons ban.
“Kate,” he said, “if you want to protect yourself, get a double-barrel shotgun, have the shells, a 12-gauge shotgun.”
It turns out that this is the same advice he gave his own wife on how to defend their home in rural Delaware.
“I said, ‘Jill, if there's ever a problem, just walk out on the balcony here. Walk out and put that double-barrel shotgun and fire two blasts outside the house’ ... You don’t need an AR-15—it’s harder to aim ... It’s harder to use, and in fact you don’t need 30 rounds to protect yourself. Buy a shotgun! Buy a shotgun!”
Personally, I look forward to Biden’s “Buy a shotgun! Buy a shotgun!” line being used to advertise Winchesters and Remingtons at a sporting goods store near you.
But Biden’s detour actually performed an important political service for the Obama administration. It highlighted the fact that the gun reforms put forward don’t fit the “Obama’s coming for your guns!” fearmongering that too often derails our debates.
The formula that’s been used to polarize our politics always seems to involve distorting policies and demonizing the opposition. It’s effective in the short term because it spreads misinformation and plays off emotion. So the issue becomes not mass shootings or assault weapons, but total gun confiscation; not health-care reform, but socialism (or death panels); not raising tax revenue, but class warfare.
But when Joe Biden sings the praises of a double-barrel shotgun for home protection, he’s showing that he is not anti-gun. He’s drawing a useful distinction between the abstractions that are used to defend the supposed sanctity of assault weapons with the way most people use guns—for hunting or self-defense.
In his meandering way, Biden highlighted the idea of reasonable restrictions—something also backed by that notorious liberal Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the Heller decision, which overturned Washington, D.C.’s functional ban on handguns.
“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” Scalia wrote. “For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
In less elegantly reasoned terms, Biden’s love for shotguns—and his argument for their practical benefits over AR-15s—stakes out the same essentially centrist ground. There is such a thing as reasonable restrictions. We can have a considered policy debate in a democracy that’s consistent with respect for the Second Amendment, driven by common sense rather than ideology. And that’s where die-hard opponents like the National Rifle Association are increasingly at a loss.
So despite all the disses, here’s to Joe Biden, who keeps the Obama White House grounded. Whether he’s dispatched to make a midnight deal with Mitch McConnell on the fiscal cliff or deployed to win over workers in a union hall, his unvarnished style has the virtue of authenticity. And that’s what cuts through the spin cycle.
Joe Biden’s shotgun approach to politics and policy can be messy. It will never be precisely on target. But it will get people’s attention and make an impression. Most important, it just might get the job done.