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In Praise Of Joe Biden’s Big Mouth

[Guest post by Nathan Pippenger]

President Obama has earned himself plenty of goodwill today for finally announcing his support for marriage equality. But Vice President Biden deserves a lot of credit for steering the administration in the right direction, however inadvertently.

When Obama, as a young, relatively-inexperienced presidential candidate, picked Biden as his running mate, he ended up with a steady hand—and a big mouth. In its report on Obama’s decision, The New York Times noted that “Mr. Biden is known for being both talkative and prone to making the kind of statements that get him in trouble.” The Los Angeles Times said that Biden was “sometimes close to a loose cannon with his verbal barbs.” Certainly Biden produced a string of doozies during the campaign—his remark, early on, that Obama was “articulate” and “clean,” his stray observations about Indian accents in 7-Eleven stores, and his assertion that a young Obama would be “tested” by foreign powers.

But the distinguishing mark of Biden isn’t his gaffe-proneness; it’s his wandering, amiable perspicacity. John Dickerson of Slate got it right when he observed in 2008 that the greater challenge may be what Biden says when he's not making a gaffe.” Dickerson went on to predict: “He may be willing to explore contradictions or seeming contradictions in his boss’s positions. He can also be intellectually honest—if for no other reason than the desire to have a good discussion.”

Certainly that is what Biden did on Sunday’s Meet the Press, and good for him. Message discipline is important but overrated. It should have come as no surprise that many members of this administration—the ever-evolving president included—have no problem with same-sex marriage. With independents increasingly coming around to a pro-equality stance, why should leading Democrats be lagging behind?

Even more importantly, Biden’s remarks were a welcome shot of vitality to an administration that seemed increasingly complacent on marriage equality. Among liberals, the very word “evolving” was the target of open ridicule. The bitter laughter it occasioned was a sign of left-wing disenchantment with Obama. Everyone knew the president supported marriage equality, but more importantly, everyone knew he was too careful to say so out loud. The insult was all the worse because liberals knew that Obama was actually ahead of the curve on the issue; he had unambiguously supported marriage rights as far back as 1996.  

So kudos to Biden for voicing—or, it might be said, loud-mouthing—his support, and for setting into motion a process that culminated with the president voicing his as well. Leaders often have to be goaded into doing the right thing, and history won’t care much if the process was a little messy. It certainly won’t matter to the gay and lesbian citizens, still feeling the sting of last night’s loss in North Carolina, who can now count a very powerful ally in their corner. 

Nathan Pippenger is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.