IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Joe Biden lives in the Big Tent

Vice President Joe Biden is known for speaking frankly.

by Danielle Belton

Vice President Joe Biden is known for speaking frankly. This often works both for and against him as he shows off his mix of folksy, train-riding charm with the vocal foibles of someone who often speaks first and thinks second.

On Tuesday, Biden did all that when he took his charm to a mostly African-American, pro-Obama audience in Danville, Va., and joked that Team Romney wanted to “put you all back in chains” with its fiscal policies.

Eyebrow-raising? Sure. But Biden was working his audience—a crowd that is likely distrustful of GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and those who support him due to its history of pandering to its audience of white males in the Republicans’ own alternative version of the same code-speech for which Biden earned those raised brows.

What Biden did isn’t all that different from when Newt Gingrich called President Obama the “food stamp president”; or when President Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens”;  when Republicans like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and others say Obama will take away people’s guns (even though he has failed to launch any anti-gun legislation); that the Democrats are socialists (real socialists scoff at the jingoist capitalists who cheerlead on both sides of the aisle); or that the Obama administration is pushing the most liberal agenda in the history of American politics when it has been largely middle of the road.


Democrats who openly embrace similar code speak when talking to a friendly audience often endure a great deal of Republican caterwauling to the political referees (aka “the media”). This latest complaining is just another excuse for the GOP to repeat its own code words and continue to push the idea that Obama has some issue with white people – despite being half-white himself and raised by his white grandparents.

In modern politics, Democrats are punished more for pandering to their base in coded speech than the GOP, because there is this notion (which some Democrats encourage) that progressives, liberals, and others on the left are supposed to be “above” the name-calling of the right wing and should fight all their battles with their cheeks promptly turned the other way. This is a folly.

Code speak is as old as both political parties and politics itself. And give or take a hundred years or so, Democrats were the low-blow haymakers and the GOP were the stiff, old-money isolationists trying to act “above” the Dems political barbarism. The only thing that changed was the most stalwart Southern based low-blowers of the Democratic Party switched to the GOP after the party started to embrace a more inclusive, civil rights platform.

But just because you switch teams doesn’t mean you switch strategies. Lee Atwater knew what he was doing.

I've listened to conservative candidates talk non-stop about Jesus; about who are the "Real Americans"; state's rights; and engage in plenty of coded speech, but everyone sort of shrugs and goes "that's just how they are." Until someone goes too far, like when former Fox News host Glenn Beck called the president a racist.

Dems, because they're a "big tent" party are held to this higher standard of being more "tolerant," even with the expectation that liberals should be more tolerant of others' hate and venom, because conservatives are “expected” to be more critical and divisive as they are trying to stave off progress. We then end up with this false ideology that liberals are supposed to be open-minded about everything, even obvious sexism and bigotry.

Biden, in this age of YouTube, could have used his coded language more elegantly in order to avoid the narrative moving from highlighting perceived weaknesses in Romney’s plans, but he didn’t do anything new here.

If you’re going to rattle some sabers you have to know what moves the troops to fight.

Danielle Belton is founder and editor of Black Snob, a pop culture meets politics blog, and editor-at-large at Clutch Magazine Online.