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Why Joe Biden's gaffes matter

It's not the silly ones that contribute to his goof-ball image, but the ones that undermine his greatest strengths.

Vice President Joe Biden wants to be taken more seriously. He doesn’t appreciate his popular image as goof-ball “Uncle Joe” who is always putting his foot in his mouth. “The vice president thing... Isn’t that a bitch?” he said last week to a Harvard senior who introduced himself as the student government vice president.

But Biden's other comments late last week didn't do him any favors, either. He spoke out about Arab countries allegedly funding the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including that Turkey had allowed jihadists across its border into Syria -- comments for which he was forced to apologize immediately.

“President Erdogan told me, ‘You were right. We let too many people through. So we’re trying to seal the border,’” Biden said after his meeting with Turkey's president during the U.N. General Assembly. Erdogan parried that Turkey had not given "even the smallest amount of support" to terrorists, adding "I never admitted any mistake, nor did we tell them they 'were right' during my visit to the U.S." He insisted Biden apologize or "he will be history for me," according to the Associated Press.

It may be Biden’s biggest blunder yet, both for its scale -- he incited a bona fide international incident -- and because it’s on a topic, foreign policy, where Biden draws the most strength.

It’s one thing for Biden to use an antiquated word or get out ahead of the president on marriage equality. Those gaffes are funny at best and politically inconvenient a worst.

But it's entirely different for the sitting vice president of the United States to alienate key allies in a fragile coalition helping to fight America's latest war.

If he runs for president against Hillary Clinton in 2016, it will be on the strength of his foreign policy chops, which would him to present a credible alternative to Clinton’s more hawkish worldview. But moments like this undermine that credibility.

Despite all the caricatures of Biden -- including The Onion's famous depiction of the vice president washing a Pontiac Trans Am in the White House driveway -- he is an exceptional politician. Biden didn’t become one of the youngest senators in U.S. history, and then chairman of two key committees, and later vice president of the United States, by accident.

So it’s little wonder that Biden often complains to profile writers about his image in the media, and reporters' eagerness to seize on his every faux pas.

But even Biden’s biggest defenders have to acknowledge that he seems to have a constitutional inability to help himself. While he wishes people paid more attention to his substance than his slips of the tongue, time and again he undermines that substance through no fault but his own. 

For years, Biden was one of the best allies of domestic abuse victims in the Senate, using his perch atop the Judiciary Committee to pass landmark legislation. When the NFL needed someone to help them clean up their act, they turned to a former Biden aide. And President Obama put him in charge of these issues in the White House.

But last month, when Biden spoke to a Democratic women’s group around the anniversary of the signing of the Violence Against Women Act (his proudest accomplishment as a senator), the vice president managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

With one passing reference a disgraced senator who was forced to resign for allegedly sexually harassing a dozen women, Biden managed to undercut the other 33 minutes of a blockbuster speech on gender equality.

Two days earlier in Iowa, a state critical to any presidential wannabe, Biden pulled the rug out from underneath himself again. A tangential reference to an official he deemed “the wisest man in the Orient” overshadowed an otherwise fiery populist speech. The day before that, it was a Shakespearean term with anti-semitic baggage that forced him to apologize.

The list goes on.

Biden may be right that he should be taken more seriously, but he’s not doing himself any favors. And the problem with his latest gaffe is that it is serious.