Sen. Biden’s Macaca Moment: Pandering or Unguarded?

As part of the SMUG Political Science seminar series, we’ve previously looked at the use of social media by the McCain and Obama campaigns. The campaigns and their cohorts have created platforms for their supporters to interact and express themselves, and also have established outposts within the major networking sites like YouTube and Facebook to interact directly with voters instead of completely relying on mainstream media.

But the essence of social media — and its real power — is that anyone can use it.

When former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) had his macaca moment in 2006, it seemed he went out of his way to cause the problem for himself. He knew a Democrat operative was following him and specifically called attention to that person before using the word that has come to symbolize the power of unscripted video posted on YouTube to influence an election. When you know, as Sen. Allen did, that a video camera is pointed at you, you had best be on your guard. To paraphrase Miranda, you know that what you say and do can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

But what if you don’t know the camera is there?

I’m thinking this video of Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Obama’s running mate, on a rope line in Ohio was taken with a Flip camera, or another similarly small point-and-shoot video recorder. He doesn’t seem to notice the camera.


When you click through to see the original video, you’ll find that it was posted by someone working for an organization that is against further development of clean-coal technology. Here is the video description:

At a campaign stop in 2006 All American City, Maumee, OH Joe Biden talks to a 1Sky campaigner about energy policy. Biden is called out on his platform that includes coal. Both 1Sky and the Energy Action Coalition are opposed to the development of new coal fired power plants. Energy Action Coalition is running Power Vote, a national youth based campaign to get 1,000,000 youth voters voting for clean energy this election season.

And just to clarify, the campaign stop happened just last week; Maumee was an All-American City in 2006.

For those unfamiliar with the electoral implications, neighboring Pennsylvania is a huge coal-producing state and also is a Keystone (pardon the pun) to the Electoral College math that will decide the presidential election.

The McCain campaign immediately jumped on this statement and its negative impact for Pennsylvania jobs, and the Obama campaign accused the McCain campaign of distorting Biden’s position.

It seems, though, that there are really only two possibilities for interpreting Sen. Biden’s remarks:

  1. He was pandering to this environmentalist voter, telling her what he knew she wanted to hear, even though his real position is that he supports clean coal technology, or
  2. He was captured in an unguarded moment, saying what he really thinks about clean coal.

Am I missing something? Is there another interpretation that could fit the evidence you see in this video?

Either he misled the activist in what he thought was a semi-private conversation (with hundreds of people around), or he’s being less-than-truthful about his support for clean coal.

Pandering is not a new phenomenon in politics. When I started to get politically involved in the 1980s, I heard stories about the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey in the ‘50s speaking to grain farmers in the morning about propping up corn prices and then giving a speech to hog farmers in the evening, a couple of counties away, saying something needed to be done to get the costs of feed down. (For those of you from non-agricultural backgrounds, feed is corn.)

That story may be apocryphal, so don’t add it to Sen. Humphrey’s Wikipedia entry, but the advent of mass media made this kind of pandering more difficult, or at least more costly when politicians were caught.

Now the stakes are even higher. With ubiquitous recording devices in the hands of both opponents and average citizens, candidates can’t afford unguarded moments or pandering, because what they say will come to light.

Sen. Biden comes across as arguing fairly passionately against coal, but I’m no mind reader as to his actual position. To borrow a phrase, “That’s above my pay grade.” 😉 Voters (especially in Pennsylvania) may judge for themselves whether they think he was pandering or expressing his heartfelt opposition to (even clean) coal. Or this video may just contribute to voter distrust, because this is worse than just a flip-flop in which a candidate was “for it before he was against it.” This is saying two different things about the same issue at the same time.

One more item: as surrogates for Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama were making the post-debate TV rounds last night, Sen. Biden dropped this gem about having devised “with Barack” the strategy that Gen. Petraeus is using.


Jeff Emanuel has a good analysis of this. And it just shows that candidates can say things that damage their credibility even when they’re fully prepped and aware that they’re on national TV.

And in our SMUG spirit of bipartisanship, although I support Sarah Palin and share her values, this answer to Katie Couric wasn’t her best moment, either.

What other macaca moments have you seen this year, from candidates of either party? Please share the links in the comments below, and I will update this post to reflect your contributions.