(Bloomberg Opinion) -- All political candidates make mistakes. They have to retract hasty, ill-considered statements. They find that the position they took to win their primaries is inconvenient afterward, and try to explain it away. For a lucky few candidates, the embarrassment is mitigated by the assistance of journalists who accept the explanations or, even better, don’t ask for them in the first place.
Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, is in that enviable position. Whenever he makes a political mess, he is blessed with people, many of them not in his employ, who will clean it up for him.
In a March 15 debate with Senator Bernie Sanders, Biden sounded favorable toward banning fracking, a stand that could cost him votes in crucial states such as Pennsylvania. When President Donald Trump raised the issue, Ellen Knickmeyer and Calvin Woodward of the Associated Press reported that Trump was distorting Biden’s views. They explained that Biden had “misstated his fracking policy” in that debate but “otherwise been consistent on his middle-of-the-road position.”
He has? During a debate in July 2019, Dana Bash of CNN asked him “to clarify, would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?” He responded: “No, we would — we would work it out. We would make sure it's eliminated.” At a campaign stop two months later, he told an environmental activist: “I want you to look at my eyes. I guarantee you. I guarantee you. We're going to end fossil fuel.” The activist, Rebecca Beaulieu, told me in an email that she took Biden’s answer to include all fracking.
It’s true that he has also sometimes poured cold water on the idea of a ban. Just days before talking to Beaulieu, he said a national ban could not pass Congress. Having won the nomination, he is more emphatic. This August, he said, “I am not banning fracking no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.” (He said that, not coincidentally, in Pittsburgh.)
Reviewing this record, Amber Phillips reported in the Washington Post that Trump has twisted Biden’s words, even while conceding that Biden has been “more straightforward” about opposing a ban since winning the Democratic nomination. The truth is that Biden has been inconsistent on this question, and Trump is within his rights to take political advantage of the fact.
Reporters have also stepped forward to defend Biden from the accusation that he wants to confiscate guns. Reid Epstein dinged the president’s son Eric Trump in the New York Times for making that claim at the Republican convention. Reporters have been especially exercised by claims that Biden is “coming for” Americans’ guns.
Biden himself has not always minded that phrase. In August 2019, Anderson Cooper raised the issue of confiscating assault weapons in a CNN interview of Biden. Cooper said that the U.S. had so many assault weapons that the ban on new ones that the U.S. maintained for a decade had not had much effect. He mentioned “gun owners out there who say, well, a Biden administration means they’re going to come for my guns” — and Biden interjected: “Bingo. You’re right if you have an assault weapon. The fact of the matter is they should be illegal, period.” After a follow-up, Biden conceded only that he didn’t think he could legally have law enforcement seize assault weapons from their owners by “walking into their home” and “going through their gun cabinet.”
The plan you’ll find on Biden’s campaign website doesn’t say anything about forcing the sale of existing assault weapons, although it would, among other things, make owners pay $200 to keep them. But if Biden was just flubbing his own position, it wasn’t the only time he has done so. In March, Biden had a testy and well publicized exchange with a gun-rights supporter, in the course of which he said, “We’ll take your AR-14s away.” He probably meant to refer to AR-15s.
This protective impulse toward Biden on the part of the press is sure to express itself in all kinds of ways as the campaign goes on. In early September, the candidate said he would raise the corporate tax rate “on Day 1” of his presidency. A few journalists noted that Biden would not have the power to make good on that promise, just as commentators note the many occasions when Trump engages in similar bluster. MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle pushed back on this criticism, saying Biden was just voicing “a sentiment” and that Trump often makes equally empty promises.
When people want to dismiss the importance of Trump’s inaccuracies, they sometimes say he should be taken seriously but not literally. But part of the press’s job is to report when candidates are departing from the literal truth. It should not be to protect a candidate from the voters, or from himself.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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