Why did Ted Cruz joke about grieving Joe Biden?

The campaign trail produces robotic behavior. But Ted Cruz realized fairly quickly that his Joe Biden reference was out of line, given the circumstances. He said he was sorry. He sounded like he meant it. 

Julie Jacobson/AP
Republican Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas speaks in New York on May 28, 2015. On Thursday, Cruz used his Facebook account to apologize for cracking a joke at Vice President Joe Biden's expense even as Biden mourns the death of his son.

Ted Cruz told a joke about Joe Biden on Wednesday night while campaigning in southeastern Michigan. Speaking to a Livingston County Republican event in Howell, the Texas senator and 2016 hopeful dragged out what seemed to be a well-practiced line.

“Joe Biden,” Senator Cruz said, drawing faint laughter from the crowd. “You know the nice thing? You don’t need a punch line.”

This isn’t by itself particularly stinging – it just draws on Vice President Biden’s long-established image as the Uncle Joe of the Obama administration, somebody who’s as prone to discuss the merits of shotguns for home defense as to talk about income equality in the US. But it’s problematic in current circumstances. Biden’s son Beau tragically passed away last Saturday. A former Delaware attorney general, the younger Biden left behind a wife and two young children.

The loss of Beau is a difficult bookend for Biden, whose national political career started amid tragedy. His first wife and young daughter were killed in a car crash after his 1972 election to the Senate, but prior to his swearing-in. For a time, he thought about quitting. But senior senators convinced him to carry on. His sons Beau and Hunter were injured in the accident. He was sworn in at Beau's bedside. For decades he returned to Delaware every night to keep his family together.

As to the joke, Cruz realized fairly quickly that his Biden reference was out of line, given the circumstances. He posted an apology on his Facebook page shortly after his evening appearance.

“It was a mistake to use an old joke about Vice President Biden during his time of grief, and I sincerely apologize,” Cruz wrote.

What are the takeaways from this unfortunate incident? First, that politics can be a hard, even brutal game. Politicians become tropes, mere cartoons in opposing party’s descriptions. “Uncle Joe." “Tail Gunner Ted” (That’s a Joe McCarthy reference used against Cruz.) “Shrillary." You have to have thick skin to run for office, but you’re still a person underneath.

Second, the campaign trail produces robotic behavior. Why did Cruz use that joke? Because he’d used it, or some variation of it, before. Probably dozens of times. It was embedded in his routine. Almost all stump speeches are a bunch of modules that can be mixed and matched according to mood and audience. This is why campaign reporters stop listening to actual candidate addresses and use the time to do other things.

But – and here’s the third point – this cycle can be broken. Cruz apologized, after all. He didn’t excuse himself. He said something that sounded heartfelt and moved on. Political consultants will tell you that apologies tend to extend a story about a gaffe. They’ll say hunkering down is preferable, writes Janell Ross at "The Fix" political blog of The Washington Post.

“Cruz said simply what so many others have not. It was a mistake. I’m sorry. Enough said,” writes Ross.

Joe Biden himself may be unaware of the whole controversy. For him, it is not a time to care about the shiny objects that make up so much of daily political discourse. But would he care? Will he care if someone brings this up in weeks to come?

We doubt it. He seems a larger person than that.

“You know Biden won’t hold a grudge against Ted Cruz for goofing on him,” tweeted Politico editor Michael Grunwald. “That’s part of what makes Biden so Biden.”

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