The worst gaffe for a politician, it's been said, is not the mistakes made on the campaign trail but when a candidate tells the truth. The vice president of the United States, who's a kind of genius at embarrassing himself, did it again on Tuesday when, almost in passing, he mentioned the hallmark of this president's stewardship of the American economy: "the middle class that has been buried these past four years."
Even a blind hog will stumble across an acorn now and then, but this time the vice president -- who will debate Mitt Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, on Thursday -- had hit on an essential truth.
A growing number of Americans are slipping into poverty under this administration -- 15.1 percent or 46.2 million as of 2011, or about one in six. That's up from 14.3 percent in 2009, when Barack Obama took the presidential oath of office.
The official poverty level is an annual income of $23,050 for a family of four, and the 46 million Americans that now have slipped below it is the largest total since the Census began reporting that number in 1959. How's that for hope and change? Change, maybe. Hope, not so much.
A record number of American households are now on food stamps: 22.4 million, or 15 percent of the population. That's a telling statistic.
So when Joe Biden says the middle class has been buried the last four years, he may be understating the case for once. The working poor are getting poorer, too.
Having committed the cardinal political error of telling the truth, our vice president immediately began backpedaling, retracting, explaining what he really meant to say, and in general trying to hide behind Campaign Obama's usual talking points, which grow more and more unconvincing.
The Great Recession of 2008-09 was bad enough; the Obama "recovery" could be even worse because its disappointing performance threatens to become permanent -- especially if this president is re-elected and gets to continue his misguided policies. Or, frightening thought, gets to introduce even more of them. Joe Biden will doubtless be able to explain how successful they are, too, except on those recurrent occasions when he collides with the truth.
Whenever the vice president of the United States flies into one of his tirades, some of us feel like sinking to our knees and uttering a fervent prayer for the health of the president of the United States. For his No. 2 man is not just a loose cannon but a whole battery of them.
That this president should have chosen a character like Joe Biden as his running mate was only a foretaste of the kind of judgment Obama would show in managing the economy.
The vice president has proved an inexhaustible treasure of bloopers, but only the rare ones are as revealing as his latest. Unless that buried middle class is revived, and Americans put to work again, far worse is to come.
"In our time," George Orwell complained in a classic essay about politics and the English language, "political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." But now and then, good ol' Joe Biden comes along like a clown wandering into the center ring of this circus and, without meaning to, falls into honesty. As he did on this occasion.
Such excursions are all too rare in our telepromptered times. Which makes them all the more welcome.
The Hon. Joseph R. Biden is a kind of relief in the overscripted world of dead political language -- a walking treasure of insights by accident.
Paul Greenberg, a syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.