Joe BidenOops. Let me rephrase that.Photo: Iowa DemocratsVice President Joe Biden, whose gaffes are the stuff of legend, put foot firmly in mouth again last week — this time while talking about China’s one-child policy. During a question-and-answer session with students at Sichuan University in Chengdu, Biden veered off into a discussion of entitlement spending and retirement programs, at one point saying to his Chinese audience:

You have no safety net. Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family. The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people. Not sustainable.

Seems pretty clear that he was clumsily trying to be polite to his host country even while criticizing its population policy. As Frank James pointed out on NPR’s political blog, it made “a certain amount of sense” for Biden to avoid doing anything “that would add to the tensions in U.S.-Chinese relations [a]fter a week in which Chinese and U.S. officials got into a shoving match at the Great Hall of the People and American and Chinese athletes got into an actual brawl.”

But politesse was not the wisest approach to China’s one-child policy, which has led to gross human-rights violations including forced sterilizations and abortions.

As you’d expect, Republican presidential contenders jumped all over the gaffe. Mitt Romney called Biden’s comment “reprehensible and astonishing.” Rick Perry accused Biden and the whole Obama administration of “great moral indifference.” Jon Huntsman declared himself to be “heartbroken” over China’s policy. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) piled on too, pronouncing himself “deeply troubled.”

So this episode has given GOP big shots a chance to clarify their positions on China’s population policy — except, wait, no one was ever in doubt about their positions. And these Republicans themselves are not actually in doubt about where Biden or Obama stand. Everyone in D.C. with any power opposes China’s one-child policy or anything even vaguely similar, as does virtually everyone else in the rest of the country.

As Biden’s spokeswoman (now there’s an unenviable job) clarified in the wake of the kerfuffle, “The Obama Administration strongly opposes all aspects of China’s coercive birth limitation policies, including forced abortion and sterilization. The vice president believes such practices are repugnant. He also pointed out, in China, that the policy is, as a practical matter, unsustainable. He was arguing against the One Child Policy to a Chinese audience.”

That echoes what Obama’s State Department said in a 2010 report [PDF]: One of China’s “principal human rights problems” is “a coercive birth limitation policy, which in some cases resulted in forced abortion or forced sterilization.”

To bluster around as though there were some powerful left-wing American contingent in favor of draconian population control — as Republican presidential candidates and Fox News commentators have been doing — is evidence of delusion, grandstanding, or both.

Biden fumbled with words. Beleaguered spokesperson clarified. Film at 11:00.

But we can still extract a teachable moment from this sideshow. Tune in tomorrow when we bust some myths about China’s one-child policy.