Saturday, August 23, 2008

You go, Joe!

By J. Kingston Pierce

Abraham Lincoln is famous for having promoted former rivals to his inner circle. Now, in what may be the most crucial decision he’s making in this final stage of his presidential campaign, another Illinoisan, Barack Obama, has tapped his own former opponent, veteran U.S. Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware), to be his 2008 Democratic running mate. That choice demonstrates, as historian (and Lincoln authority) Doris Kearns Goodwin suggested earlier this week in a New York Times essay, a “rare combination of humility and confidence required to perform wisely at the highest level.”

It should also come as a relief to Democrats nervous that Obama would, at this comparatively late stage of the vice-president-choosing game, go with a safe pick of either Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) or Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. Both are good men in their own rights. But Bayh, after delivering a so-so keynote address at the Democratic convention in 1996, has failed since to demonstrate the magnetism necessary for a national political run, and Kaine is a first-term chief exec whose inexperience would only have become fodder for John “100 Years War” McCain, whose campaign is desperately trying to make the case that Obama lacks the gravitas necessary to serve in the Oval Office. (Hey, where was that concern, Senator Small, when a weak Texas governor was lurching toward the White House seven-plus years ago?) “Are Kaine and Bayh the best Obama can do?” Salon editor Joan Walsh asked several weeks ago in a column. She received her answer this morning: no.

The 65-year-old Biden has gravitas up the ying-yang. A trained attorney, born in Pennsylvania but reared in Delaware, he was first elected to the Senate in 1972 at age 29 (age 29?!!), and has since become an expert on foreign affairs and judicial issues. Although he made some unfortunate statements about Obama in the primary season, which helped to end his second bid for the presidency (Biden previously ran in 1988), old-hand Washington watchers such as Salon’s Walter Shapiro have been asking for weeks now whether the practical and practiced Biden might not be the ideal person to balance a ticket with the young, idealistic Barack Obama. Shapiro wrote early last month:

The tenor of an Obama administration will be suggested, more than anything, by his vice-presidential choice.

That may be why the Obama campaign signals that narrow geographical calculations may not play a role in the hunt for a vice president. Briefing reporters in Washington last week, campaign manager David Plouffe dismissed the notion that a running mate should be expected to deliver his or her home state. Plouffe cited the choices of Al Gore in 1992 (Bill Clinton would have won Tennessee anyway) and Dick Cheney in 2000 (Wyoming was never in doubt for the GOP) as shrewd political choices that brought heft to the ticket. Plouffe predicted that Obama would choose someone who is “qualified to be president and who will be a partner in governing.”

The description certainly fits Biden, one of the leading foreign-policy figures in the Democratic Party. For a would-be president like Obama, who would enter the Oval Office facing the challenge of prudently withdrawing from Iraq, Biden’s long-standing proposal to acknowledge reality and divide the country into semi-autonomous Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions may have appeal. (Salon conducted a lengthy foreign-policy interview with Biden before the Iowa caucuses.) Granted, Biden, who never served in the military (he failed his draft physical during the Vietnam War), cannot play the macho-man war-hero card like Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. But his son Beau Biden, the attorney general of Delaware, will be deploying to Iraq this fall with his national guard unit.

Despite the dismal [primary election] results in Iowa, Biden was a spirited campaigner and an adroit, if sometimes loquacious, debater. Asked in an early 2007 debate whether he would have the discipline as president to control his motor-mouth, Biden gave a one-word answer, “yes,” and then stood there grinning as his subsequent silence prompted laughter.

“In choosing a vice president, you want somebody who can be on the campaign trail day after day, taking the pressure off the candidate,” said David Wilhelm, a former Democratic national chairman, who backed Biden in the primaries and is now an Obama advisor. “You want somebody who can drive the message of the day and can win the vice-presidential debate. One of the things that this campaign showed is that Joe Biden is a good retail politician.”

During the primaries, Obama had a difficult time winning over white Catholic voters, garnering only 34 percent support from this group in Ohio and only 28 percent in Pennsylvania, according to exit polls. Biden is not the only Catholic frequently mentioned as a veep possibility; Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is another. But Biden comes equipped with a just-plain-Joe political style and a heart-rending personal history--his wife and infant daughter died in a car crash just a month after he was elected to the Senate in 1972. As a senator, Biden took the train to Wilmington virtually every night to be with his two surviving sons.

All of this, of course, ends the hopes of die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters who imagined that Obama’s willingness to work with (and learn from) former rivals would result in his choosing her to become vice president of the United States. But Mrs. Clinton, for all of her strengths (and I originally supported her in the 2008 race) would have been a disastrous choice in this contest. McCain undoubtedly hoped Obama would pick her as his running mate. She’d have become a lightning rod for Republican’t haters, and helped to rally conservatives disappointed with McCain’s occasional fits of contrariness (he’s no real maverick--he voted with George W. Bush 100 percent of the time), his ever-growing repertoire of gaffes, his history of adultery, and his abundant flip-flops on issues about which he supposedly once held deep convictions. Clinton would be better as U.S. attorney general, and I hope that Obama gives her serious consideration for that position.

Biden’s primary run offers Republican’ts a few choice quotes to use in their negative ads against Obama. (One such advertisement is already making the rounds.) But those sorts of statements are merely what is necessary in trying to win a political contest; no independent-thinking U.S. voter is going to hold Biden’s earlier comments about Obama against his now running mate, any more than Obama himself will. And the Delaware senator’s remarks were never that biting, anyway. Hillary Clinton would’ve provided the GOP with much more ammunition.

Biden is one of the few choices Obama could’ve made that changes the political landscape dramatically. (Selecting combative Senator Jim Webb of Virginia might have had the same effect, but been less predictable in its outcome.) He’s extremely well liked by D.C. journalists, many of whom have been sucking up to McCain and been more reticent toward Obama, as an outsider. Biden’s potential to bring wary journalists into the Obama fold is likely to result in improved coverage of the Obama campaign, in some quarters. That “rare combination of humility and confidence” Goodwin suggests it demonstrates should impress more than a few fence-sitting voters, as well. And Biden is a terrific speaker with a biting wit sure to serve both he and Obama well during this campaign. (I very much look forward to seeing him eviscerate whoever sits across from him in the coming vice-presidential debates.)

The real question now is how Republican’ts will combat the Obama-Biden ticket. McCain is working with a dismally thin deck of good choices for his own veep contender. The controversy over McCain’s elitism, brought into public view this week by his not even being able to remember how many houses he owns may doom the chances of Mitt Romney being asked to come on board with all of his deep-pocketed Mormon backing; all McCain needs is another rich guy on his ticket to suggest to Americans just how out of touch he is with their economic concerns. He could go with Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, but Pawlenty isn’t particularly popular in his own state, and he’s an almost unknown nationally. Furthermore, seeing 48-year-old Pawlenty standing with septuagenarian McCain would only re-energize the concerns about McCain’s being a latter-day Bob Dole, too old to serve in a job as demanding as that of the president of the United States. McCain could go instead with either Florida Governor Charlie Crist or his traveling mate, Senator Lindsay Graham, but both are rumored to be closet gays, which wouldn’t sit well with all those homosexual-hating right wingers McCain needs in his camp.

Finally, the Arizona senator could try to play on his supposed maverick credentials by asking former Democrat Joe Lieberman to run on a cross-party ticket. At 66 years old, Lieberman is at least younger than McCain, but wouldn’t look so much younger as to raise doubts in voters’ minds. And he’s Jewish, which might put the traditionally Democrat-leaning Jewish vote in some play. On the other hand, Lieberman--though he ran with former Vice President
Al Gore for the White House back in 2000--has lost credibility and stature ever since by supporting Bush’s wasteful and ill-conceived war against Iraq with the same blindered enthusiasm that McCain demonstrates. Lieberman’s impact on undecided independents might be minimal, at best, and choosing him would only antagonize the Rush Limburghers of the world, who already question McCain’s manhood and have put it about that picking Lieberman would “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Certainly, Obama’s Biden choice makes things much more difficult for McCain. No longer is he running against somebody he considers unprepared for the presidency; now he’s running against a combined ticket of youthful vigor and optimism, and vast experience paired with unimpeachable foreign-policy credentials. I wouldn’t want to be on McCain’s veep selection panel right now.

One interesting thing that has come out of the news that Joe Biden will team with Barack Obama this fall: speculation that Biden would be too old after two successive Obama terms in the White House to run for the presidency himself again. Does anybody else find it curious that such questions are being raised? After all, Biden is only 65. Eight years from now, he’ll be ... 73. That’s just one year older than John McCain is going to be on August 29--less than a week from today. If Biden would be too old to run for president in 2016, is McCain too old already?

(Cross-posted at Limbo.)

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  • Yeah - McCain should pick a poor homeless person. And Biden looks absolutely poverty stricken down there in Wilmington, DE. All the cameras showed were Ma Biden's home. I'm assuming the Senator's house is bigger.

    Oh, did you have a problem with Kerry's rich wife in 2004? No? I didn't think so.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:29 PM  

  • Good point on the age thing at the end. I wonder if that doesn't take some of the wind out of the argument that McCain is too old though.

    Not that I've ever been entirely comfortable with the age thing, being older myself. Of course, in the end, it's not the age as much as the mental acuity, which McLame just doesn't have.

    By Blogger Libby Spencer, at 1:35 PM  

  • The problem isn't that presidential candidates have lots of money; certainly Franklin D. Roosevelt was very rich, but he became the 20th century's finest chief executive by reaching across class and economic barriers to lift the nation's poor from the Depression into which Republican't Herbert Hoover had cast them.

    The real problem for McCain is that he's so rich that he doesn't even know where his (or his wife's) money goes anymore. At a time when many Americans are struggling just to hold onto ONE home, the idea that McCain owns seven or eight (I have lost count) and wears $540 pairs of shoes suggests that he's well out of touch with common-man concerns. The fact that he couldn't even answer the question about how many houses he owns raises additional worries, as well; after all, this was not the first time McCain or his wife had been asked that same question, and yet he STILL couldn't answer it. Is that sort of unpreparedness what people want in a president? I suspect not.

    I didn't have a problem with Teresa Heinz Kerry having lots of money in 2004, no, because she is well recognized for her philanthropic endeavors. She gives money to a variety of environmental and social causes, as well as to the community of Pittsburgh, where her family has long ties. And I don't have any problem with Cindy McCain having lots of money, either. The problem is the perception that her husband is out of touch because of their combined wealth. Unless he can proved differently between now and Election Day, there are going to be a lot of Americans unwilling to hand their fates over to somebody who doesn't understand the economic positions they are having to endure--positions to which they have been brought in large part because of George W. Bush's borrow-and-spend policies. The same Bush who McCain now backs unequivocally (and whose backside he's been kissing for the last few years).

    By Blogger J. Kingston Pierce, at 1:50 PM  

  • Totally agree. It's not about the money, it's about the cluelessness.

    By Blogger Libby Spencer, at 7:04 PM  

  • House Divided -- Text of Entire Speech by President Lincoln, 1868

    MONEY QUOTE FROM ABE WAS: "We shall not fail - if we stand firm, we shall not fail."

    But Joe Biden's speechwriter's relayed it a bit differently:

    JOE: INTRO: Well, it's great to be here! On the steps of the old State House in the land of Lincoln. President Lincoln once instructed us to be sure to put your feet in the right place. Then stand firm. Today, Springfield, I know my feet are in the right place. And I am proud to stand firm for the next president of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

    JOE: END OF HIS SPEECH : "And now it's time for all of us, as Lincoln said, to put our feet in the right place and to stand firm."

    Only Lincoln never said it is time to put our feet in the right place. He said: "We shall not fail -- if we stand firm, we shall not fail."

    Speechwriter taking liberties? No biggie! But let the record show:


    By Blogger DANIELBLOOM, at 8:33 AM  

  • Biden did not say he was relaying Lincoln's statement verbatim. He was clearly paraphrasing, using a quote from the last U.S. president to be elected from Illinois to make the case for the next U.S. president to be elected from Illinois, Barack Obama.

    By Blogger J. Kingston Pierce, at 12:12 PM  

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