Archive for August 25th, 2008

Biden Time

OK, that was a bad pun, but I couldn’t resist it.

Back in the early/mid eighties when I worked in Washington for a Senator (a Republican Senator, as a matter of fact) Joe Biden was one of the few Senators who was friendly and talkative with Legislative aides working for other Senators. His office was right next to the office of the Senator I worked for in the Russell Senate office building, and among other things he took a strong interest in the tacos we could buy in the downstairs snack bar. I’d be carrying them up, he’d say, “oh, you’ve got tacos again, man, those look stuffed full…they let you stuff the yourself, right, that’s what you said last time…I really gotta try that, that looks better than the stuff they serve in the formal Senate dining room…” To be sure, it was always small talk, but I liked the guy.

Biden is, I believe, the perfect pick for Barack Obama. He balances the ticket by giving us an outsider with a ‘change and hope’ agenda and an insider who knows the ropes and has impeccable experience. Like Ronald Reagan’s choice of George H.W. Bush in 1980 (or even Bush the Younger’s choice of Cheney in 2000), it’s someone inexperienced but popular showing the public that he’ll have someone very experienced as his main advisor. He also is what the drudgereport calls a ‘bare knuckles fighter,’ he goes in there and attacks. Yet somehow he does so without seeming petty or undignified. This is perfect for a would be VP.

But what about his loquaciousness, his tendency for rhetorical faux pas’, which sometimes cause embarrassment? Ironically, this reputation will likely save him. “He said WHAT” will be followed by “well, that’s just Biden being Biden.” His questions during the primary about Obama’s qualifications, something now being trumped up by the McCain campaign, will be more easily brushed aside than George H.W. Bush’s primary attacks on Reagan’s qualifications and ‘voodoo economics.’ Biden can say, as he did Saturday, that after seeing him throughout the campaign and having intense conversations with him, his old worries are gone: Obama has proven himself and is ready for the job.

Obama needs to recapture the image as a post-partisan candidate, a uniter who means it, not just says it. One reason McCain’s made some inroads (though the poll happy press vastly overstates how much — its too early to take polls too seriously) is that Obama cannot fight back without appearing to fall into the partisan trap, which is just where McCain wants him. But without being able to fight back, he risks a Dukakis fate. The GOP defined Dukakis before he could define himself, putting him on the defensive. Biden can be the headline grabbing surrogate who goes after McCain and the GOP in a traditionally partisan way. Obama can remain above the fray, Presidential and as much as possible, trying to build unity. Will it work? Well, given how far this improbable campaign has come, I wouldn’t underestimate him!

Vice Presidential picks rarely make a difference in the final outcome. In 1988 Michael Dukakis chose Llyod Bentson of Texas, someone still considered one of the best VP choices in recent history. George H.W. Bush chose Dan Quayle, someone who never overcame the reputation of being a lightweight both politically and intellectually. Yet despite all that, Bush cruised to an easy victory over Dukakis. Bob Dole thought Jack Kemp would energize his campaign, but despite being a good choice, it seemed to have won Dole few if any votes.

Yet in this campaign, currently very close, what matters is the campaign dynamic. Biden is the kind of person who can help keep the dynamic or flow of the campaign in Obama’s favor, and prevent the McCain camp from defining the agenda. That might not be obvious to people watching, Biden’s role might be underlooked because it will be a subtle influence on the over all flow of the battle, not a specific event or statement that grabs headlines. And that’s what Obama needs. He defeated Clinton not by cutting her down and trouncing her, but running a relentless, disciplined and well choreographed campaign.

But while I think Biden was a good choice by Obama, I still have some concerns on foreign policy. Biden’s foreign policy expertise is impressive — very few even come close — he is an establishment figure, who has bought into the bipartisan myth that the US is a superpower with “responsibilities” which requires a global foreign policy. He isn’t likely to embrace the fundamental shift in foreign policy focus I believe necessary. However, I’m under no illusions that any President is ready to undergo such a shift. At my most hopeful, Obama and Biden will chart a path towards a true multi-lateralism and a rejection of militarism. This could put the US on a very different policy path than in the last 20 years.

Perhaps most compelling to me is Biden the man. Coming from a family constantly having financial problems, losing his wife and daughter when he became a Senator, raising his two remaining boys as a single father before getting remarried five years later, and commuting daily between Delaware and DC for his entire career, that kind of story is unique. The fact he is not wealthy helps too, he doesn’t have the problem of appearing as a silk shirt advocate for the working class.

The Obama campaign faces numerous hurdles ahead, but in his first “Presidential” decision — that of chosing a Vice Presidential nominee, he chose wisely.

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