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Aug 23 2008

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Biden Becomes Obama’s “Cheney”

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The first rule of a vice presidential selection is “Do no harm”, and in choosing Joe Biden, Barack Obama achieved that goal. In picking a Senator, Obama also continued a nearly unbroken 56-year history of Democratic nominees choosing Senators as their running mates.

As one of the longest serving Senators in the Chamber, one who has chaired both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees, Biden brings credibility and more specifically, foreign policy gravitas to the ticket.

A Catholic with a working class background, Biden is a quintessential family man with a personal story that is at turns both heartbreaking and courageous.  Biden is smart, personable, gregarious and a capable public speaker. In his first run for the presidency in 1988, Biden was “the Obama” of his time, providing consistent rhetorical flourish on the campaign trail where New England brevity and sensibility ultimately prevailed.

The activist Netroots base of the Party will be heartened by Biden’s record as a dependable, unreconstructed progressive on domestic policy. It was under Biden’s chairmanship that the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork came before the Judiciary Committee, and where its’ ultimate rejection led to a new Washington verb; to be “Borked.”

But Biden has been a standout on foreign policy where his honesty, intelligence and aversion to crass partisan politics have made him an articulate, reassuring and credible voice for the Democratic Party. Biden has been pragmatic during his tenure on the Foreign Relations Committee, consistently reaching across the aisle, to Jesse Helms during Republican control in the 90s, and more recently with Richard Lugar, in both the minority and majority, in order to get things done.

The Biden pick does not come without risks. The Senator is legendary for his long and sometimes meandering monologues. While he was much more disciplined during his recent presidential run, the challenge still exists. Biden also has a record of both hilarious and inappropriate comments that have variously required explanation, context or apology.

But while the Biden choice is broadly reassuring as a vice presidential pick, it does raise eyebrows with regard to several tenets of the Obama campaign.

For starters, what happened to “change”? Barack Obama was 11 years old when Joe Biden came to Washington. Biden’s serious resume comes with more than 35 years of living and working in the political culture that Obama has branded as toxic and vowed to lay low.  How does the campaign square that?

Second, until now, Obama has used his youth and relative inexperience as a source of strength.  He has disparaged candidates with longer resumes who, in his opinion, made bad decisions.  But choosing the 65 year-old Biden is at least a tacit admission by Obama that experience matters and that some form of adult supervision  is necessary.  Point for McCain.

Third, in picking Biden, Obama necessarily downplays the generational aspect of his campaign, which has been a great source of his strength thus far, particularly with younger voters. In this context, the Biden choice is more reminiscent of Dukakis-Bentsen than Clinton-Gore.

Politically, the Biden selection fails to do three things.

First, it doesn’t help to mend fences with Hillary Clinton and her still-restive supporters. Biden stayed neutral after he dropped out of this year’s race. The vice presidential selection was a missed opportunity for Obama to unite the Party by picking a former Clinton supporter, such as Senator Evan Bayh. Tactically that opens the door for McCain in making his VP selection.

Second it pairs two Senators with no executive experience. Despite a more than a generation of service, Joe Biden has not managed anything larger than a Senate committee staff. Another McCain opening.

Third, there is no obvious state or region that will swing into the Obama column as a result of Biden.

That last point effectively makes Biden a governing pick as opposed to a campaign pick.

And with inescapable irony, it models Obama’s selection after that of then-Governor Bush in choosing Dick Cheney; a choice that reassured the Party’s base on policy while reassuring the electorate at large that there would be a steady and seasoned hand in the White House in times of crisis. Old Bush hands, who in the eyes of militant Democrats were capable of doing nothing right, should allow themselves some much deserved smirking today.  Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Finally, in making a vice presidential prediction in June, I said:

Above all, he needs to pick a candidate who will broadly reassure voters while at the same time be worthy of his change paradigm. How well Obama reconciles that divide will be the measure of success for his vice presidential choice.”

In picking Biden, Obama has done well on the first part but not the second. He missed an opportunity to resolve the abstract nature of his campaign narrative with his first presidential decision. In so doing, the contradictions between rhetoric and reality remain, making the VP pick a solid choice, but less than a complete success in communicating with voters.

Still, should Obama win in November, America will have smart and capable vice president. Through personal tragedy and long public service, Biden has demonstrated courage, dignity and decency, all valuable qualities in a #2.

1 comment

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