The case against Joe Biden as a vice-presidential prospect is easy to make.
He comes from Delaware, a blue state worth only three electoral votes, and he’s been in the Senate for nearly four decades—not exactly the kind of executive resume to add balance to a ticket led by Barack Obama, a career legislator.
Plus, there’s his knack for talking his way into a mess, whether by lifting words from Neil Kinnock and puffing up his own academic credentials 20 years ago or by awkwardly stumbling into racial politics more recently.
Given the volume of names that Obama will ultimately consider for his No. 2 spot, it’s easy to envision Biden’s being scratched early in the process.
But there is a case to be made for his selection, something we were reminded of when President George W. Bush sought last week—on foreign soil—to liken Obama’s call for more diplomatic engagement with Iran to the naiveté once exhibited by Hitler’s appeasers.
Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his party’s leading foreign policy voice in that chamber, immediately swung into action, making headlines across the country with his blunt dismissal of Bush’s ploy as “bullshit.” Then he spent the next few days making the talk-show rounds to defend Obama and to place Obama’s views in the context of the actions of the Bush administration, which has engaged—with apparent success—with Muammar el-Qadaffi’s Libyan government and Kim Jong-Il’s North Korean regime.
On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Biden noted that Bush’s own views on talking with Iran aren’t even shared by senior members of his own administration.
“Maybe [Bush] doesn’t know…what’s going on in his own administration, but as soon as he gets back, he should fire as appeasers [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates and [Condoleezza] Rice, because they both—Gates as recently as a week ago—said we’ve got to sit down and talk with the Iranians directly,” he said.
Biden, like any other self-respecting politician, would never admit that he’s angling for vice-presidential consideration, and he probably had many other reasons (he can’t help himself?) for speaking out this week. Plus, V.P. may not be all that’s on his wish list. Supposedly, he and Richard Holbrooke topped John Kerry’s list of would-be Secretaries of State back in 2004, and the position hasn’t lost any of its luster in the four years since then.
But Biden’s mini-media tour these past few days highlighted the value that he’d bring to the Democratic ticket in a campaign that will feature relentless attacks on Obama’s foreign policy experience.
The presence of the 65-year-old Biden, with his obvious fluency in foreign policy and seasoned appearance, could offer invaluable reassurance to independent voters who are hungry to break with the G.O.P. but who fear that Obama, as Bill Clinton put it a few months ago, is a roll of the dice.
His value goes considerably beyond his age and resume. There are also his formidable communication skills. As he demonstrated this past week, there are few politicians capable of fielding questions about complex diplomatic questions and providing—without hesitation—smooth, expressive and digestible responses.
Intentionally or not, most politicians talk over their audiences’ heads when foreign policy comes up, perhaps calculating that the more boring their answer is, the more comfortable voters will feel. But Biden is the opposite: His goal, it seems, it to make the audience feel his passion—and he’s remarkably good at achieving it.
On “This Week,” he provided a glimpse at how he could turn the tables on John McCain’s running-mate when, as inevitably will happen, that running-mate begins painting Obama as a fringe figure on foreign policy.
“We are weaker in the Middle East (than we were pre-Bush),” Biden said. “We are weaker around the world. Terrorism is stronger than it ever was. Iran is closer to a bomb. Just by any measure, what has their policy wrought? Just a disaster. An absolute disaster.”
There may not be another Democrat out there who would dismantle the Republican attacks on Obama as enthusiastically and authoritatively as Biden. And his appeal might be especially strong among the white working-class masses who, supposedly, are uneasy about Obama. In his words and style, Biden still comes across like the Irish-Catholic kid from Scranton that he once was. For undecided working-class Pennsylvanians, his presence might be just enough to keep them from defecting to McCain?
If Obama were to tap Biden, the media would undoubtedly highlight Biden’s infamous “clean” and “articulate” characterization of Obama last year—evidence, to some, that Biden harbors dated racial attitudes. The analysis is arguable (to say the least), but the controversy would hardly be a distraction for Obama. To white voters of Biden’s generation (among whom Obama has struggled), Obama would be making a powerful statement of inclusion and understanding.
These days, a good vice-presidential candidate has two primary tasks: adding a state or states to his or her party’s column and “winning” the vice-presidential debate. Biden’s selection would have little impact on Delaware, but there are several states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia—where he could prove very beneficial And anyone judging him based on his performance these past few days—or in any of the Democratic debates last year—would have to figure he’d fare quite well against John McCain’s No. 2.
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