A Skeptic’s Take on Biden’s Chances

I can’t help but think of Bob Kerrey right now. In 1992, the then-Nebraska senator (and current New School president) was one of Bill Clinton’s two vice-presidential finalists, and conventional wisdom strongly suggested Kerrey would get the nod.

The reason was simple: Clinton was an inexperienced small-state governor whose Vietnam draft avoidance would be a major issue in the fall – especially since he was running against a World War II hero, George H.W. Bush. The presence of Kerrey, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran widely celebrated for his sacrifices, would inoculate Clinton against the G.O.P.’s ugly attacks, just as Kerrey’s Senate experience would complement Clinton’s gubernatorial resume. Plus, Kerrey’s perceived foreign policy and national security expertise would reassure voters worried about Clinton’s seasoning.

It made plenty of sense on paper, but – of course – it didn’t happen. The main reason probably had to do with the stormy personal relationship between Kerrey and both Clintons. They’d both competed for the Democratic nomination and Kerrey had himself pointedly raised Clinton’s draft record, arguing that the Republicans would open him “like a soft peanut” in the fall. There were reports that Hillary Clinton, in particular, weighed in emphatically against Kerrey’s selection. On the other hand, Clinton hit it off well with Al Gore, the other finalist, in their personal meetings. And the idea of an unconventional ticket – two moderate southern boomers from neighboring states – struck his fancy. You know the rest.

I’m bringing up Kerrey because – and the events of the next 24 to 48 hours may make a mockery of this notion – I have a hunch we’re seeing the same thing play out right now with Joe Biden. In the last few days, Biden’s stock has risen dramatically. He’s leading Drudge’s poll (well, technically “a wild card” is – but Biden is tops among humans, by far) and NBC is even reporting that he’s “the leading contender, partly due to his working-class roots and foreign policy expertise.”

Biden, like Kerrey in ’92, makes perfect sense as a running-mate. Obama’s biggest challenge is offering reassurance to voters who generally like him and want to vote for the Democrats (or, more precisely, against the Republicans) this year. If Biden is chosen, these voters will be barraged with mentions of his experience, foreign policy expertise and “gravitas.” And in perhaps his biggest moment as the nominee, the vice-presidential debate, Biden would almost certainly shine – particularly on foreign policy and national security matters. His working-class Irish-Catholic image wouldn’t hurt either. It’s true that V.P. candidates can’t win over many voters on their own. But the right V.P. can provide the final nudge for voters who are leaning toward a presidential candidate. Biden would be a terrific nudger.

But does he really have much of a relationship with Obama? True, their personal history during this year’s primaries wasn’t overtly hostile like Kerrey’s and Clinton’s in ’92, but there did seem to be a telling moment during a debate last summer, when Biden announced that Obama had had an H.I.V. test. Rather coldly, Obama jumped in to clarify Biden’s comment. His body language was icy. The moment suggested that these two may not be enemies, but they just don’t naturally click with each other.

Meanwhile, Obama seems to have natural personal chemistry with Tim Kaine, much the way Clinton did with Gore. And like Clinton, Obama might be attracted to the idea of an unconventional ticket – two Washington outsiders without extensive ties to the political establishment.

Of course, I’ve already made the case that this kind of thinking could be problematic for Obama – that 2008 is fundamentally different from 1992, and that he can’t discount the importance of the appearance of national security expertise the way Clinton did. But this nugget from today’s New York Times has me thinking Obama doesn’t see things this way and that the pick won’t be Biden:

Obama’s advisers said he all but reached his decision while on vacation in Hawaii. They said it was the end of what proved to be an unexpectedly intense process, condensed because he did not want to start actively vetting potential running mates before Clinton quit the race in June.

If this is true, then Obama reached his decision somewhere mid- to late last week, or maybe even sooner. This is just a hunch, but doesn’t Kaine seem more like a choice Obama would have settled on early, since, all things being equal, it’s probably the choice he’d like to make personally? Biden, by contrast, seems like a choice that Obama would make only if he felt he had to. It seems like the kind of decision he’d leave unresolved as long as he could, just to make sure it was necessary – not something he’d settle on in Hawaii.

Or maybe not?