When Joe Biden and Sarah Palin meet in St. Louis in just over three weeks, it will mark the eighth vice presidential debate in history—and easily the most anticipated since 1984, when Vice President George H. W. Bush squared off with Geraldine Ferraro, the only woman before Palin ever nominated by a major party for national office.
And it is Bush’s conduct immediately before, during and after that Philadelphia debate that ought to provide Biden with a useful tutorial in some very basic don’ts when it comes to competing so publicly with a female opponent.
For instance, do not allow your spouse to tell reporters that your opponent is “a four-million dollar—I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” And do not stand idly by while your press secretary observes that your opponent’s debating style is “too bitchy.” And absolutely do not, no matter what the temptation, brag to a bunch of longshoremen the day after the debate that you “tried to kick a little ass” the night before. (And if you do slip up, do come up with a better excuse than, “Anybody who’s ever been involved in athletics—particularly Texas athletics—knows what I said.”)
Oh, and during the debate itself, don’t condescendingly offer to explain the subtleties of world politics to your opponent, thus opening the door for her to reply, “I almost resent your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.”
Bush was guilty of all of these clumsy transgressions 24 years ago, but none of them added up to anything, mainly because of Ronald Reagan’s insurmountable advantage over Walter Mondale at the top of the ticket. In 2008, of course, the election is much closer—and the public is more sensitive to rhetorical gaffes involving gender and race. A single similar slip-up by Biden could prove devastating to the Democratic ticket’s November prospects.
This is worth mentioning because more than a few observers, on the right, on the left and in the middle, seem to believe this is exactly what Barack Obama’s running mate will do.
“If you asked me to name the high-profile Democrat most likely to make a condescending remark in this situation (albeit inadvertent), Biden would top my list,” the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber wrote recently. He went on to suggest that “about 90 percent of Biden’s debate prep should focus on how to interact with Palin respectfully, ten percent on everything else.”
This apprehension is understandable. Biden has a reputation for babbling his way into hot water—something he famously did in an interview with this newspaper early last year. Alternately, some people wonder if awareness of this tendency will prompt Biden and his handlers to overcompensate in their debate preparations, essentially neutering Biden and producing the kind of comatose performance that Al Gore turned in eight years ago after he was shown a video of Darryl Hammond’s devastating impersonation of him.
Either way, Biden seems to be trapped. He can be deferential and watch as Palin, a quick and sharp former television anchor, walks all over him and steals the show. Or he can engage her directly and—because he can’t help himself—end up lapsing into some kind of dated, sexist reference that will dominate the post-debate news coverage, give the media license to recycle all of Biden’s old gaffes, and badly throw the Obama-Biden campaign off-message for days.
But this kind of thinking ignores something very underappreciated about Biden: his versatility as a public performer. Yes, he has put his foot in his mouth, but he’s also turned in some rather brilliant performances in his years in politics. The prevalent caricature of Biden suggests he can throw an erratic fastball, and nothing else. But a revealing anecdote from early in his career, as related by Richard Ben Cramer in What it Takes, offers a different image of Biden.
Cramer writes about Biden’s first statewide campaign in Delaware as a 29-year-old county official running against Republican Senator Cale Boggs—a fixture in state politics for a quarter-century—and how Biden’s handling of their 1972 debate may have made the difference in his 3,122-vote victory:
‘Aw, I don’t know that one either…’
That was the moment. Joe knew he had him. It was destiny.”
That is not the kind of savvy calculation that many would associate with Biden. But actually, he’s shown this instinctive ability to modulate his performance in the 2008 campaign. There was, for instance, Biden’s perfect response to Brian Williams’ question in the very first Democratic debate about whether, given his past rhetorical blunders, he could reassure voters that he would exhibit the necessary discipline on the world stage: “Yes.”
Biden, at his best, is one of the more forceful and compelling communicators on the Democratic side. And in a way, the debate with Palin sets up perfectly for him, because Palin’s presence has dramatically lowered the expectations for his performance. Had McCain chosen, say, Joe Lieberman, there would be much less chatter about Biden’s gaffe potential. Plus, Palin, through her convention address and her stump speeches, is quickly gaining a reputation as an unflappably powerful communicator.
When Oct. 2 rolls around, not many people will be betting on Joe Biden. And that’s usually when he’s at his best.