Exactly 21 years ago on Saturday, Joe Biden opened his mouth and inflicted a mortal wound on his White House aspirations – and, it seemed, his entire future in national politics.
The setting was the Iowa State Fair and the occasion was the second debate between the candidates for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination – dubbed “the Seven Dwarves” by unimpressed pundits. The 44-year-old Biden had spent the summer tangling with Michael Dukakis, Paul Simon and Richard Gephardt for the front-runner’s mantle, after the May implosion of Gary Hart – and the results, thanks to his youth, energy and impassioned oratory, had been encouraging. Then he launched into his closing statement at the state fair.
“I started thinking as I was coming over here,” he said, “why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?” He spoke of his coal-mining forebears, who worked 12-hour shifts, then came up to play football or to read and write poetry or to teach a young Joe Biden “how to sing verse.” Why, Biden, wondered, had such gifted people not enjoyed the same opportunities that he had? “It’s not because they weren’t as smart,” he declared. “It’s not because they didn’t work as hard. It’s because they didn’t have a platform upon which to stand.” The moving words, especially as delivered by Biden, instantly connected with the audience. The problem, of course, is that they weren’t Biden’s – they’d been delivered by Neil Kinnock, part of a famous television commercial the British Labor Party had used earlier that year in Britain’s election. Biden had actually borrowed the thoughts before, but always with attribution. It took a few weeks, but eventually (thanks to John Sasso, Dukakis’ campaign manager), the press got wise and a scandal ensued. Exactly one month later, on September 23, Biden was forced to withdraw his candidacy. And that seemed to end the presidential ambitions that Biden had nursed since winning election to the Senate in 1972, when he was just 29 years old. He’d toyed with entering the 1984 Democratic race, begging off the week after Christmas 1983 and then watching with some regret as Hart, a far more reserved public personality, seized the opening for a “new generation” candidate that Biden had sensed was there. There’d be no waiting too long in ’88, Biden decided.
Until the Kinnock episode, ’88 was looking very promising. Hart was out, big names like Mario Cuomo and Bill Bradley had refused to run, and Biden was bringing in big money. Plus, there was the candidate himself: He knew how to grab an audience’s attention and to keep it, to reach his listeners with emotion. A speech to the 1987 California Democratic convention had moved some to tears, and a tape was circulated to Democrats across the country. His message was mostly domestic and in the fall of 1987 it would be Biden, as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who would lead the fight against Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s ultraconservative Supreme Court nominee. The nationally televised hearings, many believed, would be Biden’s moment to take charge of the Democratic race. But just like that, it was over.
The road from August 23, 1987 to August 23, 2008 would have been hard to imagine back then.
After quitting the race, Biden still oversaw the Bork hearings and won solid reviews (at least from the left – Bork was defeated 57-42), and he had no trouble winning another Senate term in 1990. But as he neared 50, senator-for-life seemed to be the best he could hope for in politics. Thanks to Kinnock, Biden was no longer marked as a man to watch in the future.
Ironically, this reduced status ultimately enhanced his chances for a national comeback. In his younger days, Biden was an ambitious man with a gift for connecting with an audience. The issues, as they were, weren’t as central to his message as Biden himself was. But as he aged in the Senate and assumed a top role on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Biden’s emphasis shifted from simple domestic politics to weightier matters of international relations. There was no clear political payoff in this, given how little attention voters pay to overseas developments (except in the case of war). But Biden, safe in his seat and done with presidential politics, didn’t need to worry about that.
Slowly, he evolved into one of his party’s authoritative foreign policy voices, and with that, perhaps unexpectedly, came renewed talk of the White House. But unlike early in his career, this time the chatter wasn’t so much the result of Biden’s naked ambition, but rather the realization of those who served with and covered him that Biden – perhaps unlike the man who almost ran in ’84 and who did run in ’87 – brought unusual insight and maturity to some of the most important global issues of the day.
At the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, a 57-year-old Biden declared himself back in the national political game, and when Al Gore fell short in that fall’s race, Biden began mulling a 2004 bid. But just like in 1983, indecision plagued him and an inviting opening – because of the Iraq war, there was a rare appetite among the masses for a candidate with a foreign-policy-intense résumé – was missed. In the fall of ’04, Biden energetically threw himself into surrogate’s duty for John Kerry, prompting speculation that he’d be tapped as Kerry’s secretary of state. Then, just like after the ’84 election, Biden resolved after Kerry’s defeat not to wait too long in 2008.
He all but announced his ’08 candidacy in June 2005, but the ridiculous head start did him little good. In 1988, Biden was a fresh face and a new force, a man who aroused passions and excited curiosities. Not so in 2008. His speeches were just as passionate as they had been 20 years before, but now they were filled with meat – detailed talk about Iraq and Afghanistan and nuclear proliferation.
In purely quantitative terms, the ’08 campaign was a bust – the polls never moved and Biden dropped out after barely registering in the Iowa caucuses. But his command of foreign policy, and the compelling way he spoke about the subject, won him wide respect. Qualitatively, the campaign had done Biden much good: His reinvention as his party’s preeminent foreign policy voice was complete. And he became a wholly plausible vice presidential prospect.
Skeptics, no doubt, are already noting that running mates rarely matter in the fall – that people vote for president, not vice president, and that the last VP nominee to even swing one state was probably Ed Muskie in 1968. This is a dramatic oversimplification, though. A running mate, even the strongest one, won’t help if voters have already decided the presidential candidate is deficient (the Dukakis-Lloyd Bentsen situation in ’88), but if voters like the presidential nominee and are inclined to vote for him (or her), the right VP choice can provide the final, crucial nudge. That, roughly, is the situation Barack Obama now faces, and the Joe Biden of 2008 may well have been the only one of the putatively short-listed running-mate candidates with the ability to reassure those wavering voters.