In the end, Barack Obama used unconventional means to announce a conventional choice for his running-mate.
Via a three A.M. text message sent to the cell phones of his supporters, donors and volunteers, Obama’s campaign declared that he had chosen Senator Joe Biden, the Delaware Democrat, to be “our” veep nominee. (Three in the morning–was this a dig at Senator Hillary Clinton or just a coincidence?) With this I’ll-let-you-know-first gimmick, Obama had snagged millions of cell numbers and email addresses his campaign can use in the weeks ahead to motivate voters and push them to the polls on Election Day. So in purely tactical terms, his running-mate rollout was indeed pioneering and widely successful. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether he made a smart pick by attaching his campaign for change to a fellow who has worked Washington’s ways in the Senate for 35 years.
Sometimes going conventional is not the wrong course. During the past weeks of veep-frenzy, Biden’s assets and liabilities have been dissected repeatedly. He possesses extensive foreign policy experience (which Obama does not). He can do straight-talk relatively well for a senator (while Obama has been accused of not fully connecting with working-class voters). Then again, Biden has suffered in the past from both verbal diarrhea and gaffe-itis. I’ve attended many committee hearings in the Senate when Biden turned a question into a long-winded monologue that drove people in the room to want to shout, “Question, Senator, do you have a question?!!” And there are times when Biden’s mental filter has switched off and he has said the dumbest thing, such as when he famously called Obama “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” (The Daily Mail headlined its account of Obama’s pick this way: “Obama names ‘gaffe-prone’ Joe Biden as his running mate.”)
But Biden is a smart legislator who has shown that he can suppress his own faults when he must. He had a good campaign this past year as a presidential candidate. He won few votes but performed well at the debates and demonstrated he could keep his infamous verbosity under control. At the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, while other Democrats got bogged down in legal jargon practically indecipherable to the average person, Biden peppered Roberts with straightforward questions about Roberts’ claim that he merely wanted to be an umpire on the bench who calls constitutional balls and strikes. “Much as I respect your metaphor,” Biden countered, “it’s not very apt, because you get to determine the strike zone. The founders never set a strike zone.” It was the best moment of the hearing.
On foreign policy, Biden has always been an activist, thinking and engaging with the issues and crises generating headlines and those that don’t make the evening news. He has a fancy for cooking up proposals. And even if he devises ideas that may raise objections–such as his plan to partition Iraq–he often deserves credit for the effort. (He issued his proposal for splitting up Iraq at a time when the Bush administration was doing nothing but “staying the course.”)
One of Biden’s better moments came in the run-up to the war with Iraq. In the fall of 2002, the Bush administration, claiming Saddam Hussein had amassed loads of WMDs that he could hand to al Qaeda for attacks against the United States, was demanding that the House and Senate grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq whenever he wanted. Rather than cave to Bush, Biden, the chairman of the foreign relations committee, worked with Republican Senators Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel to craft an alternative: a resolution that would allow Bush to attack Iraq only for the purposes of destroying Iraq’s WMDs and only after seeking UN approval. If the UN withheld permission, Bush would have to come back to Congress and prove that the threat was so “grave” that only military action could eliminate it. This was a wily legislative maneuver that could have averted a war. (And Biden told me and Michael Isikoff during an interview for our book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, that he had received backdoor encouragement from Secretary of State Colin Powell.) But Biden’s bipartisan measure was ultimately derailed by a fellow Democrat: House minority leader Richard Gephardt, who essentially accepted the White House’s blank-check approach. After Gephardt did that, Republican senators told Biden, How can we be to the left of Dick Gephardt? “I was so angry,” Biden later said. “I was frustrated. But I never second-guess another man’s political judgment.”
Biden went on to vote for the Iraq war resolution. Which demonstrated his Washington-ness. He had tried for something better. When that failed, he, too, accepted the prevailing notion. But his pre-vote effort to create a much more limited resolution will afford the Obama-Biden ticket a small measure of cover when its foes point out that Obama’s main charge against John McCain (he supported the Iraq invasion) can also be applied to his running-mate.
The main rule in veep-picking is this: First, do no harm. Among Obama’s conventional options, each had obvious problems. Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana stood side-by-side with McCain in fervently advocating the war in Iraq prior to the invasion. Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia is another political newbie on the national stage with no foreign policy cred, and he has yet to rack up many accomplishments. As for Senator Hillary Clinton, with her on the ticket, the election would be as much about the Clintons as about Obama and McCain. Depending on your view, that’s either a big winner or political hell.
Biden comes with decades of baggage. There are thousands of Senate floor votes for GOP oppo researchers to sift through. He’s had more than one plagiarism scandal. Hailing from a solidly Democratic state, he brings no Electoral College votes with him. But he has the talent to be both Obama’s attack dog and his top foreign policy adviser. And though vice presidential nominees tend to have no true impact on the final results, Biden has the potential to be a fierce campaigner for and with Obama–that is, if he can be the better Biden for the next ten weeks.
By tapping Biden, Obama does little to reinforce his core themes of change and hope. He does not amplify his Washington-is-broken and postpartisan messages. He does not boost his claim that his campaign is a movement. He does not increase the excitement factor or accentuate the historic nature of his candidacy. But then Obama himself has already provided much of that. And it’s possible that the American electorate can only absorb so much unorthodoxy in a presidential election. With Biden, Obama may have passed the do-no-harm rule. But that won’t be known until the election is over.