Monday, August 25, 2008

Joe Biden

Sure, fine by me. I started to write, I don’t think any plausible VP choice of Obama's would have put me off terribly, but that’s not exactly right. I’m in the bag for Obama, I’m going to vote for him regardless. But if he had made a longshot counterintuitive choice like Brian Schweitzer, I would have called that a mistake, emphasizing Obama’s relative newness. If he had made a big lurch in a rightward direction by choosing a pro-life person or a Republican (go ahead and laugh, but Colin Powell and Chuck Hagel were bandied about), I would have called it a mistake, looking embarrassed by the Democratic brand. I hesitate to admit it, but while I admire Kathleen Sebelius and Janet Napolitano, a woman candidate would have made me nervous: too much pioneering on one ticket. So Biden is fine by me. I’d have been marginally happier with Jack Reed or Chris Dodd, marginally less happy with Evan Bayh (tainted by association with the DLC).

Not that I am a big Biden fan or ever was. I guess I like my politicians a little rumpled or professorial or something; I always found Biden a little more slicked-back and in-my-face than I’d have liked. I noted the bankruptcy bill a couple years back. I’m old enough to remember the Neil Kinnock plagiarism scandal, as well as Biden’s role in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, where he gave Thomas a wink and a thumbs-up prior to the unexpected appearance of Anita Hill, after which time Biden took on the aspect of a man holding a tiger by the tail. (Sort of a high-tech fisking.) The thing is, and this may be inconsistent with everything I’ve posted on the whole Intertubes or even thought in my own little brain the last eight years – the thing is, Biden is a loyal party man, a time-server, and the Villagers know him and like him. He is considered a family man and non-elitist salt of the earth, by the silly standards on which these things are judged. He’s a safe choice and will reassure the Sabbath gasbags. The Neil Kinnock thing (which I rate as a lesser offense than the bankruptcy thing, but Kinnock is the thing the GOP will bring up) was 20 years ago, and somewhat like Ted Kennedy after his presidential hopes were basically eclipsed, Biden has worked hard in the trenches of Capitol Hill and rehabbed his image. He’s strong on foreign affairs, he will argue strenuously on behalf of a Democrat-led foreign policy. He would be effective in the role of President of the Senate. He shores up some of Obama’s perceived weaknesses. Did I mention he is a safe choice?

It’s easy to overrate the importance of the running mate for bringing along his home state or some subgroup of voters. It doesn’t bother me that Biden is from a tiny state that was safely blue anyway. The most important aspect of the VP selection is that it is the first major decision the nominee makes as nominee, and it creates an impression of the candidate as decision-maker. Beyond the identity of the pick, I think the Obama people handled the selection process shrewdly. They built suspense nicely and maintained it as long as humanly possible. The professionalism displayed suggests that they didn’t just have a finger in the wind, but actually did the promised homework, to find somebody personally compatible with Obama and possessing the traits Obama was looking for in a governing colleague. The campaign’s discipline in not leaking was especially important for keeping McCain’s how-many-houses? gaffe on the front burner for an extra news cycle or two.

It’s true that Biden was one of the “usual suspects” throughout the last couple weeks of feverish speculation. But Biden and Bayh seemed like equally good bets, the press could never nail it down, and perhaps drove itself a little crazy those last few days. Chet Edwards was a hot rumor in the last 48 hours of uncertainty, and Hillary Clinton as Veep came to be viewed as not-loony whereas a month ago such a thought was beyond the pale even of professional D.C. rumor-mongering. In sum, I don’t buy the suggestion that Biden was an anticlimactic choice.

(The Hillary gambit seduced my wife late last week, she was openly wishing it would be Hill for VP, and to my surprise I actually would have been open to that: it certainly would have made a big splash, probably would have transformed the convention in Denver into an unabashed love-in, and might have been a game-ender as some pundits opined. The Spousal Unit was bummed to learn that the pick was Biden. But clearly Hillary has baggage; hell, her baggage has baggage. An Obama-Clinton ticket would have been all about the campaign, at the expense of governing effectively.)

I get the point that Biden weakens Obama’s change message. Biden voted in favor of the 2002 Iraq war resolution, and just by virtue of being in Congress for 30 years, he can hardly be cast as a change agent. But the way things are developing, Iraq seems not to be the dominant issue—Obama’s soundness and readiness to lead seem like the dominant issue. The Veep contestants who were “pure” on Iraq would all have seemed relatively sketchy and insubstantial. I hate buying into the Villagers’ view of Obama as sketchy or elitist, I reject that view, but it matters, God help us, what the Villagers think, and dammit, I want to win, and this, Obama’s soundness, is the issue that has presented itself. I’m not looking for purity here. I want the Democrats to win because I am a partisan, the party label matters, and if the GOP doesn’t suffer after the trainwreck of the last eight years, then U.S. presidential politics will have become ruinously unaccountable and celebrity-driven.

Biden weakens the change message, but not fatally so. Take Iraq: Maybe this is self-justifying rationalization, but Biden repented of his pro-Bush vote fairly early (in ’05) and today is a plausible proponent of the bring-the-troops-home-ASAP message, more plausible than Hillary or Evan Bayh would have been.

Postscript: As I have commented on another blog, if I knew how to get a bet down and could get appropriately long odds, I would bet that McCain will nominate David Petraeus for his veepee. Just a hunch.

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