Abiding Joe Biden: Obama's VP Pick Exposes the Dems' Shallow Talent Pool 

The senator's predictably unpredictable verbal eruptions will make a memorable campaign season

Wednesday, Aug 27 2008

CARDIOLOGISTS ALL ACROSS AMERICA rested easy with the selection of veteran Delaware Senator Joe Biden as Barack Obama’s vice-presidential running mate. As the Obama campaign’s text-message announcement flashed through cyberspace in the afterhours of Friday night, the doctors’ personal pagers remained still. Not a single heartbeat was skipped; not one episode of tachycardia was triggered. Nobody — except maybe Biden himself — was even going to show up in the ER with a quickened pulse.

In the days before the announcement, like just about everybody else, I spent many hours speculating who Obama would eventually tap as Veep. With absolutely no inside information on who that would be, I could only express a personal wish. Wouldn’t it be great, I argued, if Obama could pick someone as fresh, as exciting, as outside of the box as himself? Someone whose very name or public persona would stoke the fires of enthusiasm by shattering all of the hoary conventional wisdom that surrounds this process?

Problem is, when my interlocutors would press me on exactly who that could be, I was stumped. Couldn’t come up with a single name, at least not of anyone living. Maybe Bobby Kennedy. Maybe Martin Luther King. End of list.

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This, I think, tells us a whole lot about the real state of the Democratic Party and should be a stark reminder that this time around the Republicans seem to be losing the election — which is different from the Democrats winning it. Here’s this historic crash of the GOP happening right before our eyes and — apart from Obama himself — name one single high-profile Democrat who has emerged as someone with mass and charismatic appeal, as an authentic fighter for, and leader of, ordinary people.

Joe Biden? Well, I suppose he’s better than Evan Bayh or Kathleen Sebelius, or that Texas congressman whose name I forget, the one who briefly showed up on the last-minute media shortlist. One more point in Biden’s favor: He’s not Hillary Clinton.

So now we’re going to have to abide Biden, at least until November 4. Just how hard is that going to be? He’s hardly a symbol of radical change. He’s been a fixture on Capitol Hill dating back to the final days of Vietnam – that’s a long time ago. While he’s accumulated no personal wealth and maintains a less than flamboyant lifestyle, he’s an old hand at collecting political financing from special interests, especially from the banks and other financial institutions that camp out in business-friendly Delaware. His politics are solidly centrist. He tilts hawkish on foreign policy and liberal on racial and social issues. He might as well wear a bright yellow headband emblazoned with the word “Experience,” if nothing else than to distract the eye from his strange-looking scalpline hair plugs. As former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and current head of the Foreign Relations Committee, he’s undeniably smart and certainly outspoken.

Indeed, Biden is the delight of the press corps and legions of cartoonists every time his unpredictable mouth predictably kicks into overdrive. He’s pretty much capable of saying anything, and over the next 10 weeks we can easily expect three or four such uncharted eruptions. Hopefully, their destructive potential will all be focused outward and not in.

I will admit that one of the best campaign events I attended this season took place with Biden two nights after Christmas in a snow-dusted Elks Lodge outside Council Bluffs, Iowa. On that bitterly cold Saturday night, about 200 folks in parkas and John Deere caps turned out to meet and greet the then-presidential candidate. Benazir Bhutto had just been assassinated, and Biden took the opportunity to serve up quite a comprehensive seminar on Pakistan to the rural crowd.

As soon as the Q&A session began, I expected the conversation to switch to more pressing local issues like ethanol and Iowa’s obsession with abortion politics. But nope. In what was one of the truly most inspiring moments of the campaign for this reporter, the crowd of farmers and small town folk pressed Biden for 90 minutes on a host of international issues, taking obvious pleasure in his lengthy and complicated explanations of the geopolitics of Southwest Asia, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Biden’s answers went on and on, but he held the audience rapt. The only impatience I saw came from his near look-alike brother — in charge of his logistics — who was struggling to get Biden off the mike and into a car to make a late-night flight. Twice his brother had to stand in front of the podium and feign snapping the mike cord in two to humorously signal his brother it was time to shut it down. Biden, however, was intent on satisfying his audience. Or his ego. Or both.

No matter. What Biden must do in the next two months seems obvious. He can use some, I repeat, some of that legendary lung power to bring added national security gravitas to the campaign. But Job One is to tightly focus his verbal firepower on ruthlessly stripping the bark off his soon-to-be-named Republican counterpart and even more importantly off John McCain himself. It’s come down to either that, or to reconcile himself spending his final years as a pol quietly commuting on Amtrak back and forth to Delaware.

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