But can Biden keep his feet from his mouth?
Dick Cheney hasn’t quite been a co-president, but he’s transformed the vice presidency. It’s no longer “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” as John Adams, the first man to hold the position, described it. It’s a position of immense power, not all of it potential or symbolic, and not just because 14 vice presidents have become president, nine of them following a death or resignation. Al Gore used the position to “reinvent government.” Cheney used it to disengage the executive branch from government, making it more controlling—and more contemptuous of policy and law than at any time in the modern presidency.
So it matters who a presidential candidate picks as a running mate. It speaks to the candidate’s political character and respect for the electorate, as opposed to respect merely for electoral votes. As such, Barack Obama picking Joe Biden as his running mate is a sound, if not entirely exciting, choice.
Obama doesn’t have much to gain from Biden in November. Delaware’s three electoral votes are almost insignificant as an election-altering factor. They’re in the relatively blue northeast that, Pennsylvania aside, Obama is projected to carry easily. It’s been 20 years since Delaware went Republican in a presidential race. Biden’s distant working-class background aside, Obama, to his credit, is looking beyond the election to the question of a running mate’s ability to run the nation, if necessary. Biden certainly can.
Unquestionably, Obama is also looking to strengthen his ticket’s foreign-policy credentials. Biden is the Senate’s most accomplished foreign policy Democrat in a year when foreign policy ranks near the top of the electorate’s concerns, along with the economy and energy. He’s chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He’s not likely to confuse Sunnis and Shiites or al-Qaida and Hezbollah, forget that Czechoslovakia ceased to exist approximately 15 years ago, or for all his verbal stumbles, sing about bombing Iran—all of which John McCain, an alleged foreign policy specialist, did. Biden voted for the Iraq war after his own bill (co-sponsored by Republican Richard Lugar) to ensure that all diplomatic alternatives were exhausted before opting for war was defeated. He’s since called for Iraq’s partition and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But he’s also calling for a combined military and monetary ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, and is sponsoring a bill to triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan—to $1.5 billion a year for 10 years.
Biden’s domestic-policy experience is vast, too. He chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee for eight years and is currently its third-highest ranking member. He’s pro-labor before being pro-business, supports gun control, investment in alternative energy and a generally solid domestic policy agenda that would move the nation forward on health care, a less inequitable tax code and the more humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, including Social Security coverage and a path to citizenship.
Unquestionably, too, there is the matter of Biden’s mouth.
Back in January, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, reflecting on a 12-minute “question” Biden posed to Samuel Alito during Alito’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing (Biden and Obama voted against confirmation), that the “only thing standing between Joe Biden and the presidency is his mouth. That, though, is no small matter. It is a Himalayan barrier, a Sahara of a handicap, a summer’s day in Death Valley, a winter’s night at the pole (either one) -- an endless list of metaphors intended to show you both the immensity of the problem and to illustrate it with the op-ed version of excess. This, alas, is Joe Biden.” To wit, ironically, what Biden said that month about Obama’s candidacy: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American, who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
And yet if Biden’s worst failing is his loquacious ineloquence, it’s minor one—mere static on a powerful voice of experience and dependability where it matters most.
Obama’s choice is inspired more by governance and policy than by politics or ideology. In that sense, it’s the sort of change from past vice presidential picks that speaks admirably of both men making it.