Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biden His Time

That text message you were waiting for from Barack Obama came while you were sleeping, if you live on the East Coast - and maybe even if you live in California. Lucky for you, the Sovern Nation never sleeps (well, it just seems that way).

Just after midnight Pacific time, it jingled my iPhone: "Barack has chosen Senator Joe Biden to be our VP nominee."

The news actually leaked out about two hours earlier, when first the Associated Press, then the New York Times and CNN, and finally, CBS News, quoted anonymous Obama campaign sources as saying the Delaware Senator was Obama's vice presidential pick.

It's hard to imagine that such a carefully controlled campaign could let something this important trickle out, but if the leak was intentional, then the Obama camp really bungled this one. Many of those who signed up for the text were already getting irritated by the drawn-out running mate drama. Imagine how they'll feel when they wake up in the morning to learn that they were NOT the first to know, as promised by the Obama campaign.

The text alert campaign was a shrewd move, allowing Obama to stockpile even more email addresses and cell phone numbers - which are already being used to solicit even more campaign contributions. Having joined the Obama email list a long time ago, to keep up on the campaign's activities, let me warn the newbies: you're in for almost daily pleas for money. Every new twist in the race becomes an excuse to hound supporters for cash.

But that brilliant marketing ploy could backfire, if some of those supporters feel cheated by the way this went down. And the Biden pick itself could boomerang, too.

Joe Biden is a gifted politician. I first met him 30 years ago, near the end of his first term in the Senate. We were both freshmen - I in college, he in Congress. At the invitation of my professor, he came to talk with my foreign policy class. He was already becoming a highly regarded Senate expert on foreign affairs, and he held us in rapt attention. At the end of the allotted hour, we were still thirsty for information. He glanced at his watch, took off his tie, rolled up his sleeves, and told us, "What the hell, I've got nowhere else to be. I'll stay here as long as you kids have questions." And he proceeded to stay long into the night, maybe three hours more, discussing the nitty-gritty of the international issues of the day, which at that time included South African apartheid, the Cold War, looming changes in Iran, and, as always, the Middle East.

I remember thinking, "Man, this is one ambitious politician. Who comes hundreds of miles north from Delaware to spend an evening talking with out-of-state college kids? We're not even his constituents." There was only one answer: a guy who plans to run for president someday. Which he did, ten years later. And again, 20 years after that.

The remarkable thing is that when I interviewed him for KCBS during this 2008 campaign, Biden remembered that long, wonky evening in Providence back in 1978. At first, I thought it was just a bit of Biden bluster, but he recalled specific details that proved he wasn't bluffing.

Now he will be the Democratic nominee for vice president, perhaps capping a career of outstanding service in the Senate, where he has become one of its most knowledgeable and venerable members, outranking even John McCain. Biden brings a lot to the ticket - Washington experience, foreign policy expertise, gray hair and gravitas - all of which Obama is sorely lacking. He can counter some of the doubts about Obama's readiness, and there's no doubt he will be a pit bull on the campaign trail when the Democrats need one. Being from Delaware doesn't help, but Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, so he might help swing that state to Obama. He is Irish Catholic, from a blue collar background, and has a moving history as a devoted family man who's overcome personal tragedy.

But he brings a lot of baggage along with all those international frequent flier miles, and I don't mean the kind they charge you $25 to check now. Biden's two presidential bids failed miserably. He's been caught embellishing his resume and plagiarizing. His gift of gab sometimes extends to a bit of the blarney - and take it from me, when you talk that much, you will inevitably open mouth and insert foot. I will be stunned if Biden doesn't commit some verbal gaffe at some point this fall. He already embarrassed himself by describing Obama as "articulate and clean" at the start of this campaign. His selection could be taken as tacit admission by Obama that he needs help running the country from someone with more seasoning. And Biden's presence on the ticket neutralizes Obama's ability to attack McCain as a Washington insider who's part of the problem - since he just chose a running mate who's been in D.C. even longer than the Republican nominee.

As I wrote last month, Obama-Biden sounds an awful lot like Osama bin Laden. How long will it take for the conservatives to start mocking the Democratic ticket as "Obama bin Biden"?

Joe Biden is Barack Obama's version of Dick Cheney - an eminence grise who can balance his relative youth and inexperience. But if Obama represents change and newness, why, when making his most important campaign decision, did he emulate President Bush? That's not exactly taking the country in a new direction.

Ultimately, running mates don't typically matter much. The choice of Biden gives the Republicans some new ammo, but if he's an effective campaigner - and we already know he can be funny, forceful and smart in debates - he may help more than he hurts. If McCain chooses Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, as expected, then the veeps are probably a wash. The race will still be a referendum on Barack Obama. If the American people are comfortable with him, he will be president. But if and when he says he will deliver his State of the Union message by text, I want to read it first on my cell phone, not in the Washington Post.


Mark said...

Not thrilled about Biden. It seems like a safe and calculated choice but not a bold one. I suppose how Biden does on the campaign trail will ultimately show whether it was the right move or not.

I liken it to Dukakis choosing Bentsen.

It does make McCain's choice interesting. He's almost powerless to choose Ridge now (can't go pro-choice and PA is a tougher state for him now with Biden aboard). So does that leave Pawlenty and Romney or is there someone else?

A McCain-Romney ticket is definitely two rich white guys and that might hurt his chances in Ohio which could be critical now. But Romney might swing Michigan his way.

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