THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 17, 2008
It's 48 days until the election. Do you know where your vice
presidential candidate is? If you're a Democrat, you probably don't.
Ever since John McCain tapped Sarah Palin as his running mate on August
29, Joe Biden has been AWOL from the national consciousness.
That hasn't necessarily been for a lack of effort on his part. In the 14 days following Palin's nomination, Biden gave 54 interviews or press conferences,
but it was Palin's one interview during that time--with ABC's Charlie
Gibson--that got its own primetime special. This past Monday, Biden
gave a barnburner of a speech in Michigan that finally made a
compelling and coherent economic case for Obama--a speech that was so
good it prompted my normally mild-mannered colleague Jon Cohn to curse in approval. But other than Jon, hardly anyone seemed to notice. Meanwhile, Palin made headlines
that day with the ho hum announcement that, if elected, she'll focus on
energy issues, government reform, and helping families with special
Things have gotten so bad for Biden that on Sunday The Washington Post ran a long article on his struggles that included these devastating two grafs:
[T]he buzz around Palin has left Biden largely obscured and generating
so little attention that some Democrats are questioning whether he was
the right pick.
When asked about Biden's impact, Democratic pollster Doug Schoen
said: "What impact? The best thing you can say about Biden is he has no
discernible impact. It's like it's two against one."
So, was Biden the right pick? I still think the answer is yes.
Granted, the fact that the Obama campaign has always referred to
Biden's selection as a "governing decision" is evidence enough of the
pick's political problems. For a presidential candidate who's based his
campaign on a promise of change and having been right about the Iraq
War, it's certainly not ideal to have a running mate who's been in the
Senate for 35 years and who voted for the war. And then there's Biden's
unfortunate habit of sticking his foot in his mouth, which he's already
done plenty of in his short time as the veep nominee. (My personal favorite is when, as the NYT soberly reported, "Mr. Biden urged a paraplegic state official to stand up to be
the truth is, there's no one Obama could have picked as his running
mate--save maybe for George Clooney--who could have won the battle for
attention with Palin over these last few weeks. Even Hillary
Clinton--the preferred veep choice among many of Biden's harshest
critics, including one HuffPost-er who's urging Obama to dump Biden for her now--would have been swamped by Palinpalooza. Sure, the press would
have paid attention to Hillary initially, but once she demonstrated
that she had no interest in engaging in a "cat fight"
with Palin, reporters would have turned their full attention back to
the newbie from Alaska. Her story is simply too fresh--and too
weird--for them to ignore.
At least for now. As the campaign
goes on and Palin becomes a more familiar figure, the Palin bubble is
likely to deflate. Indeed, you can already see Palin fatigue setting in
among voters, with her favorability ratings plunging
over the last week. And the moment Palin stops selling magazines or
boosting TV ratings or generating page views, you can bet the press
will go back to covering her the same way they cover an American Idol winner who isn't making news with a "platonic baby-making partner"--in other words, not that much. (When was the last time you heard much about Ruben Studdard?)
that's when the advantages of the Biden pick will come more clearly
into focus. Because even the Obama campaign's description of that pick
as a "governing decision" is, of course, political posturing. Yes,
Biden doesn't have the celebrity wattage of Palin, but in the midst of
an economic crisis and two wars, it's likely that voters are ultimately
not going to be making their pick on star power. Which is why Obama
needed Biden for political reasons as much as governing ones: His
longtime service in Washington, his penchant for running at the mouth,
even (in a strange way) his vote for the war all serve as important
bits of ballast for voters who worry that Obama's too inexperienced,
too aloof, and even too fuzzy-headed.
It's hard to imagine now--not after reading things like the WaPo's recent series
about a vice presidency run amok--but it was only eight years ago that
Dick Cheney performed this same sort of balancing function for George
W. Bush. For voters who were worried that Bush was too green, too
cocky, too impulsive, Cheney quelled their doubts. His calming
influence was, as Nicholas Lemann memorably described it in the early
days of the Bush administration, like "a powerful timed dosage of
inhibitors." (I'm not quite sure what psychopharmaceutical you'd
compare Cheney to today. Probably something that never made it to
market because clinical trials revealed that it had disastrous
side-effects.) Democrats obviously wouldn't want Biden to be the sort
of vice president Cheney turned out to be, but he could do worse than
being the sort of veep candidate Cheney was in 2000.
I think that once people begin paying attention to Biden again--which
they will by October 2, the date of the vice presidential debate, if
not sooner--they'll find a candidate who may not have Palin's pluck,
but who radiates the sort of expertise and commanding presence that are
politically advantageous in times like these.
Don't believe me? Why
don't you see for yourself? If you're a Democrat and you're wondering where your veep candidate
is 48 days before the election, he's in Ohio giving a couple of speeches. You should check them
out. You might be pleasantly surprised.