Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Hidden Brilliance of the Biden Pick, Revealed

Lots of people are saying lots of things--especially today--about Obama's decision to pick Joe Biden to be his running-mate. Most of those things are positive, and they should be: Joe Biden deserves it.

As you probably know, he is the product of a hardscrabble Catholic upbringing in northeastern Pennsylvania. He was elected to the US Senate before he was even constitutionally eligible to serve -- at age 29. (He turned 30 before the congress was sworn-in.) You probably also know that very, very, very shortly thereafter he lost his wife and very nearly lost his two sons in a grisly car accident. He seriously considered quitting, but the Democrats needed him and persuaded him to stay, whereupon he set out on a no-tricks, no-joke commuter life, transiting back and forth between Delaware and Washington on the train. Unless you've been living under a rock for the past twenty-four hours, you know all of this. You know that he is now and has been on several occasions in the past, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You know that he's one of a very select handful of United States Senators who are routinely contacted by foreign heads of state. You know that he's quick on his feet, a terrific debater, and manages to connect well with the Joe Lunchbox crowd, despite having served for the thick end of four decades in the world's most exclusive private club. You probably know that he is not an especially rich man.

You also know, with even greater certainty, the big reasons Team Obama might have had serious difficulty picking him: "The hyper-disciplined meets the just-plain hyper," is how a friend of mine put it to me, earlier this afternoon. Biden is loquacious, testy, and has at least one documented case in his past of both moderately serious plagiarism and an even more serious ethnic slur. You know all of this, or else you are so disinterested in politics that you wouldn't still be reading this post. You know, even if you are so disinterested in politics that you are not still reading this post, that Biden has repeatedly and sharply criticized Obama for not being ready for the top job. (And never mind that these statements ceased at the precise moment that Biden was himself no longer in competition for it.)

But here's the thing: very few pundits appreciate the sheer, unmitigated, Machiavellian genius of what Team Obama has just done. It's the biggest story of this election cycle so far, and the smartest people talking about it have completely missed the point. The Biden choice, you see, isn't about foreign policy. It isn't about having a scrappy running-mate who will take it right to the other side. It isn't about connecting with Mr. Bigshoulders in an Ohio Union Hall, or answering the Hillary supporters, or anything else that any of the world's most highly paid political analysts have said it is. No, folks, the Biden pick was always, self-evidently, about the straight-jacket it places on John McCain. And it's already working.

Before the announcement last Saturday, the popular wisdom about McCain's choice of running-mate existed in a unique two-two cadence that said, "McCain goes with his gut and wants it to be someone he likes, such as Ridge or Lieberman, but he's not really planning to pick Ridge or Lieberman because his base would revolt, so all the talk is really just a straw dog to make them happier when he chooses Mitt Romney." It was a credible enough argument that very few people bothered to waste much bandwidth quibbling. And then Joe Biden was announced as Obama's pick, and both the McCain campaign and the RNC instantly responded with television commercials showing Biden criticizing Obama while complimenting McCain. The commercial was literally on the air before sunrise on the east coast.

Unforced error by the Obama folks? Miscalculation? Well, consider what the Democrats would do -- after "letting" the McCain people hammer away about this for a week, so that the public accepts these rules of engagement -- should McCain choose as his running mate the guy who told the voters of Massachusetts that they should give him Ted Kennedy's Senate Seat because Kennedy hadn't done enough to advance gay rights? The guy who savagely attacked McCain and kept at it longer than even Huckabee, during the '08 primaries?

If McCain chooses Romney now (which may already have happened--there's word that mysterious people are following him in un-marked SUV's), the Democrats will toss at him everything they have in their "turnabout is fair play" arsenal, reminding the Evangelical-right once again of McCain's fickle commitment to their values and beliefs, and badly wounding him with the centrists who will buy a lot of Romney's criticisms, to boot. To make a long story short, either Romney is off the table or the table just got set for an enormous Democratic advantage in the fall.

But the sagacity of Obama's choice of Biden doesn't stop there: It cabins McCain down into a much narrower corridor of people he can choose, all of them are even more flawed as choices than Romney. Lieberman or Ridge could easily lead to a literal revolt -- the Rush crowd is spreading the lighter fluid on the bonfires already. Jindal is even younger than Obama and practices amateur exorcisms on weekends. (Paging Mr. Leno? Mr. Leno, your joke-writers on lines one and two, Mr. Leno.) McCain openly despises Huckabee, Crist has been engaged five times without managing to get married (perhaps Mr. Romney could've helped him out if he'd won that Senate seat after all?), Portman is Bush Forty-four, Lindsay Graham couldn't name one difference between McCain and the President -- on national television -- and Guliani divorced his wife so he could marry his secretary, then served divorce papers on his secretary while she was flat on her back in a hospital bed so that he could marry HIS OWN COUSIN. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving.

My guess at this point is that McCain does one of two things: either ritual sepuku in the parking lot, by picking Lieberman or Ridge in the misguided hope that his Saddleback performance can be showed to some of the electorate while the choice of VP is completely shielded from those very same people, or else he does the only thing he really can, now, which is to hit the same note in the 2-slot of his ticket as he hits by himself, and go with a military man like General Petraeus.

And that's the end of Obama's Biden genius, right? Well, guess who's flesh-and-blood son, just in time for this election to get real, will be stepping off a C-130 transport plane to begin his first tour of combat duty, in, of all places, Iraq? You guessed it: Joe Biden. Having someone like Petraeus tell your VP nominee that you're being reckless with your Iraq policy would probably have been a pretty scary proposition for the Obama people if they didn't have a pre-loaded comeback that was both inescapably true and dripping with a father's outrage for the endangerment of his own son. And yes, "would" is the operative word in that sentence.

Oh, and there's one more hidden genius behind Obama's choice of Biden: Of all of Biden's celebrated gaffes, the most infamous -- the plagiarism debacle -- occured in 1987. By taking shots at this issue, the GOP will seem to make hay for the first few news cycles, even though the matter has been well-vetted and long forgotten in the court of public opinion. But it's not that the McCain people will seem shrill and petty by bringing this up, as much as it's the precedent that will be set on the question of how far back in time is still fair game for these guys. You see, two years later, in 1989, five US Senators were accused of taking bribes from Charles Keating to try to help thwart the investigation into the collapse of Lincoln Federal Savings and Loan. Four of those five guys were named Cranston, DiConcini, Glenn, and Riegle.

Guess who the fifth of those five guys was.

I'll give you a hint: he's a Senator at this very moment, he's running for President this year, and he's not Barack Obama.

Dave O'Gorman
Gainesville, Florida


lefty131 said...

You're analysis is very complete and I would tend to agree with most of it.

The plagiarism point was spot on. I do think that the Keating 5 will come up but the facts do show that McCain did come out cleaner than the Democrats want to claim.

You did miss the Gov. Jindal angle, though. I do know that Gov. Jindal has stated that he did not want to run as a VP, but that is what Biden said, too. Jindal was not as absolute as Biden. I will check up on this site from time to time. I like your analysis methods.

balkanization said...

good post! and iraq will be an important issue whatever the polls say.