It’s nice when events prove you right. Nine months ago I posted a blog called “Lightweights and Heavyweights.” It discerned only three heavyweights among the entire field of some sixteen presidential wannabes.
Apparently the American people and Senator Obama agreed with me. All of the three I named are on a ticket. John McCain—my sole heavyweight in the Republican party—is the presumptive Republican nominee. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the only two Democrats I named as heavyweights, are presumptive nominee and running mate.
At about the same time, I posted a list of the “Dream Team” that I hoped and expected Senator Obama would pick for his cabinet. Joe Biden was first on the list, as veep.
In retrospect, Biden seems an obvious choice. He doesn’t have the star quality to land the top job himself, but he’s definitely got that indefinable something called “experience.”
Experience is not just years lived, time spent in Congress, or tread worn from your tires. If those were the tests, we might have Chris Dodd.
The experience of a public servant is complex. It’s an indefinable combination of crises undergone, hits taken, and good judgments made. It involves making decisions and sticking your neck out even when you don’t have the responsibility to decide.
Biden has all that. He went along with invading Iraq, but he quickly caught on to Dubya’s mismanagement. He was right—and I think he is still right—in prescribing some sort of “soft” partitioning to cure what ails Iraqi society. He was quicker than Bill Clinton to see Serbia’s aggression in the Balkans and to recommend military intervention to stop the atrocities in Kosovo. He was almost as quick as Obama to see the dangers of Musharraf’s misrule in Pakistan.
Good judgment on foreign policy is vital for a veep, just as it is for a president. Congress controls the executive’s every domestic move, but the White House rules virtually alone on matters of foreign policy. If you doubt that, just think of Iraq and Dick Cheney.
Not only has Biden been right most of the time on difficult foreign-policy issues. He’s a tough guy and a fighter. He took on John McCain barely minutes into his first speech as presumptive running mate.
That tough-guy role is vitally important for two reasons. First, to our six-pack set, Senator Obama often comes across as a thoughtful wimp.
That impression is completely undeserved. He stuck his neck out by publicly condemning our invasion or Iraq when no one else had the guts or foresight to do so. He criticized Musharraf (who has now resigned) long before it was fashionable to do so and took lots of hits for doing so. And he changed his position on federal election funding the moment it became clear that he would become the next John Kerry if he didn’t. All those positions were tough, principled and courageous.
But to many voters, style is more important than substance. They prefer trash talkers to a man whose strongest epithet is “inaccurate.”
It’s hard to believe how things have changed since the Cold War. Back then, we laughed (uneasily) when peasant-born Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the U.N. podium and said “We will bury you.” Now our own presidents and serious candidates say things like “Bring it on!,” “Wanted, dead of alive,” “Bomb, bomb Iran,” and “obliterate Iran.”
Some voters seem to like that sort of trash talking. It makes them feel important and powerful in a dangerous and uncertain world. You might think it recalls the blood-drenched sands of the old Roman Coliseum. You might think it reflects a nation in serious decline. And you might be right. But Obama has to get elected to do any good. He needs a trash talker who can at least match McCain.
The second reason why Biden’s blunt toughness is appropriate is that it’s the veep’s usual role, both as running mate and in office. Veeps are the party’s and the government’s hatchet men (so far all have been male).
We forgot that point with Cheney because his hatchet was so sharp and he did so much more. But veeps traditionally serve as lightning rods. They explain and take blame for unpopular but necessary policies. They say things that diplomacy prevents the top guy from saying. They are the “tough cops” in double-teaming international negotiations.
Biden is perfect for that role. He has a well-deserved reputation for directness and verbal courage. He’s got a working-class background and the feistiness to go with it. He’s never forgotten who he is.
Biden’s reputation for occasional gaffes won’t hurt him. On the contrary, it will give him leeway to overstep and backtrack if necessary. He can credibly claim an overstatement was a typical but well-meaning slip, and not a deliberate campaign or negotiating stratagem.
What does choosing Biden say about Obama? As usual, it shows uncanny understanding and talent. Obama recognized what he lacks and added it to the ticket. He’s not bashful or insecure. He wants the best team he can get. He’s willing to pick people, like Biden, who will be tough to control and will give him independent, frank advice. Isn’t that what we want in a president, instead of the sycophant-filled Dubya cabinet?
It’s a shame there’s no heavyweight left to play second fiddle to the irascible and increasingly erratic McCain. Senators Lugar and Hagel may still be available, but the latter reportedly sought a place on the Democratic ticket.
So it’s unlikely that McCain will (or can!) choose a running mate that showcases an equal capacity to pick a Dream Team. Likely he will rely on his consultants and pick a running mate for political or geographic balance, with an eye on the “social” issues that still trouble the Republican base. If that happens, it will be just one more of many reasons for voting Democratic this fall.