The Biden selection: Some reactions and thoughts

A few late-breaking reactions to the Biden pick.

A Delawarean?

If you were thinking in old-fashioned political terms about whom Barack Obama might put on the ticket, you might have been thinking about politicians that could  help the Dems capture a big swing state. Indeed, the list of finalists under consideration included Tim Kaine of Virginia and Evan Bayh of Indiana — both from red states of significant electoral vote numbers that Obama hopes to put in play.

Instead, Obama chose Joe Biden of Delaware, a dinky state (three electoral votes) that the Dems have carried in the last four elections and would probably carry this year in any case.

Political scientist Douglas Kriner of Boston University, who has developed a statistical model that, he claims, has correctly “predicted” the veep choice in more than three quarters of all cases since the 1930s, took the Biden choice as more evidence for his model.

The key to the model is that it analyzes cases differently since the McGovern-Fraser reforms of 1972. Before 1972, when the presidential nomination was often decided at the convention, the veep pick was often part of a grand bargain among party factions. Its goal was party unity.

But in the age of primaries and caucuses in every state, where the presidential nominee is determined in advance of the convention, old-fashioned electoral considerations can only get you on the short list. The final choice is dominated by considerations of experience and fitness to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

To be specific, Biden’s supposed appeal to working-class voters (a demographic with which the polls say Obama struggles) may have helped him make it to the final list of Dem veep candidates. (I will confess that I’m skeptical of whether the choice will change the numbers much among that demographic.)

But once on the short list (this theory goes), the final nod will go to the candidate who, by virtue of experience and accomplishments in office, would make the best standby president.

The political logic is that a veep pick can’t help the ticket much but can hurt it more if the veepster is perceived as unqualified to be president. I asked Kriner (whose veep theories were presented at a Humphrey Institute conference in March) for his reaction to Biden:

“From the standpoint of my coauthor’s [Mark Hiller] and my model, it fits really well. In the old [pre-1970s] nominating system, state size was one of the biggest predictors of being selected from the finalist pool. In the post-reform era, we found no effect. Well, you can’t get much smaller than Delaware! And the best predictor of selection in the post-reform era in our model was governing experience. Biden has about as much governing experience as any candidate who is not a septuagenarian.

“Most studies suggest that the bump a VP can give a ticket even in his or her home state is very small. Moreover, while my analysis is still preliminary, I recently conducted a survey experiment that suggests nominees may risk a backlash if their pick is perceived to be made for political reasons — particularly if they are told the pick was made primarily to help a candidate’s chances of securing the VP’s home state.

If that last point is true, watch out Tim Pawlenty.

A modest historical first
For fellow political history/trivia buffs, Joel Goldstein of St. Louis University, (author of “The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution”) points out that the choice of Biden sets a couple of utterly unimportant but fun-to-know firsts:

“It is the first time a presidential nominee has chosen a running mate who competed for the nomination but was not the runner up. Presidential nominees rarely pick the runner up (LBJ in 1960, Bush in 1980 and Edwards in 2004 are the examples). But they never before chose also rans, although they often consider them.

“Biden is also the first running mate from Delaware a major national party has chosen.”

On a more substantive level, Goldstein agrees with Kriner that Biden passes the most important test, of seeming “presidential” (and perhaps reassuring voters about Obama’s relative inexperience).

Goldstein also believes that Biden “has a reputation for working across the aisle and is popular with his colleagues. So the choice reinforces Senator Obama’s message of working in a bipartisan way to address national problems… He is an effective campaigner and his presence on the ticket should help Senator Obama remain above the fray.”

There must be some tension between these last two points. If “effective campaigner” who helps Obama “remain above the fray” means (as the reports after Biden’s Saturday coming-out speech all said) will play the attack dog against McCain, how will that help reinforce the post-partisan vibe? In his Saturday speech, Biden basically said that he loves John McCain and respects him, but that electing him as president could spell the end of America. (Here’s the quote: “This may be our last chance to reclaim the America we love, to restore America’s soul.”)

I asked Goldstein specifically about Biden’s reputation as a gaffe-prone blowhard, about the 1987 allegation that Biden had plagiarized a speech from British politician Neil Kinnock, and about whether Biden’s support for the 2002 Iraq war resolution would dilute Obama’s antiwar cred. He replied:

“Vice-presidential selection invariably entails choosing between real human beings with strengths and weaknesses; there are no perfect choices. Senator Biden has in the past said things that he would probably like to recall the moment the words escaped his mouth. That’s one of the risks in his candidacy.

“The Obama campaign presumably believes that, given the options it had, that risk is outweighed by the advantages he brings.

“Re: Neil Kinnock, it’s hard for me to believe that will be a significant issue. The political statute of limitations must have run on that. Didn’t Biden credit Kinnock in some earlier speeches? [Yes, he did, which certainly makes it seem a less clear-cut case of knowing plagiarism.] Re the Iraq war, almost all presidential Democrats supported it initially and Biden’s been a pretty severe critic and has said he made a mistake.”

My own reaction
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my first reaction was that the choice was predictable and boring. Perhaps that’s because in the last days, everyone was predicting it and because Biden seems a very conventional figure. But, I hastily acknowledge, the point of the pick is not to amuse or surprise the likes of me (and, one hopes, you either).

Watching the rollout joint appearance in Springfield on Saturday, I was struck by the eloquence gap between Obama’s elegant and moving introduction of Biden versus Biden’s predictable and meandering retort:

“I was an Irish-Catholic kid from Scranton with a father who like many of yours in tough economic times fell on hard times, but my mom and dad raised me to believe, it’s a saying, Barack, you heard me say before, my dad repeated it and repeated it. Said: ‘Champ, it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how quickly you get up.’ It’s how quickly you get up. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s your story. That’s America’s story. It’s about if you get up, you can make it.”

But I do believe that Biden is serious, hard-working and has mastered many of the issues on which he worked at chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees. His most intriguing recent idea, which he emphasized in his own campaign last year, is the so-called “soft partition” of Iraq.

The idea was to buy down the ethnoreligious hatreds within Iraq by creating three largely autonomous regions for the areas dominated by Sunnis, Shia and Kurds. As Biden put it in a 2006 New York Times op-ed:

“The first [element] is to establish three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security. The central government would control border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenues. Baghdad would become a federal zone, while densely populated areas of mixed populations would receive both multisectarian and international police protection.”

This struck me as a good idea at the time, although the devil will certainly be in the details, especially since Sunni regions of Iraq don’t have oil. And it may be too late for the United States to have much influence with this kind of an idea. But I wonder if Biden’s resurrection over the weekend might put the idea back out there.

A last bit of forgotten trvia
This had long-since escaped my memory (and runs contrary to the stereotype of the Michael Dukakis campaign), but I stumbled upon it writing this piece. The Kinnock plagiarism case was leaked to the media by two top officials of the Dukakis campaign (who distributed, not-for-attribution, a video of the Biden clip juxtaposed with Kinnock’s original speech). Dukakis denied any personal involvement and fired the aides who had sent around the “attack video.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/25/2008 - 01:37 pm.

    This ticket is “the audacity of elitism.” I cannot think of a more elite politician than Biden, unless it is Obama. A total disconnect with the clinging and believing Americans.

  2. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/25/2008 - 01:45 pm.

    Don’t forget Delaware’s big and important neighbor, ,from which Biden hails. The Scranton Scrambler is very popular there! The “bitter” comment, Obama’s foot-in-mouth moment, may have cost him the primary victory there, so Biden may be the redeeming feature on the Dem ticket.

  3. Submitted by Brad Lundell on 08/26/2008 - 10:23 am.

    I generally agree that the choice was predictable, but as someone who has watched this process seriously since the Johnson administration, it make a lot of political sense. Marcia’s point about the prospects of Biden making inroads into Pennsylvania is right on the mark. Obama needs to win the blue-collar vote that went with Hillary (not because she was Hillary, but because she wasn’t Obama) and he is clearly hoping Biden will do that.

    I don’t know how this is the “audacity of elitism” exists with this ticket. Here are two guys who grew up in middle to (one could argue) lower middle class America and have done well for themselves with hard work and making the best of the opportunities in front of them. Whether or not they can convey that to the American electorate is the challenge ahead of them.

  4. Submitted by William Levin on 08/26/2008 - 12:19 pm.

    Esquire Magazine published an article, I believe in the middle 70’s, about why Joe Biden would run for President and what his weaknesses were. It would be interesting if one of you journalists would dig that out and update it.

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