Barack Obama gets a mixed bag with fellow senator Joe Biden as his running mate, and the biggest asset may not be Biden’s highly touted foreign policy expertise but his appeal to blue-collar whites.
While Biden as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has worked hard to develop an understanding of the intricacies of world diplomacy, traveling abroad and making acquaintance with leaders from Iraq to Georgia, that experience may be less important to the Democratic ticket than his ability to reach out to middle-class white blue-collar voters in key industrial states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, which gave Hillary Clinton her most significant victories. This is where Obama is the most vulnerable.
The foreign policy gap in Obama’s experience has become increasingly less dangerous for his campaign as the nation’s economic woes have grown, clearly making that the top issue. Both Obama and Republican John McCain have narrowed their differences on withdrawal from Iraq, and McCain’s charge that his opponent is not prepared to be commander-in-chief in a tumultuous world seems to have lost some of its resonance. Besides that, Democrats continue to note that Republicans weren’t saying the same thing about George W. Bush’s lack of experience in 2000.
Biden also brings a maturity to the ticket so missing from Obama’s often brash youth-oriented candidacy. At 65 and with 35 years in the Senate, the Delaware lawmaker’s presence should ease concerns among older voters about the presidential nominee. His exemplary family life and the highly publicized fact that he climbs on a train at the end of each Washington day and commutes home to Wilmington definitely appeal to the over-50 age group that has been a problem for Obama. The fact that he has overcome severe adversity and tragedy — his first wife and their daughter were killed in an auto accident as he prepared to enter the Senate and he has suffered from two brain aneurysms — also helps him identify with the senior set.
But it is Biden’s ability to move comfortably among blue-collar union voters that makes him truly valuable to the ticket. For all his sophistication, he has never lost sight of the fact that he came from a working-class background (his father was a car salesman). The fact that he is by no means a wealthy man despite his decades in an institution full of millionaires — some of whom got that way after they entered it — gives him a solid credential with many Americans.
There are, of course, liabilities, not the least of which is his proclivity for verbal "shooting for the hip" and his seeming inability at times to control his rhetoric, earning him the reputation as one of the Senate’s leading motormouths and making him the object of derision among late-night television comedians and even at the annual spring dinner of the venerable Washington Gridiron Club. He has taken that well, at least publicly, and cut down on his frequently rambling dissertations.
During his career he also has been accused of plagiarizing the words and phrases of other politicians and is frequently remembered as having presided over one of the most embarrassing spectacles in Senate history — the hearings that explored sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee and later Justice Clarence Thomas. As then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden caved into liberal special interests and overblown media revelations and reopened the confirmation hearings to take utterly unsubstantiated testimony from a former Thomas protege, Anita Hill, that Thomas had on several occasions during a long friendship used offensive remarks in her presence. The allegations were laughable.
He also has run two unsuccessful presidential campaigns himself, quitting the race in 1987 after the disclosure that his seeming eloquence was frequently the work of other politicians whom he had not credited. His last bid for the presidential nomination was this year. He dropped out after failing in several primaries and threw his support to Obama.
How much any vice presidential nominee brings to the ticket after the initial speculation and hoopla fades is problematic. The two campaigns run parallel but don’t often cross during the two months. Media attention for the second spot on the ticket always is less and that may become practically nonexistent as financially pressed news organizations cut down their coverage of both campaigns. Former Sen. Bob Dole, who was Gerald R. Ford’s running mate in 1976, once told me that he knew he was in trouble "when the empty chairs got up and left."
All in all, Biden’s selection should be considered a plus even if only from the standpoint that he won’t hurt the chances of the presidential nominee, which hasn’t always been the case.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)