So. Joe Biden.
Sen. Barack Obama's ultimate running-mate choice was one he needed to make. As I have written here previously, he needed a No. 2 experienced in foreign-policy who would compensate for his own relative lack of time in the field and, thus, reassure voters who at present express greater confidence in Sen. John McCain on foreign policy/national security issues.
There were others Obama could have chosen with that qualification but Biden, 66 in November, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a 35-year Senate veteran, and a former (twice) presidential candidate in his own right, was probably the most logical one. He certainly possesses stronger foreign-policy credentials than any of the other running-mate finalists who were listed in the 48 hours before Obama made his decision.
The smoke rising in the background comes from Sen. Hillary Clinton and her supporters. Clinton wanted the vice-presidential nomination. Obama did not interview or discuss the matter with Clinton. She was not asked to submit documents for vetting, as many other Democrats were. Clinton and her husband, the former president, will no doubt be expansive and generous at the Denver Democratic convention regarding the Obama-Biden ticket but, believe me, they will not forget what they regard as an unforgiveable slight.
First question: Will Hillary in Denver allow her name to be put in nomination for the presidency, and demand a roll-call vote, or will she gracefully withdraw Sunday night before the convention formally opens?
Now, Joe Biden. Initial polling data, after his choice became public, indicate just about what you would expect. Voters responding were evenly divided over whether he was a good or bad choice and whether he would help or hurt the Democratic ticket this fall. Vice-presidential candidates seldom matter in a national campaign. Lyndon Johnson mattered in 1960 because he enabled the Kennedy-Johnson ticket to carry Texas and, thus, a razor-close election. Running mates such as Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle — obviously unqualified for national office — can hurt the presidential nominee. But, in both those cases, their presidential nominees (Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush) won anyway. Usually, a presidential candidate runs more strongly in opinion polls without a running mate than with one — any one.
Thus a candidate for No. 2 is to chosen to bring geographic, ideological, or policy balance to the ticket. Biden does that for Obama. He is a Middle Atlantic guy, Irish Catholic, raised in a blue-collar setting, able to connect to some of the Reagan Democratic and other bread-and-butter voters who gave Hillary Clinton their vote in Democratic primaries, and to whom McCain has an appeal. (My article in Saturday's Wall Street Journal explores this point from a historic perspective, going back to the 1968 convention.) Biden also is outspoken and can undertake partisan attacks with which Obama would be uncomfortable. That is another job which vice-presidential candidates traditionally have been asked to do.
But there are some risks with Biden. The first is that, McCain-style, he will erupt and put his foot in his mouth. Biden has mellowed a great deal since he came to the U.S. Senate in 1973 at age 30. But he still is known as being verbose and given to periodic verbal assaults against those who disagree with him. In earlier years he was unpopular with his staff — a warning signal among Capitol Hill regulars. He was forced to withdraw from the 1988 presidential nominating race after being caught utilizing plagiarism in a major speech and misrepresenting his academic background. In 2004 he urged Sen. John Kerry to enlist McCain as his Democratic running mate and is on record with positive statements about McCain. During his 2008 presidential campaign he was recorded in campaign debates, and elsewhere, as outspokenly questioning Obama's credentials for higher office — much as Hillary Clinton was. Both his earlier pro-McCain and anti-Obama statements no doubt will be played back in Republican campaign commercials. None of the above will matter much, however, if Biden proceeds professionally in the campaign and makes no verbal gaffes from this point forward.
In examining the backgrounds and biographies of both Obama and McCain a few days ago, I pointed out that both have undergone experiences and lived lives that bring something extra to their candidacies. The same can be said of Biden. His family originally had money but his father lost everything and Biden grew up poor. In 1966, as a law student at Syracuse University, he married and with his wife had three children. Shortly after his election to the Senate, in 1972, his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident and his two sons injured (they recovered after extensive treatment). Biden considered withdrawing from the Senate before he even began his term. He did not but he commuted daily via train to Washington, D.C. to Wilmington, Delaware in order to be with his family. He still does so today (it is a train ride of barely over an hour and Union Station in D.C. is a five-minute walk from the Senate Office Building). In 1977 he remarried and has a daughter by that marriage. Biden's oldest son is attorney general of Delaware. An Army reservist, he recently was recalled to active duty and will go to Iraq this October.
Biden knows not only foreign policy (he originally voted for the intervention in Iraq but, later, became a critic) but is a former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is well versed in anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism issues. He is generally respected by his colleagues as a serious, hard working legislator able to work with Republicans as well as Democrats in developing legislation.
Obama was an Ivy League academic star and has an aura of intellectuality about him. Biden, as McCain, is no intellectual. He is a straight-ahead, hard working, no-nonsense and ambitious driver (also like McCain), and is familiar with the middle-American, blue-collar voters with whom Obama has had trouble relating. He will carry Delaware for the ticket but, also, will help in neighboring Pennsylvania and other Middle Atlantic states with a similar culture. He will be readily recognized there as a homeboy.
Obama's V.P. selection, in the end, turned out to be a quite conventional and predictable choice. Next Friday McCain will name his running mate. I would be greatly surprised if it were anyone but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, both heavyweights and both bringing needed balance to McCain's candidacy.
In the meantime, watch how the Clintons conduct themselves next week. Let the games begin.