Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biden Time

Biden's Time: Things Will Be Interesting

While the political world was buzzing Friday, waiting for The Text Message that finally arrived at 3:50 a.m., labor activist Scott Smith of Solon remembered introducing Joe Biden at the Hawkeye Labor Council's candidate cattle call a year ago and waiting backstage with Biden. Smith's wife was with them, even though she was supporting then-frontrunner Hillary Clinton. "I know she's number one," Biden said to them, "but I'd like to be your number two."

Events have proven Joe Biden half right, as he joins the Democratic ticket today as Barack Obama's running mate.

Biden at the Hamburg Inn, with a sugar shaker representing the billions of dollars in the health care economy. You had to be there.
Biden at the Hamburg Inn, with a sugar shaker representing the billions of dollars in the health care economy. You had to be there.

A year ago, I thought Joe Biden's moment had passed him by. The Delaware senator was a popular second choice, but languishing in the single digits in polls.

"I should have run in '96, and I should have run in 2000." Republican Tommy Thompson said as he left the race. At the time, I said that Biden (and Chris Dodd) must be having similar regrets about waiting in 1992, when Bill Clinton saw the opportunity most leading Democrats skipped. "Biden and Dodd, who would have been giants in the 1992 field, are asterisks in 2007," I wrote.

Biden spent weeks on end in the Hawkeye state. It was the only hope for a long shot, battling the rock star candidates. "Iowa is the last place where you have a chance without tens of millions of dollars," Biden told a December crowd. "You deserve to be the first in the nation because you take it seriously."

He campaigned one on one on Iowa City's ped mall while Hillary and Bill Clinton drew thousands to the University of Iowa Campus. Sure, he filled the Hamburg Inn, but John Edwards drew so many people he couldn't get in the door.

Joe Biden's "Ears of Experience" dwarfed his rivals, but Chris Dodd was left off.

"Put me in, coach," he pleaded, taking the stage to John Fogerty's baseball anthem "Centerfield" and emphasizing his "ears of experience." That "grownup in the race" argument played well with elected officials. Biden's strongest precinct in the country may have beeen under the golden dome of Iowa's Capitol. He actually led on the House side of the dome with 14 endorsements from the 53 Democratic representatives, and was ahead of John Edwards on overall legislative endorsements.

"I was one of those people who saw potential in both candidates," said Faith Nalani Bromwich, an Obama national delegate from Iowa City. "I went to Biden events and remember sitting with him and discussing farm issues. He has very strong opinions on many things."

If you've ever seen Biden, you'll know that's an understatement. The national press corps will have lots of fun on the Biden beat, because he's one of the few politicians who plays a different set list every show. Biden will probably make a half dozen or so off-the-cuff and off the script remarks that'll draw a news cycle of attention.

That's part of what got Biden in "plagiarism" trouble in 1987, though a forgotten attribution would barely make a ripple on today's scandal meter. (In fact, Obama did pretty much the same thing this year, citing an argument made by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and forgetting the credit once.) Having debated Biden over a dozen times, Obama has to know that Biden will be Biden, and goes into this partnership aware of that risk. The tradeoff is the refreshing genuineness of Bidens speak my mind style.

The hard part will be squeezing Joe Biden into a sound bite, because he gives long, thought-out, detailed answers. On the stump in Iowa, he had the longest question and answer sessions, but answered about the same number of questions as other candidates because his answers ran about ten minutes each.

But he can also be remarkably concise in debates. He had to be, because he got a limited share of debate time. According to the Chris Dodd debate clock, he sometimes lagged even behind Dennis Kucinich. Biden shot off the single best sound bite of the year:

"A noun, a verb and 9/11" shows Biden's ability to attack with a smile on his face, and that can be extremely effective. He ribbed Obama once in a while, too. "I don't have Mitt Romney money," Obama once said, discussing personal finances and jabbing a leading Republican. "I don't have Obama money, either," Biden zinged back, with the confidence of one who can count the houses he owns on one finger. The commuter senator is famous for taking the train home to Wilmington each night.

Iowans all know the story: his triumphant election to the Senate at age 29, followed weeks later by the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident. "Delaware can get another Senator, but my boys only have one dad," he tild the giants of the Senate, as he prepared to quit the seat he had just won. But they persuaded him to give a it a try, and Biden commuted four hours every day to tuck the boys in.

Biden survived his own brush with death, a brain aneurysm, just after dropping his 1987 bid, but recovered in time to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee through the hearings on defeated Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Biden's Senate work has also focused on foreign relations, and his trip last week to Georgia looked like an audition for the role he'd play as vice president. We're sure to hear more about Biden's plan for a three-part federal Iraq.

Joe Biden gets up close and personal with Iowa City Council member Amy Correia.

Biden has an in-your-face personal style, rarely pausing and getting physically close to the people he's speaking with, as he does above with Iowa City Council member Amy Correia. He constantly drops names that he picks up off name tags, throws his arm around people, and gestures with salt shakers. He's simultaneously larger than life and self-effacing, brushing off long-winded introductions filled with platitudes and saying, "I'm Joe Biden."

The opportunities for that kind of one on one campaigning are more limited in a general election campaign, but Biden also excels in front of a large audience. "He's very good in this now-rare setting: mass audience oratory," I liveblogged at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. "Rising to a shout, lowering to a whisper... 100 years ago he might have worked the Chautauqua circuit with William Jennings Bryan."

Jill and Beau Biden
Jill and Beau Biden

Obama gets the hard-working Biden family as part of the deal. Wife Jill Biden, son Hunter Biden, and sister Valerie Biden Owens were all frequent campaign trail fixtures in 2007. So was Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, whose National Guard unit is off to Iraq in October. Beau Biden is the likely Senate successor should that come to pass. The logistics: Joe Biden is up for re-election this year and under Delaware law can run both for re-election and for vice president. Delaware's governor, Democrat Ruth Minner, would appoint a successor. Minner is term limited and leaves office at the end of the year, but Joe Biden could time his resignation early should the Republicans win the race to succeed her.

Joe Biden once said the difference between his 2008 race and his aborted 1988 run was "this time, I don't have to win." He seemed driven more by issues than ambition. 2008 was his last shot at age 65, and when he left the race it seemed Jill Biden was more saddened than he was. Assuming a win and a 2012 re-election, Biden will be just shy of 74 on Election Day 2016, making it unlikely he would make his own run. If all works well, he could cap his career arc by bringing it full circle: from boy wonder senator to senior statesman.

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