Politics & Policy

Candidate of Caution

When it came to choosing a running-mate, Barack Obama turned out to be one of those experience-conscious “3 A.M.” voters who tended to support Hillary Clinton in the primaries. He went with the longest-serving senator with the most foreign-policy experience he could find, Joe Biden, who has been marinating in the Senate for no less than 35 years.

#ad#There is something to be said for Obama selecting a running-mate who can make up for his obvious deficits (which Biden himself pointedly noted in the primaries) and who knows Washington well enough that he can presumably help Obama govern should he be elected. But Biden runs counter to all of Obama’s justifications for his candidacy. If opposing the Iraq war from the outset was the most important test of judgment in a potential commander-in-chief, Biden failed it, voting for the war (however reluctantly). If commitment to “change” is measured in how little time one has spent in Washington, Biden must be a confirmed agent of that status quo. If the “new politics” is characterized by rising above negativity, Biden firmly represents the old politics, since Obama picked him partly because he can be trusted to be a zealous attack dog.

Will Biden help politically? It is said that he will appeal to working-class voters, given his downscale family background. But this is a stretch. Three decades in the Senate is enough to blunt anyone’s everyman appeal, and Biden long ago mastered the art of senatorial pomposity. It is said he could help in Pennsylvania where he has roots. But Obama is supposed to be expanding the electoral map, not working to hold what recently have been reliably Democratic states. Indeed, in this sense Biden is a cautious choice compared to Sen. Evan Bayh, who would have put the bright-red state of Indiana in play, and Gov. Tim Kaine, who would have accented Obama’s outsider “change” message (in other words, he hasn’t accomplished anything either) and perhaps tilted typically Republican Virginia his way.

On the campaign trail, Biden will be an energetic and vivid campaigner, happy to assail John McCain whenever necessary. Yet this trait, too, comes with a downside. Biden famously loves to hear himself talk, a romance stoked by his long tenure in the Senate. This logorrhea has made him a constant fount of gaffes and self-parodic monologues. There is a charm under the rhetorical bloat, but people could be forgiven for missing it. His self-confidence, together with his lack of verbal self-control, could dangerously boost Obama’s already high arrogance and gassiness quotients.

As for the substance, Biden is a typical liberal who has no claim to post-partisanship. He is pro-choice, having flipped from being pro-life in the 1980s. He has opposed — often in cringe-makingly buffoonish performances — constitutionalist nominees to the Supreme Court. His vaunted foreign-policy judgment is seriously flawed. Although he was not as irresponsible as other Democrats in calling for an immediate pullout from Iraq, he opposed the surge and plugged for an unworkable plan to partition the country, one long ago overtaken by events, even though his office was saying as of only a week ago that he still supports it.

The cardinal rule of vice-presidential picks is: Do no harm. It remains to be seen if Biden will meet even this low standard.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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