Joe Biden – lost opportunity?

As you all know by now, Obama has chosen Delaware Senator Joe Biden to be his running mate. Assuming Joe doesn’t say something off the cuff in the next two days that will get him kicked off the ticket  – a big assumption – he will likely be ratified by the convention this week. My email predicting that Biden would be a poor choice (I think I compared him, unfavorably, to Dick Cheney) prompted – as I expected with the Cheney comparison – some heated objections from you.  So let me explain by way of providing some brief background on the vice president’s role today.

Presidency scholars typically date the advent of the “modern” vice presidency to Walter Mondale, the Minnesota Senator who served as Carter’s vice president from 1977-81.  Previously, vice presidents were chosen primarily for their ability to a) secure the nomination for the president and/or b) for their vote getting potential in the general election. Once in office, they typically exercised very little influence. Most were shunted to subsidiary roles heading obscure commissions, sent overseas to attend state funerals, and generally waited to see if the President would die in office.

Mondale changed this.  Carter relied on him for insight into how the Washington establishment worked.  Carter had campaigned as a Washington, DC outsider, with very little national experience, and was smart enough to realize he needed someone who understood Capitol Hill.  Mondale, unlike previous vice presidents, received an office in the West Wing, developed an extensive staff, met alone with Carter for weekly meetings, and generally was an effective adviser who enjoyed strong relations with the President.

Ever since Mondale, every vice president has assumed a more integral policy and advising role. This has had two ramifications for the selection of the Vice President. First, it has elevated the need to choose a VP with whom the President feels some comfort. Now, as I indicated in my previous email, that comfort sometimes takes a while to achieve (Reagan and Bush I) and sometimes it disappears (Clinton and Gore). But generally presidential candidates today do not want to choose a VP with whom they do not have some rapport.  By all accounts, Biden and Obama are comfortable with one another. The exception – and it is an important exception that applies to Obama – is if there is a potential vice presidential candidate who carries some electoral clout or who can otherwise bolster the ticket.  In that case, electoral considerations may outweigh compatibility issues.

This leads to the second implication of the Mondale modernization of the vice president’s role. It is now possible to “sell” your vice presidential choice not just in terms of the nominee’s delegate or vote getting ability, but also their policy expertise. If they are perceived to compensate for a presidential candidate’s weaknesses – say, inexperience in the ways of Washington, or a lack of foreign policy gravitas – then they may enhance the presidential ticket. Or so the argument goes.

This was Bush II’s rationale for choosing Dick Cheney – he wasn’t selected because he could bring Wyoming into the Republican fold!  Cheney has extensive foreign policy experience within the executive branch as well as having served several terms on Capitol Hill.  As an added virtue, he had no presidential ambitions of his own, so Bush did not worry that at some point Cheney’s interests might clash with Bush’s (see Gore and Clinton after 1996). My point here is not to defend (or critique) Cheney’s policy views – I leave that to you. But I do claim that, among the modern vice presidents, Cheney has been among the most effective for serving as an influential adviser and in helping the President achieve his own policy goals.  That’s the additional quality that a president wants from the vice president today.

Now consider Biden.  Obviously, he wasn’t selected because he’s going to bring Delaware into the Democratic column. He has some electoral virtues – he may help with the Catholic vote, he may bring in blue collar workers in Pennsylvania (an important swing state), he has extensive experience in the Senate.  But these are marginal benefits at best. In fact, Biden was chosen to be Bush’s Cheney – to compensate for Obama’s perceived weakness on foreign policy.  As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Biden has extensive foreign policy experience.  But it’s the wrong type of experience, in my view.

Senators, by the nature of their job, are not conceptualizers or managers – they are counter punchers, and from a partisan and constituency-based perspective. Biden has spent his lifetime viewing foreign policy through a senatorial perspective. That means conducting oversight of the executive branch policy and intervening when he sees partisan and/or constituency benefits. It is largely a reactive role.  Biden has never been forced to manage foreign policy, or implement it. This shows in his handling of the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq. In both instances he has largely supported the primary thrust of the policy, while critiquing its implementation. Obama says he never would have voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution. But Biden did. Note that Biden’s foreign policy activity to date is appropriate in his role as Senator; he is expected to oversee the executive branch’s conduct of foreign policy.   But it is a far cry from running the Defense Department in wartime, as Cheney did with Bush I, or sitting in the Oval Office next to the President while he decides whether to launch military action, as Cheney did with Ford.  In short, Obama may find out if he is elected that Biden’s foreign policy expertise is not what he needs in the Oval Office.

Let’s be clear here – selecting Biden is not a disaster.  My guess is he will cost Obama very little at the polls, and may even prove to be marginally beneficial. But this was Obama’s first major choice as the presumptive nominee, and he lost an opportunity to solidify his image as an agent of change. Biden is a white male who has twice failed in his bid to be president and who brings very little to the table electorally beyond a perception of foreign policy experience and it is the wrong type of foreign policy experience in my view.  More importantly, on the signature issue, which arguably did more than anything else to bring Obama the support of the Democratic, left – the Iraq War – Biden voted the “wrong” way.   So what kind of signal does the choice of Biden send?  Rather than change, it looks like Obama is trying to take on McCain in an area – foreign policy -where Obama cannot beat McCain.  Choosing Biden is a decision to fight this election on the wrong terrain, from Obama’s perspective and, I suspect, from that of Obama’s core supporters.

Perhaps more significantly, he has provided an opening for McCain to use his vice presidential selection to demonstrate the imaginative leadership that Obama’s choice does not do by, for example, choosing a woman as his VP.  At the same time, McCain can use Obama’s snub of Clinton as an opening to woo her core supporters who are more centrist and thus more amenable to entreaties from a “maverick” Republican.

If he is smart, McCain can take advantage of Obama’s miscue – but will he?  In my next post I’ll examine McCain’s short list of vice presidential candidates. Condi Rice, anyone?

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