Biden in All His Glory
Vice-President Joe Biden is one of America’s most accomplished public servants. Before becoming vice-president he spent 36 years in the Senate, having been elected at age 29. There, Biden chaired both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, arguably the two most important Senate committees. He was a particularly strong voice in shaping crime policy—he authored the 1994 crime bill and the Violence Against Women Act—and helped shape foreign policy, especially with respect to the Balkans. Biden also influenced the last 25 years of American jurisprudence by successfully leading the charge against Reagan Supreme Court nominee—and right-wing ideologue—Robert Bork, forcing Reagan to nominate (relative) moderate Anthony Kennedy instead (although Biden arguably wrecked the judicial nomination system in the process).
Despite that record of achievement, Joe Biden is also America’s favorite—and best—punchline. Biden was the break-out star of Slate’s excellent “Presidential Facebook Feed.” He’s had a couple nice cameos in Texts from Hillary. And The Onion has been on another level with its Joe Biden coverage (this one’s my personal favorite). These jokes generally center on the same image of Biden: the goofball uncle, oblivious to the impropriety of his words and action, engendering both affection and embarrassment from those around him. Indeed, it’s an image that Biden has helped to fuel throughout his storied political career, exemplified by the two times he stepped into the national spotlight to seek the presidency.
Biden launched his first presidential campaign in 1987, at which point he had been in the senate for over 14 years but was still only 44 years old. Biden’s ‘88 campaign, and his life up until that point, is well-documented in Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, a must-read for anyone interested in presidential campaigns in general and Joe Biden in particular. Cramer portrays Biden as having an almost Clintonian ability to connect with his audience:
Joe was taking the speech inside, letting himself feel it. That’s how the “connect” happened: on game day, Joe stopped planning his moves, and just did, by feeling, by the spring of the field beneath his feet, the sound of the crowd, and the words, singing in his head. . . . And when he felt it—he could make them feel it . . . he could make them feel him.
And he did. Lord, he laid it out that day. It was a big hall in Sacramento, maybe three thousand souls, and he grabbed them, and held on. He could feel the whole hall sit up a listen, when he got to that stuff about the bottom line. And when he got to the end, when he did the dream, and the dreamers . . . with conviction, and something like joy, ringing in his voice: “Just because our heroes were murdered . . . does not mean the dream does not still live . . .”
They stood up—three thousand people, who did not know him, who’d never seen him until that day, that hour—stood up at the close of that line, and stopped him with applause and cheers, a standing ovation. . . . God, they were hungry, for something, someone . . . and he could be that someone: Joe Biden could make them feel.
But it was that oratory, combined with Biden’s sloppiness, that was the undoing of his ‘88 campaign. The “stuff about the bottom line” Cramer refers to is a passage in Biden’s speech—”That bottom line [worshipped by Ronald Reagan] can tell us everything about our lives . . . except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America . . . except that which makes us proud to be Americans”—taken, without attribution, from a speech by Robert Kennedy about GDP. Later in the campaign, Biden would be caught stealing a passage in his speech, without attribution, from British politician Neil Kinnock. That touched off a media feeding frenzy, resulting in revelation that Biden had failed a class in law after he was found to have plagiarized a law review article. (Biden claimed he had merely misunderstood the rules of legal citation.) Biden failed to help his cause when he was challenged by a voter about his academic record and responded by stating “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do” and then going on to dramatically overstate his academic record. (Another important part of the Biden image: note how much less hair he appeared to have in 1987 than he has 25 years later.)
Biden’s legacy was cemented by his second presidential run in 2008, beginning as a no-shot presidential candidate and ending as vice-president of the United States. History will most remember Biden for his political relationship with Barack Obama, and so it’s no surprise that that relationship began with a gaffe: Biden’s cringe-inducing description of the man who would become America’s first black president as a “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Biden would recover to become the primaries’ elder statesman, the guy everyone else felt comfortable expressing how much they respected and agreed with because they knew he had no chance of winning.
Biden’s dual role has continued into the White House. He has been given important policy roles, such as overseeing the implementation of the much maligned but hugely successful stimulus. And yet, on the day of the largest domestic accomplishment of the Obama-Biden administration—passage of the Affordable Care Act—there was Biden with the unwanted comic relief, caught whispering to Obama that signing the law was “a big fucking deal” (you know, in case the president thought the previous 7 months of his presidency had been consumed by something on the level of renaming a post office).
So, getting to the important question: what does all of this mean for tomorrow’s vice-presidential debate? The optimistic answer for supporters of the president is that Biden may be nothing but upside at this point. Any stupid thing he says can be written off as, “Oh, that Biden!,” while all the jokes and all the gaffes may have caused people to forget that he has 40 years of policy experience to draw from and can be an effective attack dog. The vice-presidential candidate typically acts as the campaign’s bad cop, and it’s even more important that Biden play that role after President Obama’s passive debate performance last week. Paul Ryan better be well-prepared for the attack: Onion Biden may be pure goofball, but Real Biden—as Rudy Giuliani can attest—has some fight in him.