By the time it was clear that Barrack Obama had narrowed his Vice Presidential choices down to Biden, Kaine and Bayh, it was already determined that the Democrats would be sending out a ticket with a troubling lack of executive experience. With the ultimate choice of Biden, Obama went for the best known of a bad lot, but may have made a serious mistake.
Historically, Senators make poor presidential candidates because legislators are usually far less popular or well known than those who hold more prominent political positions, and because many voters are looking for candidates who have given some sign that they can provide individual leadership, make firm decisions and look presidential. That means executive experience: either holding a cabinet level government office, being governor of a state, having a military command positiion, or having a meaningful career in business. A Senator hasn’t actually won a presidential election since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
It’s particularly strange that both parties have chosen Senators to head their tickets in a year when the Congress has its lowest approval rating of all time, bottoming out at around 14% this summer and still only around 20% overall. That’s half the approval rating of President Bush, which raises the improbable thought that more Americans would rather see Bush serve another term than vote for any Senator for president.
So both parties were fairly dumb to nominate Senators for the presidency, but having made that mistake, it seems just monumentally stupid to try to strengthen your ticket by adding another Senator. Obama was already at a serious experience deficit with no business or leadership background outside of a brief Senate tenure, while McCain at least held a command position in the military and had a real job prior to entering politics. Picking a 6-term Senator with no other experience in his background as a running mate for Obama is like throwing a drowning man an anchor, or in this case a second anchor, instead of a life preserver. All McCain has to do is pick a governor – any governor – and he immediately looks more competent and more presidential than Obama.
As for Joe Biden personally, do his assets even outweigh his liabilities for the campaign. Obama has made ‘change’ the watchword for his campaign, yet Biden is the poster boy for the status quo. He’s not an agent of change, he’s the champion of sameness, with 36 years voting for failed ideas and big government over and over again. Biden’s two notable pieces of legislation come from the 1990s, the Violence Against Women Act, large portions of which were struck down as unconstitutional and biased, and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, viewed widely on the left and the right (for different reasons) as one of the most oppressive pieces of legislation to come out of Congress in decades. The act included the widely hated assault weapons ban, massive additional and unnecessary expenditure for for law enforcement, much of it tied to drug enforcement, the elimination of educational programs for prisoners and the expansion of the federal death penalty to apply to 60 additional crimes. There’s something in it to offend everyone from the NRA to the ACLU, and when they’re on the same side it’s either a sign of the apocalypse or a sign of very bad legislation.
Biden is also our leading drug warrior. He picked up the torch for President Reagan’s most ill-conceived program and authored the legislation creating the ONDCP and the office of ‘drug czar’ and has been behind the billions of dollars of wasted spending which have gone into the programs which have increased drug related crime and made druglords wealthy. As chairman of the International Narcotics Control Caucus he has been responsible for the ever expanding legislation which has made more and more drugs illegal, reduced access to relatively harmless medication, blocked efforts to decriminalize marijuana and institutionalized unconstitutional abuses like asset forfeiture. At a time when there is a real grassroots groundswell in support of medical marijuana and against oppressive drug laws his history on the issue is a major liability.
Biden’s one supposed asset is his “foreign policy experience” which comes from his long tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which he is now chairman. Whether that really counts as foreign policy experience is debatable. It mostly involves voting on treaties, not the kind of hands-on foreign policy decision making you get as Secretary of State or even as an ambassador. It is from this position that Biden supported bombing the Balkans, arming muslim rebels in Bosnia, attacks on Libya and helped recruit bipartisan support for President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Without Biden on his side Bush might very well have been unable to get enough support to launch the invasion. That’s a very strange background for running with Obama who has made opposition to the war such a central part of his qualifications for the Democratic nomination.
With his hardline record on war, drugs and crime, Biden is a lot more conservative than most independents, much less members of his own party. He’s probably more conservative on a lot of issues than John McCain. But it’s not in a positive way which will draw Republican voters, for whom his support of the assault weapons ban and pro-choice record are likely to be inexcusable black marks. He’s a big-spending, authoritarian warhawk – not a very appealing combination.
All of this is without even considering Biden’s personal shortcomings: his temper, his egotism, his history of making incredibly stupid public statements and his open hostility to Obama during the primary campaign. These are issues we don’t even need to consider here because the media and the blogosphere are going to have a field day with them in the next few weeks. Be prepared to hear more than you want to about Biden’s IQ, lies about his college record, calling Obama ‘clean’ and plagiarism. Maybe the plan is to distract the media from Obama’s shortcomings by letting them beat up on Biden, but that seems awfully risky.
The only reason to pick Biden is to compensate for Obama’s weaknesses, but doing so may be a mistake because it is such a blatant admission that Obama is not adequately qualified for the job he’s running for. Picking Biden shows a fundamental weakness in his campaign and his convictions. Rather than reassuring supporters and widening his base within his own party with a choice like Evan Bayh, he’s pandering to centrists and compromising his principles with a running mate whose only assets make his selection an admission of inadequacy and insecurity from Obama.
Obama really is like a drowning man, flailing around for something to keep him afloat, but instead of grabbing a timber or a life preserver, when his desperate grasp hit on Biden he found an anchor which will take him straight to the bottom of the ocean.