The Green Papers Commentary
 

OBAMA's BIGGEST
GAMBLE TO DATE
Why Joe Biden as his running
mate is a "roll of the dice"

Saturday, August 23, 2008

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
TheGreenPapers.com Staff

The scene: Game 1 of the 1988 World Series in Los Angeles, California between the Oakland Athletics and the hometown Los Angeles Dodgers. The following story is well enough known to most Baseball fans old enough to recall it:

Down by a score 4-3 with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th inning- with no one on base and LA batter having to face Dennis Eckersley, one of the most effective closing relief pitchers of that time- a Dodger pinch hitter named Mike Davis worked out a base on balls. Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda now called on veteran Kirk Gibson, too injured (in both of his legs) to play in the field, to pinch hit and, hopefully, give the team at least one good swing while at the bat and, thereby, at least keep Dodger hopes alive.

"Talk about a roll of the dice!", exclaimed veteran sportscaster Vin Scully, doing the play-by-play for over-the-air nationwide network television while millions watching heard his voice so intone.

With 2 balls and 2 strikes on Gibson, Davis stole second, putting the potential tying run (which, if it scored, would then- at the very least- put the game into extra innings) in so-called "scoring position". The count now 3 balls, 2 strikes, Gibson ended up blasting a two-run game-winning homer that won the game for LA and set the tone for the Series (the Dodgers would win their necessary 4 of 7 in that Series in but 5 games): thus, Lasorda's "roll of the dice" paid off handsomely.

I actually heard- now nearly 20 years later- Vin Scully's voice saying those very same words in my head as the news began to leak out in the wee hours of the morning of Saturday 23 August here on the East Coast of the US that Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) would be Senator Barack Obama's running mate and, therefore, the presumptive Vice Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party US, the Convention of which meets in Denver come Monday the 25th...

"Talk about a roll of the dice", indeed!--

but it yet remains to be seen if Obama is being as crafty as was Tommy Lasorda back in '88.

For that very year of 1988- or, rather, the Presidential Election that was held that year- does have an at least "side effect" on Senator Biden's political biography (of which more to come a bit later in this piece). But, first, a quick thumbnail regarding who Joe Biden is and what his politics actually are:

Joe Biden came to the United States Senate about as early in life as one can possibly do so (he was actually elected, in November 1972. before he had yet attained the requisite constitutional age of 30 [though he had turned 30 by the time his first term actually began in January 1973]). He defeated a two-term Republican incumbent, J. Caleb Boggs, by a narrow margin (Biden barely cleared a majority) and this must be viewed in light of the fact that a fellow Democrat- Sherman Tribbitt- was also being elected Governor, by an only slightly larger margin of victory. over an incumbent Republican- Russell Peterson- in the very same election (Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, meanwhile, went down to incumbent Republican President Nixon in Delaware by a percentage of 60-39).

Yes- and all due greetings across the vales of Karma to the late Tip O'Neill- Politics is local, but it should also be noted that both Major Parties in Delaware tend to be moderate (Statewide elected officials, therefore, dare not stray too far either left or right of the center here), which is why Delaware has such a competitive two-Party system within itself (and why Biden would end up serving Delaware, during his first 28 years in the Senate, along with Republican William Roth; or, for that matter, why Delaware now has two Democratic Senators while their single, at-large Congressman is a Republican, Michael Castle- a former Governor of the State who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1992 [while Democrat Bill Clinton was carrying the State in his bid for the Presidency at the same time, although- and yet another clue to Politics in the First State- independent Ross Perot ran ahead of his nationwide percentage of the vote here]).

Despite his relative youth at the time he first took office in Washington, Biden is generally not at all considered a true Baby Boomer, if only because most people who talk about the so-called "Baby Boom" remain all too fixated on the misleading demographic of the concomitant bulge in the US Birth Rate being from 1946 through 1964. In truth, however, the true American Baby Boomers are actually those born in a range covering approximately four years prior to the range as indicated by this bureaucratic statistic:

for the "Baby Boom" really begins with the so-called "Liberty Babies", those conceived while their fathers otherwise fighting World War II happened to be home on leave- this being much along the very same lines as the oft-told humorous vignette about the British newspaper correspondent, during the previous World War, interviewing soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice of 1918: coming upon a crusty Sergeant-Major who had been serving in the British Army along the Western Front since virtually the very beginning of hostilities in August 1914, the journalist asked him "What's the first thing you're going to do once you're back home in England?"-- to which the Sergeant Major replied, with little- if any- hesitation, "Why, spend lots of time with me wife!" (and I can assure you that this quote is a cleaned-up version of the verbiage the Sergeant-Major actually said!); realizing that even a cleaned-up notion of what the soldier now had on his mind was still not at all acceptable in a London daily of 1918, the reporter then asked "Well, what's the second thing you plan on doing?" "Take off these damned uncomfortable hobnail boots!" was the Sergeant-Major's terse reply.

The very first "Liberty Babies" were a by-product of young men enlisting in the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor and spending one last, brief time with a wife- or even a sweetheart one intended to marry (maybe):

7 December 1941 + 9 months... well, you do the math!...

in any event, I have personally known plenty of people born during, and in the years immediately after, the Fall of 1942 and I can tell you they tend to be far more- in terms of lifestyle, politics and attitude- like those I know who were born in the late 1940s and on into the 1950s than like my own parents (who were born in the early 1930s and, thus, belong to the last pre-Baby Boom generation [the one born too late to have fought in World War II: in a sense, they were always "too old to rock 'n' roll, too young to die"]).

Here's the real deal: if you were born between roughly 9 months after Pearl Harbor (which would be September 1942, so I did the math for you) but before Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union in 1959 (that is, if you were "born under 48 stars"- as in the American flag raised, for example, on Iwo Jima), you're a "Baby Boomer": if you, however, came into the world after the 50-star version of "Old Glory" was already official (as of 4 July 1960), you've already got at least one foot wedged well into the door of what was once called "Gen X".

(The 49-star American flag, by the way, only lasted one year: indeed, most Americans old enough to have been around back in 1959-1960 have probably never ever even seen one: although the "Stars and Stripes" to which we recited the Pledge of Allegiance while I was in second grade on Staten Island happened to actually be a 49-star flag... and this was in 1963 going into 1964! In my memory, all these years later, its pattern seems altogether strange to me, as compared to a "Star Spangled Banner" with either 48 or 50 such stars in its canton-- but this is likely only because of its relative unfamiliarity [while the 50-star flag has been ubiquitous throughout most of my lifetime and the 48-star flag is seen quite often in war movies- whether old or recently shot- set during WW 2]).

Much was made of the so-called "First Baby Boomers" becoming eligible for Social Security via retirement as of 1 January of this year (two days before Barack Obama would shock his Party by winning the Iowa Caucuses) because these were first turning 62 (on the grounds that 1 January 1946 is, however arbitrarily, the very first day of the Baby Boom itself, as already noted earlier in this piece); instead, much more should have been made about the fact that those who really are Baby Boomers (including those born as far back as late 1942) were already 65 (thought of as the more "usual" retirement age as regards Social Security) by the start of this calendar year!

Biden was born in late November 1942, exactly a week before the long-deceased Rock guitar legend Jimi Hendrix: thus, he's a Boomer (and, interestingly, although he is defined as such by supporters and opponents alike [for varying political purposes, obviously], Obama is- in fact- not a Boomer!)-- but Biden was far from your typical "early wave" Boomer (which is another reason why political pundits have a hard time so classifying him as such). Despite being among the youngest persons ever elected to the United States Senate (and in the very first Federal Election in which 18. 19 and 20 year olds could avail themselves of their Right to Vote under the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to boot!), Biden was- by all accounts- a hard-driven, studious young adult far removed from either those not at all that much younger than himself who were part of all of the at least potentially positive byproduct- as well as all of the negative detritus- of 'The Sixties' (which really got going in the mid-1960s and, in fact, continued well into the 1970s) that has been gathered, by historians of the period, under the overarching rubric of "The Movement" or those of the same age committed (while proudly wearing their "Nixon's the One" straw 'boater's) to thwarting said "Movement".

In the end, Biden comes off as having been neither and he brought this "sensible moderation" along with him to D.C.

Problem is: the D.C. in which he arrived (after the horrific experience of having to deal with the death of his first wife and one of his children in an automobile accident soon after his election) was becoming less and less sensible (itself part of the detritus of The Sixties). The Senate in which Biden would serve would be one of, first, Watergate and the concomitant Fall of Richard Nixon, followed by the rise of the New Right- and, eventually, the Reaganaut; Iran-Contra, yes, but also the end of the Cold War and the Fall of the Soviet Union; and, then, the accession of both William Jefferson Clinton and, soon thereafter, Clinton's principal nemesis- the 'Contract with America' Republicans in Congress.

All of this was setting up what political pundit E.J. Dionne has so well described as 'The Politics of Annihilation'- in which "we" (whomever "we" happens to be-- this week!) are, for example, "patriotic" while "they" (those who are not "we", I suppose-- of course, as "we" alone have "ourselves" defined "them") are "traitors"; "we" have "common sense", but "they" are "blindly ideological"; "we" are "political activists", "they" are "dangerous radicals"; "we" are "the new Voice of the People confidently marching towards the future", "they" are "a tired, pampered elite locked in the past"... etc. etc. ad infinitum ad nauseam

"Bill Clinton is a far left socialist", "George W. Bush is a far right reactionary"-- and other such utter nonsense!-- is part and parcel of all this.

If various and sundry leaders, talking heads and pundits allied with groups that can be fairly defined as either "liberal" or "conservative" are to be believed, there is no center (or, another tactic, any such 'center' is "wobbly", "wishy-washy", a "bunch of quivering fence-sitters")-- for, in the world of the abject ideologue, there is only Black and White (it matters not that the average American actually operates, in their everyday lives, in a world of Gray [no wonder the politicians, regardless of Party or ideology, have no real connection to the Real World!]): one is either a Saint or a Sinner, is either on the side of God or a minion of the Devil...

of course, it all makes for entertaining television and radio (which is why the abject ideologue is the more usual guest on political programming-- or even has his or her own radio talk show!)... but this is hardly a world all that friendly to someone trying to craft an intellectually-based, well-reasoned, course through shark-infested political waters, such as Joe Biden!

Which brings us back to 1988-- or, rather, the opening gambits leading to the Presidential Election of that year:

Senator Biden first tried his hand at attaining national elective office (read: "the Presidency") going into the '88 Election. Biden was, by the Fall of 1987, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and he was given the perfect forum to show that he was neither too far to the right or left-- nationally televised hearings on the nomination of Federal Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court (at the time, televised hearings re: such judicial confirmations were still relatively new-- first utilized when Justice William Rehnquist was being elevated to Chief Justice of the United States by President Ronald Reagan while, at the same time, Antonin Scalia was nominated to fill Rehnquist's Associate Justiceship only a year earlier).

Biden tried- as was, at the same time, one of his Republican colleagues on the Committee, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter- to articulate a rational basis on which to oppose Bork's nomination (from which Biden hoped to then spring into the race for the 1988 Democratic Presidential Nomination), one based on sound and principled, well-reasoned, differences in constitutional jurisprudence. But Biden (and, for that matter, Specter) were drowned out by the mud-slinging between special interest groups either opposed to, or in favor of, Bork's being on the Nation's High Court (it also didn't help that Bork was himself the quintessential "lightning rod": his own quite conservative jurisprudential views were, obviously, easy targets [this, after all, was a man- by his own admission- rather upset that teenagers were so easily able to listen to The Blues and, I have to admit, as a composer of many a Blues song, going back into my own teenage years, such an attitude concerned me!]- though, to be fair, a significant amount of what Bork really meant was purposely distorted by those to whom fear is a far more effective manner of "rallying the troops" than being at least somewhat intellectually honest!).

In the end, Biden's own "sensible center" got well plowed under by anti-Bork "Action confused with Accomplishment" liberalism (hey, liberal activists: just look at the Supreme Court over the past two decades! Now, how'd that work out? And whose fault is this? Just also make sure to look in the mirror!) and, as a result, he got absolutely no traction from his Judiciary Committee work going into the pre-Primary/Caucus campaign in the months before 1987 turned into 1988. In the same Democratic Presidential Nomination "season" that would see the beginnings of the "New Democrats" (and, with this, the concomitant rise of then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton), one guy who could very well be seen as just such a "New Democrat"- Joe Biden himself- was going nowhere fast!

By then, however, Biden already had his own problems outside of what had happened with the Bork hearings:

On the one hand, he had quoted- without attribution (though this happens quite a lot on the stump)- a large portion of a speech previously given by British Labour Party Leader and, thus, Parliamentary Leader of the Loyal Opposition Neil Kinnock (this was still well before Tony Blair and his "New Labour"): problem is, he included the part of Kinnock's speech where Kinnock spoke of coming out of "impoverished roots" whereas Biden, in fact, had not (his father had been forced to work odd jobs when things were not going so well in his capacity as an auto salesman but, by all accounts, the Bidens- while working class- were not poor [this is actually very similar to my own earliest childhood in Connecticut, during which I was being raised by a single mom while we lived with my maternal grandparents-- but my grandfather was a second-shift foreman in a gun factory and my mom a clerical worker with the local telephone company-- 'tis true we didn't have all that much, but at least we had a roof over our heads and food on the table: I was actually part of a family living beneath the poverty line while I was still an infant, before my Mom left my biological father, but not thereafter. Thus, I myself well know the difference between "impoverishment" and "working family": Joe Biden's seems far more the latter]).

On the other hand, there was a rather bizarre episode while on a fundraising jaunt to New Hampshire, home of the First-in-the-Nation Presidential Primary, in which- while answering a heckler- Biden claimed to have college and university degrees he, in fact, did not have. Compartmentalization, Reinvention (where not also Revisionism) of Self, along with associated Padding One's Resume, is a charge very often leveled at Baby Boomers and here it all was on televised display (thanks to someone videotaping this latter incident)...

therefore, right in the middle of the Bork hearings, Biden simply pulled the plug on his '88 presidential bid.

It was, perhaps, just as well for, just before the New Hampshire Presidential Primary was held in mid-February 1988, Biden suffered a burst berry aneurysm in the brain that could easily have killed him. Whether because of health concerns, or those incidents that pretty much drove him out of the '88 presidential race, Biden was not a very serious thought in anyone's mind when it came to the 1992 Democratic Presidential Nomination. Besides, in the Fall of 1991, just as the pre-'92 Primary/Caucus period was gearing up (as the '88 one had done exactly four years before), Biden's Judiciary Committee was caught in the maelstrom of the confirmation hearings for eventual Justice Clarence Thomas which soon turned into a circus with the revelation of charges of sexual harassment brought forth against Thomas by Anita Hill who, at one time, had worked with Thomas in the Federal legal machinery but was now a law professor out of government.

Hill's accusations became public only after Thomas's nomination had already been approved by the Committee and sent on to the full Senate for due consideration (that proverbial- as well as constitutionally mandated- "Advice and Consent"). This precipitated a second set of hearings regarding Hill's charges against Thomas, in the midst of which Biden was unfairly accused of a cover-up, particularly by women's groups (it turned out that Biden, indeed, knew of Hill's accusations prior to the first set of hearings but Hill had, at that time, refused to publicly testify, thus it was thought unfair to bring them up [the fact that none of Thomas's detractors on the Committee did so first time round suggests that this, indeed, was a bipartisan/bi-ideological consensus]; only once Hill had been "outed" by "Thomas must be stopped" activists [many liberals were miffed- not only that Thomas, an African-American, had the unmitigated gall to be a conservative!- but that he was chosen (despite denials by then-President George H.W. Bush and those around him) specifically because he was Black as the replacement for the liberals' retiring champion and the first-ever African-American on the court, Justice Thurgood Marshall: thus, the 'Politics of Annihilation' required Thomas' political annihilation, come what may (including Anita Hill's own embarrassment at having to talk about this before a nationwide television audience)]).

But, in the 'Search and Destroy' world of the contemporary well-funded activist ideologue, personal pain matters not... the Individual simply must be sacrificed for the (allegedly) Common Good!...

and this was to be a lesson not at all lost on the more "foaming at the mouth" 'Contract with America' Republicans (who, for instance, while at the same time they were so regularly referring to Monica Lewinsky as a "mere child taken advantage of by Bill Clinton" [when, in fact, Ms. Lewinsky was already legally an adult, well over the Age of Consent at the time], had no problem whatsoever reveling in the titillating details of her alleged sexual dalliances with the then-President as recounted in the Starr Report. Apparently, for many a moralistic politician, Compassion ceases once the echoes of the weekly Benediction have themselves faded away!)

In a sense, Joe Biden actually benefitted from the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994: for now he could- with his "sensible center"- work with the new majority Republicans in the Senate much easier than could other more liberal, where not also more bitter, Democrats in the wake of the rise of the 'Contract with America' crowd (though it probably also helped that Democrat Bill Clinton was still in the White House, plus that the Senate as a body- almost by its very design- is never as ideological as the House of Representatives, regardless of whether the ideology du jour be to the left or right).

Soon enough, Biden decided to forsake his role as Ranking Minority Member of the Judiciary Committee for the same role with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Foreign Relations was far more conducive to his way of operating in the Senate (after all, for the most part: "Politics stops at the water's edge") than the knock-down, drag-out infighting that was now much more regularly accompanying Federal judicial nominations. Besides, the work was challenging (in the mid-to-late 1990s, the post-Cold War World was still taking shape; 9/11 would, of course, ratchet these challenges up to an even higher level) and this would put him into position to become Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman whenever the Democrats controlled the Senate (as it did for a time from 2001 through most of 2002 and has now, once again, done since January 2007).

Despite Biden's important place within the U.S. Senate hierarchy, it was pretty much a "given", among political junkies, that Biden's shot at national office was long past (unless, perhaps, some Democratic President someday named him to either a judgeship or a Cabinet post [assuming he would even have accepted such a thing]-- at age 65 this past Fall, however, even opportunities such as these looked even less likely) which is precisely why it was so surprising to many (including me!) when Biden decided to run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination (the two Democratic presidential contenders I could not fathom as to why they were even in the race for that Party's nomination in the first place were Biden and his Senate colleague from Connecticut, Chris Dodd. As for every other Democrat, including even Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich: I could figure out what they were doing as contenders [however quixotic their reach], but not Biden nor Dodd).

However, the incidents from back in late 1987 that had once tripped up Biden's '88 candidacy barely made a ripple during the short shelf-life of his '08 presidential candidacy, as things turned out: then again, no one really thought he would ever be nominated for President and that, in and of itself, might have had a lot to do with this (one must wonder how 1987 might have played had Biden been a viable contender for the nomination, as Obama turned out to be). It will be most interesting to see if any of this stuff from two decades back might yet come to, somehow, harm the electoral chances for the Obama/Biden ticket during the upcoming Fall presidential campaign.

Now let's turn to the criteria for potential running mates for both John McCain and Barack Obama I outlined in my Commentary of 28 June 2008 and see just how Senator Obama did...

here are those criteria--

a vice-presidential running mate for either of the two Major Party nominees seeking the Presidency (both of whom happen to be Senators) should:

1. be a Governor or former Governor;
2. not be too much of a "splash", "historic moment" or "sea change".
3. not be the so-called "obvious choice".
4. not be a response to the other guy's pick (this would more apply to what Senator McCain will now do but we can look at it in terms of Obama's possibly anticipating at least the type of running mate McCain might pick)
5. not be an attempt to repeat History.
6. be the best possible potential Vice President for the one doing the choosing.

Now, as far as Joe Biden is concerned: Obama ignored 1. (Biden's only experience as a political executive was as a member of the Council of New Castle County, Delaware for the two years prior to his election to the Senate-- in Delaware, as in most counties in most States, the county governing body is as much administrative as legislative but, still, this is not a whole lot of executive experience which can offset Obama's own lack thereof).

One cannot argue that Obama ignored 2., however-- for he did not pick a woman such as Kansas Governor Sibelius or Senator Hillary Clinton herself, he did not pick a Latino such as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. In fact, Biden brings nothing to the table that at all suggests an attempt at "ripping the curtain of Time itself" (such as Walter Mondale's choosing of Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro back in '84).

As for 3., Obama gets the point here as well-- for Biden was not at all an obvious choice (for Hillary Clinton would have been the most obvious-- and, perhaps, of the remaining names bandied about before Biden's name was announced, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana would have qualified as "most obvious").

As for 4., this one is difficult to judge because we cannot fully know what is going on behind the scenes in the McCain campaign. I would have to say "maybe", however. Biden was clearly picked because of his Foreign Policy credentials which Obama is said to lack by the Republicans and, a native of northeastern Pennsylvania, Biden was also picked because he might be able to deliver voters from the very type of State Hillary Clinton claimed Obama could not win in November. Thus, it could be argued that Obama was responding to both McCain and Mrs. Clinton!

Regarding 5., Biden does give me the rather uneasy feeling of a "Michael Dukakis picking Senator Lloyd Bentsen" moment and one's running mate cannot fully redeem what the top of the Ticket might himself lack (remember "Mikey in the tank"?-- having a "hawk" on the ticket didn't do much at all to erase that image!). At the same time, people (helped by Republican propaganda, including nutty conspiracy theories that Gore would have done nothing at all on 9/11/2001 had he been President instead of 'Dub-ya') tend to forget that Bill Clinton picked Al Gore as his running mate largely because it was Gore who was the "hawk" on that particular national ticket (a "hawk" who wanted to protect endangered hawks! hmmm...) and, indeed, a large part of the Clinton Administration's testicular fortitude when it came to Foreign Policy (once the more glaring mistakes of Clinton's first two years in office in that sphere began to subside) actually came from Vice President Gore (where Gore began to back away somewhat from his "hawkishness", it was during Clinton's second term when he was already posturing himself to be Clinton's successor) and, if nothing else, Biden is far more proactive when it comes to Foreign Policy than Obama's image (fair or no) suggests the Illinois Senator would be.

All in all, I would have to say that Obama, for the most part, wasn't trying to repeat History but might have done so by accident anyway-- the question is: will it be 1988 (Democratic ticket goes down in flames) or 1992 (Democrats reclaim the White House)? Here, more than anywhere else, Biden as Obama's "roll of the dice" comes into play.

As for 6.: one, obviously, cannot read a presidential candidate's mind; in addition, I don't know- as of this typing- who might have actually turned the chance to be Obama's running mate down. Thus, I have to here give Senator Obama the benefit of the doubt (don't worry, my Republican readers, I will very likely do the same for Senator McCain) and, if only based on what he himself has said (although it is, admittedly, self-serving), feel that Biden is, indeed, the person Obama really wanted to be his Vice President should Obama be elected President. All I have already written regarding points 1. through 5. (which, as the reader can so readily see, is something of the proverbial "mixed bag"-- Obama getting points for some but ignoring some others) suggests that, yes, this is true.

As I wrote back on 28 June: In the end, a presidential nominee's choice as running mate must ever be, above all else, his choice! And this can well trump however well, or badly, the presidential nominee might have done regarding the other 5 criteria I outlined above.

I will have much more to say about the prospects of what we now know to be the Obama/Biden ticket as we get into, and through, the Democratic National Convention in Denver but, for now, what is contained herein reflects my immediate thoughts upon Joe Biden becoming the presumptive vice-presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in 2008.

 


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