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Five Years Ago in Thursday Review

By R. Alan Clanton | published originally August 24, 2008 |
Thursday Review Editor

What was Thursday Review up to exactly five years ago this week? Candidate Barack Obama had just selected Joe Biden as his running mate, and this was our Road Show analysis of the events surrounding that long weekend of news.

Saturday, August 23, 2008:

After a week or more of mounting speculation and runaway hyperbole, mixed with gentle winnowing and brute elimination, the decision had finally been made. Announced with great techno fanfare via text messages in the wee hours of Saturday, Barack Obama would choose Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.

Setting aside the sensational aspects of this first-of-its-kind veep selection publicity stunt, Biden’s name brought on a flurry of media discussion throughout the morning—with CNN and Fox News devoting almost continuous coverage to the question of Biden’s perceived strengths and weaknesses. On an otherwise quiet 24-hour news cycle, Biden’s selection became practically the only news. In fact, the only significant interruptions to this marathon political talk came in the form of brief reports on Tropical Storm Fay’s westward progress along the gulf coast of Florida and Alabama.

So let’s start with the obvious: Biden brings great value to the Democratic ticket, especially at a moment of supreme concern to many Democrats as polls continue to tighten into a dead heat between Obama and John McCain. Biden’s greatest strength? His perceived ability to draw in Hillary Clinton supporters without being Hillary Clinton, no small point as the start of the convention draws to within 36 hours and the pro-Hillary delegation again seethes with restless, un-channeled energy. Biden, it is hoped, can calm the fears of the Clinton partisans and bring them more comfortably into the fold. Further, this same dynamic will work to bring the Hillary vote into Obama’s general election column, specifically in working-class battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. Biden is comfortable with his hardtack roots as the Irish Catholic son of Scranton, a guy with an affinity for cops and firefighters, old school Democratic values, and the economic struggles of working Americans.

In short, so the theory goes, Biden can harness some of the former Hillary Clinton support and rob McCain of the chance to channel those voters back—as has often the case since the mid 1970s—into the GOP column in November.

In addition, Biden brings experience onto the ticket. If the chief complaint has been Obama’s relative lack of experience, Biden’s resume is positively overweight with three decades worth of real world Washington beefiness. Biden sits as the fourth most senior member of the U.S. Senate and is a ranking member of various heavyweight committees. In the role as wise consiglieri to a younger President, Biden’s foreign affairs, NATO and military knowledge may make many undecided voters more comfortable at a time when multiple international crises (most notably the Russian military invasion of Georgia) may have contributed heavily to McCain’s recent ascension in the polls. And in this sense Biden will add some vertical energy to the post convention bounce so widely studied by the press, and Biden’s mere presence on the ticket may assure voters uncertain of Obama’s foreign policy experience that a Democratic administration will be prepared when things get rough on the international scene.

Finally there is the dark art of avoiding problems. Historically, nothing has the same potential for damage to a newly ordained presidential candidate than a misfire in the vice presidential selection. George McGovern’s 1972 candidacy, once a rising star of meteoric quality, faced mortal, self-inflicted wounds when his choice of Tom Eagleton turned into an ugly fiasco. The ensuing search for a vice presidential replacement soured so quickly and became such a humiliating spectacle that it became the brunt of jokes. The McGovern campaign never recovered.

George Herbert Walker Bush’s selection of Dan Quayle in 1988 was so unfocused and arbitrary—and stirred such controversy—that it nearly cost Bush his convention bounce, and the Republicans were forced to struggle continuously to put the issue of Quayle’s inadequacies aside throughout the remainder of the campaign. Conversely that same year, Michael Dukakis’ choice of Lloyd Bentsen seemed by contrast too much of a good thing—a courtly, eloquent statesman who seemed to many voters more suited for the top of the ticket rather than in the role as running mate. Rather than helping the ticket, Bentsen’s outsize qualities made Dukakis an easy target for ridicule for the GOP and contributed mightily to still more exodus of Red State Democrats toward the Republican message.

Biden, in short, represents a “safe” choice for vice-President. After 36 years in the United State Senate, there will no surprises from Biden’s files or family closets. Obama is able to provide his ticket with the sort of balance and intra-party unity he might have found with Hillary, but without the trainload of baggage that would have accompanied merging the Clintons into the Obama presidency.

But there is a downside to the choice of Joe Biden: in the immediate sense what does his political hue on the larger spectrum offer (or fails to offer) to the Obama ticket. Biden, by most ratings and measurements, may be the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. Republicans will no doubt seize on this within the next few days. The obvious question then becomes is Biden too liberal to offer balance to Obama’s liberalism? Will undecided voters in those swing states like Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio find comfort enough in Biden to migrate en masse to the Obama candidacy? Or will McCain be able to pin the label of ultra-liberalism on the donkey with little or no great effort? Rather than building a bridge toward the middle, Obama’s choice of Biden serves to shore up his left flank—by some estimates, an unnecessary form of reinforcement. Biden’s recorded penchant for liberal hyperbole and overheated rhetoric might very well result in a flurry of negative ads using little more than Biden’s own words, enabling McCain and his forces to suggest that Biden is nothing more than a Ted Kennedy style tax-and-spend liberal. And during the long run-up to the primary and caucus season, Biden was often one of the most critical voices in opposition to Obama, especially during debates or on the talk show circuit. The Republicans will have little trouble culling through debate recordings to turn Biden’s own words against the Obama ticket.

Then, there is the issue of geo-graphy and demography. Though Biden offers no geographic mistakes, Delaware is hardly a prime target for direct voter appeal in relation to its small electoral vote reward. Delaware is one of the most neutral squares on the political chessboard. Some analysts have been questioning for weeks Obama’s tendency to winnow away those southerners and westerners on his shortlist. Indeed, the final few names were all Midwestern or eastern in those last few days. Only Representative Chet Edwards of Texas remained a part of the ongoing discussion, but when his name was eliminated from the list that left only Evan Bayh of Indiana and Biden. So, like the potential complaint that Biden is too liberal and therefore unappealing to some swing voters and independents, Biden’s geographic strengths may prove to produce little in the way of big rewards. Will potential swing voters in places like Tennessee, Georgia or Kentucky be swayed by the appeal of Biden of Delaware by way of Pennsylvania? Or will they find greater comfort in John McCain?

Another downside is Biden himself. Not one for understatement despite 36 years of public service, Biden can sometimes take his arguments and debate points too far. His occasional misstatements have been widely discussed in the media in the past, and his 1988 presidential campaign famously imploded when it was revealed that some of his college writing had been purloined from other sources and that he had represented as some of his own Washington writing words lifted from the speeches of other politicians. He has since gone to great efforts to disprove that he is an outright plagiarist, but the fact remains that his misstatements and overstatements could easily backfire again during this election cycle. McCain campaign spokespersons wasted no time seizing on this possibility, and suggested that Biden’s oratory and rhetoric could, in the end, be his own worst enemy. And seen as a distinct advantage by some of his closest supporters, Biden’s formidable debate and Q&A skills (he is one of the most feared questioners when it comes to Senate committee hearings and investigations) could been to be a liability for Obama if Biden stumbles into a rhetorical misfire during the scheduled vice presidential debate this fall.

Still, after John Edwards fall from grace two weeks ago over the issue of his sexual affair with a TV producer, there were few optimal choices for Obama south of the Mason-Dixon line. Arizona’s Bill Richardson, seen by many as a near-perfect choice in terms of likeability, unity and—most especially—appeal to Latinos, was eliminated from the short list perhaps, in part, because of Obama’s wider strengths in the western states. Richardson would have added nothing geographically or demographically, and would not have helped substantially in bringing the Hillary Clinton Democrats solidly into the fold.

Sam Nunn, long a dark horse option for Obama, was eliminated from the short list weeks ago. James Webb, of Virginia, was also dropped from the discussions. Webb’s fellow Virginian Governor Tim Kaine remained near the top of the short list even as recently as mid-afternoon on Friday, but by later that evening word began to circulate among reporters that Kaine was also out of the running. Kathleen Sebelius, governor of Kansas, managed to make it also into the final cut of five, but reporters began hearing late Thursday that her name had been dropped as well.

And after a week or so of the Hillary operatives jockeying for leverage on the convention floor—including the widely discussed plans to make sure her name is placed in nomination and allowing each of here delegates the chance to vote on the first round of balloting—the Obama team had reached the inevitable conclusion that Hillary Clinton would be unwelcome, and potentially toxic as part of the ticket. A few sage reporters and analysts were holding out the possibility that the Dream Ticket may still emerge, and that the elaborate discussion of the other names being vetted and reviewed was a mere smokescreen for the big surprise. As it turns out, word emerged that Clinton had never been on the short list for vice president, and this may have angered some Clinton supporters more than if she had simple not made the final cut.

So Biden now stands as possibly Obama’s best bridgehead to the “Red State Democrats,” though it is not entirely clear that this move will work to Obama’s advantage in the next nine weeks.

Once the press got past the sparkling gadgetry and gimmicky nature of the text message announcement, the marriage between Obama and Biden still turned to the traditional scenes of embrace and imagery. The Obama campaign had chosen the very spot where his presidential campaign had its official start in February 2007—the front steps of the old state capitol building in downtown Springfield, Illinois. It had been a bracingly cold day 19 months ago when Obama first announced he would seek the presidency, but Springfield is not a chilly place in August. With temperatures in the upper 80s—and despite a brief period of rain showers earlier in the morning—thousands turned out to see Obama make his announcement if Biden as running mate.

And though these events are carefully choreographed, this one turned out to have one memorable near-gaffe: as Obama introduced Biden to the stage, he accidentally referred to his new running mate as “the next president of the United States,” a booboo he immediately caught and corrected, but one which the McCain spin masters seized upon within minutes as a slip-of-the-tongue perhaps Freudian and then some: was Obama articulating his own insecurities about his abilities and experience?

But beyond this one strange and perhaps inconsequential foul-up, there were few things spontaneous in the choice of colors, songs or words. Coatless, both men were dressed in white shirts with the sleeves rolled up, the only difference being Biden’s blue tie to contrast with Obama’s red, a carefully staged effort at shirtsleeve patriotism. Biden strode onto the stage to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” music not random in choice for its infectious upbeat evocation of working class values. Biden was clearly there to shore up the working class side of the equation for Democrats. Biden spoke of his hardscrabble life in lower class Scranton. And there were repeated references to Biden’s “scrappy, Irish Catholic upbringing.” During his introduction, Obama mentioned Biden’s Catholicism three times, a telling indication of how closely Democratic strategists are watching the mood of those who voted for Clinton.

And Biden wasted no time on eloquence or purple prose. He plunged instead into direct, unvarnished appeals to working class families, drawing up the image of young parents sitting at the kitchen table after the kids have gone to bed as they struggle to make ends meet in a world of shrinking wages, high gasoline prices, rising food costs, out-of-reach medical care, and deflating home values. Referring to the administration of George W. Bush and by extension John McCain’s candidacy, he said that Americans “cannot as nation stand for another four years of this.” Biden chided oil companies for their greed and their brazen practice of writing their own energy policies. Washington is broken, Biden said, “but the reckoning is now….for there is not a single challenge that Americans can’t face if we level with the American people.” Biden said his story was the typical American story of struggle, setbacks and eventual success. “It’s not about getting knocked down,” he said, “it’s about how quickly you get back up.”

As with most modern vice presidential candidates, Biden will be expected to deliver the hardest punches to the opposition ticket. Running mates are often chosen for their attack dog abilities, and it will probably be essential for Obama to remain aloof from much of the dirtiest fist fighting in order for the Illinois Senator to retain his image as a graceful and conciliatory politician. As expected, Biden praised McCain as a true friend and an authentic American hero, but Biden wasted no time challenging McCain’s beliefs or McCain’s commitment to real change in Washington. Referring to his kitchen table imagery from moments earlier, Biden said that for McCain it would be difficult to have such a discussion since “Senator McCain will have to figure out which of his seven kitchen tables to sit at!” The remark drew predictable applause from the friendly crowd. Clearly Biden is ready for the fight.

Biden spoke for only about 14 minutes, about the same length as Obama’s introductory remarks. Afterwards, those posed for a few photos with their wives on stage, and then slowly made their way along the rope line shaking hands and signing autographs.

The senior Senator from Delaware is known for his easygoing humor and quick wit, and during the long series of debates between late 2007 and early 2008 (Biden participated in 12 debates before dropping out of the race) he established a reputation for his bluntness and command of the material. Some observers suggest he may be the perfect foil for the daily grind of hard hitting media activity that will surely accompany the nine weeks between now and Election Day. And more than a few reporters and analysts today remarked that McCain’s own V.P. choice will need to be just as carefully chosen. The current smart money is that McCain will choose Mitt Romney. Romney is also a formidable debater, but in a theoretical match-up between Biden and Romney in a vice-presidential forum, Biden might get the upper hand tactically. But Romney the outsider would have the advantage—almost instantly—of portraying Biden as the consummate D.C. insider, a 36 year veteran of the U. S. Senate who represents the very heart of the problem with Washington, not the solution.

So Joe Biden’s job will be to try to attach John McCain to the record of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Meanwhile, McCain and his GOP allies will attack Biden as the epitome of entrenched Washington liberalism—the sort of guy who will surely raise your taxes and find new ways to spend your money.

Sunday, August 24, 2008:

As expected, a lot of media attention has now turned toward Senator John McCain’s choice for his running mate.

The remaining 24-hour news cycle will be void of actual hard news as producers, directors, reporters and their engineering crews make their last minute preparations for the start of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, which convenes Monday. CNN spent most of late Saturday either endlessly rehashing whether Joe Biden was the right choice or broadcasting live from their convention floor news booth in a mostly empty 20,000-seat Pepsi Center. CNN’s 50-state-map-guru John King walked viewers patiently through his colorful interactive touch-screen map to illustrate the minutiae of the Biden Effect in, say, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania (Biden’s birthplace) or in heavily Catholic St. Joseph County, Indiana. So in this space-time vacuum, and in the absence of anything surprising or startling to reveal about Joe Biden, and between the flow of reports from the Olympic Games in Beijing, and in the long gaps between news of a tropical storm still dumping water on the south, McCain’s thought process about a running mate moves to the fore.

For McCain, the public process of choosing a vice presidential candidate will give him an important chance to regain the momentum that seemed flowing his way only a few days ago. The flap over his “seven homes” remarks to turned quickly into a blunt weapon used daily by Obama on the stump and by Obama’s media operatives in their daily news spin. Add to that McCain’s joke about $5 million being his criteria for being rich during Reverend Rick Warren’s forum on faith and politics, and it is easy to see why McCain’s steady surge in the national polls stalled a few days ago.

The Obama team is now using the phrase “out of touch” almost daily to describe John McCain. Still, the McCain people have hit back hard, suggesting that it is the Ivy League educated elitist Barack Obama who is out of touch. A few McCain spokespersons have said they welcome a dust-up over the issue of homes and wealth, after all Obama lives in a multi-million dollar Chicago mansion financed by a convicted felon. They also point to Obama’s enormous wealth from book sales, totaling more than $4 million just last year.

So where does McCain go to quickly reclaim the high ground? His short list of running mates has been an evolving process. Many names have been floated in recent weeks, but the top contenders seem be former presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, Independent Senator Joe Leiberman, OMB chief Rob Portman and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Other names tossed about in recent months include former general and Secretary of State Colin Powell, a long shot, to be sure, and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a smart choice for his southern credentials and conservative bona fides, but possibly unnecessary since the Palmetto State is largely inclined toward McCain anyway in recent polls. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has also been mentioned, but is widely considered—at 37—too young to be taken seriously as a vice presidential option.

Huckabee and Romney rest comfortably at the top my own list, for the obvious first-tier reasoning of unifying a party still in a mild state of confusion and decompression. Romney would serve to re-energize the conservative (and most crucial) wing of the party and quite possibly insure a forceful turnout by most Republicans on Election Day. Romney might also finally disarm the trash-talk of the right wing radio and TV commentators. Huckabee would also channel energy toward McCain and help substantially in large swaths of the south and Midwest where religion plays a role in some voting behavior. Despite McCain’s recent move upward in the national polls, the undecided block remains stubbornly noncommittal. Romney would serve to shore up McCain’s right flank—sort of a mirror image of what Biden brings to Obama—but Huckabee might actually energize a more important form of voter turnout, especially in Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, and large chunks of the Deep South. It is also important to remember that Huckabee carried a healthy number of counties and votes in places like Minnesota, Oklahoma and Montana.

And here’s a scenario being quietly discussed by some in the GOP: for McCain, the traditional relationship of nice-guy-candidate teamed with tough-talking-attack-dog may need some reversal, at least from time to time. If McCain were to opt to go on the more direct attack in appearances and in debates, Huckabee could easily fill the role of the good natured, good humored and comforting vice president. The role of hatchet man could be delegated to others within the party, leaving Huckabee to serve as the perfect foil for Biden. Would the image of the scrappy kid from Scranton beating up on the kindly Baptist minister play well in a televised debate? Almost surely...just not to the Democrats advantage. Still, Huckabee’s relative D.C. inexperience could backfire in a direct confrontation over legislative detail or Washington inner workings.

But this role-reversal strategy may have to wait. Interviewed briefly on CBS this morning John McCain was gracious and magnanimous in his remarks about his Senate friend Joe Biden, a reflection perhaps of the Old School courtliness and respect that is the traditional mood and tenor of the U.S. Senate. But some Republican strategists think that flip-flopping the roles and letting McCain loose to tangle directly with Obama might have some rewards.

Though he could easily hold his own against Senator Biden when it comes to a command of the facts and the numbers, Romney was often seized in recent debates by an uncomfortable slickness and glossy polymer veneer. This robo-Romney, businessman and multimillionaire, may not play well over time with the swing state voters and Red State Democrats, especially with the economy beginning to play a larger-than-expected role for voters. And paired with McCain, the Democrats could easily attack the GOP ticket as twosome of out-of-touch, rich guys with little more than big corporate interests at the top of their agenda. Furthermore, Romney’s flip-flops and well-advertised changes of heart might prove to be a liability over time.

Charlie Crist’s name remains in play as well. Crist is a widely popular governor who—like his Republican predecessor Jeb Bush—was able to build broad bipartisan consensus on many issues facing Floridians. Crist would have the almost certain effect of locking in the Sunshine State’s valuable pool of 27 electoral votes and delivering them to safely McCain. And where Florida was once reliable territory for the GOP, the state’s age and demographics have changed substantially in the last decade. Latinos and non-whites make up a larger chunk of the voting population than in previous elections, and the Cuban community—still generally reliably Republican—reflect only a small piece of the greater Hispanic population in Florida. So McCain has many reasons to consider Christ, but would Christ carry much impact or weight nationally once outside of the Sunshine State?

NBC News reported today that the Delaware delegation—just yesterday shown on the convention diagrams as being seated in the so-called nosebleed seats in a higher tier in the Pepsi arena—has been promoted to prime real estate on the floor of the Democratic National Convention. Indeed, the Delaware standard will be raised nearly front and center, just across the aisles from Illinois, the choicest of the seating in the hall. What a difference a day can make!

Meanwhile, the media’s vetting of Joe Biden continues more-or-less unchecked even though Obama says he is quite comfortable with the selection. But there was more grumbling from the Clinton side of the Democratic Party, with still more complaints that Obama should have at least given Hillary Clinton a more serious look. When word leaked out that the Obama camp had never—not once—seriously considered Clinton for the vice presidency, more than a few Clinton loyalists felt cheated. In some ongoing discussions on the web, a few rank and file delegates insist they will vote for Clinton regardless of what happens in Denver, and they hinted darkly that they might not cast a vote for Obama at all.

And the GOP spin doctors wasted no time exploiting this latest riff within the family of Democrats, preparing their own online ads reminding viewers of Clinton’s millions of votes through the long primary and caucus season, and suggesting that Obama the elitist was tossing out the opinions and concerns of at least half of the country. A few Republican strategists made it clear that the real battle now will reside in those parts of the country that voted strongly for Hillary Clinton. As predicted, some GOP spokespersons said that Biden simply took an already left-of-center agenda and just made it intolerably liberal for many more Americans. Other online ads indicated that Obama’s talk of national unity and conciliation is nothing more than a sham, and the proof is found in Joe Biden’s 36-year record of unbending, arch liberalism.

Still, many analysts feel that Biden was about as mistake-free a choice as possible, especially given the need to unify the party without actually attaching the name Clinton to placards, bumper stickers or buttons.

In the meantime, everyone waits to see how McCain and his team counter this first move in the vice-Presidential chess game—in part psychological, in part strategic, in part a leap of faith. McCain must choose wisely, and with his eye fixed on what matters most: voter behavior on the first Tuesday in November.

Editor's note: this article was originally prepared and written between August 23 and August 24, 2008.