Thursday, October 9, 2008

By Request - Senator Joseph Robinette (Joe) Biden

My dad, a staunch republican who vehemently disagrees with nearly all of my views on politics, asked me to write a post analyzing the other candidates for Vice President, the same way I did with Sarah Palin.

Specifically he asked that I analyze the Democratic, Green party, US Taxpayer's Party, Libertarian Party, and Natural Law Party candidates in detail.

Well, Dad, here's the thing - there's absolutely no chance that any of the fringe parties are going to get elected outside of small local and/or state elections, and while I've glanced at their respective agendas, I'm not going to waste bandwidth on them.

However, I agree that I should in fairness post my take on the democratic nominee for Vice President, Joe Biden. I haven't written about my opinion of him previously for a number of reasons: first, because I have no direct experience with Biden the way I do with Palin; second, because he's far better known to the American public than Palin is; and third, because his political position, religious beliefs, and background don't seem to generate the media and social hysteria that Palin does.

Frankly, I just don't have much in the way of strong opinion about Joe Biden as VP - he strikes me as about average for a vice presidential candidate, i.e. an experienced politician with a decent (if not particularly stellar) education, and decent (if not particularly stellar) experience. He has run for president himself a couple of times, made the usual public gaffes, and done nothing exceptionally noteworthy as a Senator good or bad. His repeated reelection as Senator shows that his constituents in Delaware believe he's doing a decent job representing their interests. His committee appointments (Foreign Relations, Judiciary, and International Narcotics Control) give him respectable Congressional experience in the particular areas that Obama lacks - which is why he was chosen, of course. He's reasonably articulate and a decent if not charismatic speaker the way Palin is - though it's obvious that he knows his subject matter to a far greater depth.

One of the principle differences between Biden and Palin is this: Nobody expects Biden to step into the Oval Office when Obama goes belly up during his first tour in office. Whenever Palin's name comes up, the very first thing both Republicans and especially Democrats bring up is Palin's readiness to take over the Presidency. A rather significant number of folks speak of Palin's succession to the presidency as a foregone conclusion, i.e. John McCain will not live out his first term. Personally, I think this is a sucker bet, McCain is a feisty old bastard, he survived Hanoi and he's got the best medical care money and a Senate seat can buy and he thrives on stress - so, I'd say that the odds of his imminent demise are vastly overrated. Be that as it may, I think Biden is far more qualified than Palin in a number of ways to step up immediately into the Oval Office if necessary.

Now, with all that said I think Biden will make a decent vice president. Notice I didn't say great vice president. I think he'd be a better president than vice president, and I'll explain why in a minute.

Let's run down the same list of vice presidential duties that we did with Palin, shall we?

First, Constitutionally, the VP's primary job is to be the spare tire. We keep him in the trunk (that's the boot, for those of you in England), and only take him out if we blow a main. Should he have to step up, Biden is fairly well prepared. Biden has served in the Senate since 1973, he knows politics and Washington at least as well, if not better than John McCain and far better than Sarah Palin and Barrack Obama. His education is in history, political science, and law (and he's a member of the Delaware Bar) - compare that to Palin's degree in Communications/Journalism. I am not running down Palin's education, simply pointing out the disparity. Biden's formal education is far more extensive and is orientated towards the basic requirements of the office, Palin's is not. Biden is experienced in a number of areas critical to the office, his Senatorial experience gives him insight and connections into that body, he knows how to make deals and get bills passed - Palin can't claim the same. However, Biden has made enemies in the Senate and the House, Palin hasn't. What impact that would have on either of them as President, I can't say. Biden's experience as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Subcommittees on Antitrust Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, Crime and Drugs, Human Rights and the Law, Immigration, Border Security, Refugees, and Technology, Terrorism, and Homeland Security would suggest that he has a far more detailed knowledge of the things we expect a President to take the lead on than Palin does. With his track record, I have to say that should Biden be forced to take the helm, he is far better prepared now, than Palin is and I'm not sure how anybody could argue differently - and I notice that the Republicans have avoided this comparison by and large.

Next, Constitutionally, the VP's secondary responsibility is to serve as the tie breaker in case of Senatorial deadlock and to certify the Electoral College vote count. I don't think we need to belabor these responsibilities in any detail. Biden can easily handle both, no better or worse than Palin.

Informal duties: As I said in the Palin post, the informal duties of the Vice President vary, depending on the President. But for the most part we can depend on the last thirty years to give us some idea of what the Vice President will be doing with his or her time:

1) Act as spokesman for the administration: Well, there's no doubt that Biden could perform this role. However, Biden is known for speaking off the cuff, and for letting his mouth get the better of him. A bad VP can make the administration look like idiots, even if they're not. Take Dan Quayle for example. Despite being a reasonably intelligent, likeable, and harmless guy, his tenure as VP became the running joke of the first Bush administration. No matter what he did, the administration got pilloried for it - the difference here though is that Quayle was a likable fellow, Biden is less so. Quayle's screw-ups were often attributed to youth and lack of experience, Biden's screw-ups are often attributed to malice aforethought. And a gaff of the kind he's known for could seriously damage an Obama administration. Part of the problem here is that Biden is far more experienced that Obama, and he's got some strong opinions, and he's not shy about expressing them - and that tells me that he'll have a hard time acting as the spokesman for somebody he may regard as young, junior, and less experienced. Obama will have to keep him reined in tight. In this role I think Palin will do a better job, her lack of experience limits her to McCain's talking points in large part, making her a far better representative of his position than Biden is of Obama's.

2) Act as an advisor to the President: for the reasons previously stated, I think Biden's Senatorial experience and education make him far more valuable in this role than Palin will be to McCain - and I don't think there's much in the way of comparison at this point. Should Obama become President, I think Biden will spend a great of time in the Oval Office, and I think there's little doubt that Obama picked him specifically for this role. He's said so, on more than one occasion.

3) Chairman of the Board of NASA: Biden is no more qualified for this role than Palin. Just as with Palin, his ability to carry out this responsibility will depend entirely on his willingness to listen to experts - and I'm not sure he can do that consistently or sincerely. He's an opinionated guy. But again, in this regard I doubt he'll be any better or worse than Palin or his predecessors.

4) Member of the board of the Smithsonian: I think Biden will serve admirably in this role, his education, experience, and demonstrated leadership ability are precisely the qualities that this type of organization actively recruits. Unlike Palin I doubt his religious view point (he's a Catholic) will have much influence on his performance of this duty. As I said previously, Palin's creationism and public disregard for mainstream science causes me serious concern when it comes to direct influence on one of America's premier scientific institutions.

5) Carry out the formal ceremonial duties of the Presidency: I'm sure Biden can handle this.

Brass Tacks: Biden was a damned good choice by Obama. He rounds out the democratic ticket, filling in the gaps. He's older, proven, and experienced. He's a savvy politician. He's not particularly charismatic the way Palin is, but with Obama he doesn't have to be and he wasn't chosen for that reason. He's handled himself well in interviews and the debate, and shown confidence and detailed knowledge.

I'd say that if there is one thing lacking, it's that neither Obama or Biden have any military experience. They'll have to chose carefully when it comes to advisors, and I'd really like to know who those people will be and I'd like to know in detail prior to November. Both Robert Gates, the current SecDef and Richard Danzig (former Navy Secretary under the Clinton Administration and an Obama defense advisor) have been floated as possibilities. I worked for both, and have no objections though I don't much care for Gates, but I'd really like to know who Obama has in mind, at least the short list.

Additionally, neither Obama or Biden have any direct experience with the economy that compares to McCain's experience on the Senate Commerce Committee. Again they'll have to pick their advisors carefully. Though public perception at the moment seems to indicate that the public believes Obama is better qualified and prepared to fix the problems in the financial sector than McCain is. Only time will tell, and unless things go seriously pear-shaped, Biden will have little to do with it, other than maybe casting the deciding vote in the Senate.

Does that mean he'll make a good vice president? Not necessarily. He certainly has the potential, but the VP's primary unwritten job is to directly support the President and put his own ego and agenda aside - and Biden is going to have to work on that. Providing he can firmly limit himself to the roles, duties, and responsibilities of the office, without spending the next four or eight years campaigning for his own shot at the Oval Office, I think he'll do fine.

Compared to Sarah Palin, I think it should be obvious to all but the most fervently doctrinal conservatives that Biden is far more qualified for the job.

If this was a traditional job interview, I'd hire Biden over Palin any day of the week, simply based on his resume and the way he presents himself.


  1. You're certainly correct about Obama's lack of experience in terms of the economic crisis, but since Warren Buffett has his ear, I'm prepared to let that pass.

    Especially in light of McCain's record on regulation.

  2. Not to be horribly negative, but I think that as VP, Biden has only a slightly lower chance of becoming the President than Palin would.

    There are a lot of really horrible people out there, and in my limited experience, those who espouse racist views are more likely to act on those views than other flavors of sociopaths.

    So I think that we do need to consider the possibility that Biden may become president.

  3. Janiece, precisely my point. Who the advisers are is critical, and should be part of our decision making process.

    Michelle, please expand on your racism comment - I want make sure I fully understand where you're coming from with that before I respond.

  4. Jim,

    People kill each other all the time. However, the really horrific cases seem to be related to innate prejudices: race and sexual orientation.

    All the really horrifying cases in recent years that were not family-related were strangers torturing and killing individuals due to their race or sexual orientation. (The black man drug behind a truck. The gay man beaten, and then tied to a fence to die of exposure.)

    Things like racism seem to bring a horrible ugliness out of people.

    Doesn't mean all racists are murder and torture people. Only that those particular bugaboos bring out the absolute worst in people.

    Perhaps to clarify a little better. When someone has categorized a group of people as "other" it makes it far easier to see members of that group as less than human.

    A classmate in an ethics class who had been in the Marines said that she and her fellow Marines were trained to see the enemy as other. She said this was the only way most people can be trained to kill. IIRC, she said that if you thought about the enemy as a human being with a mother and father who would mourn their loss, most people couldn't kill another human.

    I believe that racism and homophobia allow certain individuals to place people into the "other" category.

    Does that clarify a little better?

  5. I do find it interesting that Biden is playing both sides of the coin by simultaneously running for VP while he is also running for a new term as senator. Additionally, at least so far, he has refused to debate his fellow senatorial candidates. Sounds to me like Senator Biden may be hedging his bets by playing on name recognition versus engaging on the issues. Granted his Democrat Governor could fill the senatorial position with anyone off the street if Obama/Biden is successful on Election Day, but it still makes me wonder about Senator Biden’s real dedication to accepting the VP role.

  6. Michelle, OK I understand that part, but I guess what I'm not clear on here is what brought up the racism comment in the first place, are you saying you think Biden is a racist, or that people have a bias against Obama because he's black? Or are you just making a comment about racism in general? Sorry to be obtuse, I'm having one of those days.

    Rick, agreed. And I think it's, well, if not obvious, at least there if you look for it - Biden is running for President. Which is why I said in the post, if he can keep his eyes on his job, and not his bid for president once Obama is out of office, he'll do ok. If he can't, well, he's libel to disappear at the end of Obama's first term and retire to a beach somewhere with Colin Powell - this is assuming of course that Obama becomes president.

  7. Jim,

    I am thinking that some fucknuts are going to want to assassinate Obama simply because he is black.

    Yeah, all presidents have to deal with threatening lunatics. Unfortunately, Obama has to deal with the lunatics and the racists.

    Thus, I fear there is a greater than normal probability that of Biden having to take the reins of power--even if only temporarily--than any other VP candidate in years.

    Sorry, I feel squicked out talking about assassination, so I have a hard time talking about it directly.

  8. Oh,

    Tangentially, there is something else interesting about Obama's pick of Biden for the VP slot. Biden is old enough that he won't be running for President after an Obama term--thus leaving the door open for Hillary.

    I'm betting that had as much to do with picking Biden as his foreign policy experience.

  9. Michelle, I understand what you're saying now - and I sincerely hope the Secret Service is ON THE JOB, for all our sakes.

  10. As far as Presidential survivability goes, I'm going to sort of split the difference between Jim's original comments and Michelle's observations and yet still come out closer to Michelle's endpoint.

    See, I'm optimistic about the Secret Service's ability to protect Obama, and the fact that there hasn't seemed to be a serious attempt that we know of (and no, I'm not counting those fucked-up, drugged-out wackos with the car full of guns as serious, believe it or not) suggests that maybe the country has come at least a little bit farther along since James Earl Ray.

    That said, I think Presidential candidates--even some of the great ones--have typically made weak choices for bad reasons. The Vice-President's fitness as a "spare tire" ought to be paramount even if the President is a thirty-five year old marathon runner with living centenarian grandparents and a demonstrated iron constitution. Because shit happens, and that is one of the fundamental laws of the universe: there are freak accidents, unexpected illnesses, and yes, heaven help us, there are acts of murder and war that could leave the Vice-President unexpectedly in charge. Improbability really shouldn't be the issue: people don't buy insurance because they probably will be in an accident, die, have health problems, or suffer catastrophic losses--they buy insurance because they might and the insurance is a reasonable precaution against adversity.

    Al Gore isn't perfect, but he wouldn't have been a terrible president. Dick Cheney is a bastard, but he was qualified to take over the country instantly in the event of anything from a wayward pretzel to a successful simultaneous terrorist attack on all the financial, military and political command centers of the nation. (Yes, I'm glad it never came up, but that's not the issue, see?)

    The "3 a.m." question for Vice-Presidential candidates is this: if the phone rings at 3 a.m. and a Secret Service is on one end of it with Very Bad News, Sir/Madam, who do you want answering the phone. Assuming the Justice League Of America's switchboard isn't on the list of options, natch.

    McCain isn't the first candidate to choose a weak potential president for political purposes--FDR, for instance, was pretty notorious for it. That doesn't mean it's an honorable precedent. Biden might have substantial liabilities as a President, but he's as qualified for the job as anyone might be.

    And the related question, of course, is what does the 3 a.m. Veep question say about the Presidential candidates? In my view, Obama's choice says, "If shit gets real, the country's in good hands"--I mean, Obama actually chose a guy who was fairly critical of him during the primaries, which I think suggests some decent-sized cojones and a willing to put good sense over personal vanity. McCain's choice says, "Dammit, I'm losing."


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