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The Case Against The Case Against Biden

It's 48 days until the election. Do you know where your vice presidential candidate is? If you're a Democrat, you probably don't. Ever since John McCain tapped Sarah Palin as his running mate on August 29, Joe Biden has been AWOL from the national consciousness.

That hasn't necessarily been for a lack of effort on his part. In the 14 days following Palin's nomination, Biden gave 54 interviews or press conferences, but it was Palin's one interview during that time--with ABC's Charlie Gibson--that got its own primetime special. This past Monday, Biden gave a barnburner of a speech in Michigan that finally made a compelling and coherent economic case for Obama--a speech that was so good it prompted my normally mild-mannered colleague Jon Cohn to curse in approval. But other than Jon, hardly anyone seemed to notice. Meanwhile, Palin made headlines that day with the ho hum announcement that, if elected, she'll focus on energy issues, government reform, and helping families with special needs children.

Things have gotten so bad for Biden that on Sunday The Washington Post ran a long article on his struggles that included these devastating two grafs:

[T]he buzz around Palin has left Biden largely obscured and generating so little attention that some Democrats are questioning whether he was the right pick.

When asked about Biden's impact, Democratic pollster Doug Schoen said: "What impact? The best thing you can say about Biden is he has no discernible impact. It's like it's two against one."

So, was Biden the right pick? I still think the answer is yes.

Granted, the fact that the Obama campaign has always referred to Biden's selection as a "governing decision" is evidence enough of the pick's political problems. For a presidential candidate who's based his campaign on a promise of change and having been right about the Iraq War, it's certainly not ideal to have a running mate who's been in the Senate for 35 years and who voted for the war. And then there's Biden's unfortunate habit of sticking his foot in his mouth, which he's already done plenty of in his short time as the veep nominee. (My personal favorite is when, as the NYT soberly reported, "Mr. Biden urged a paraplegic state official to stand up to be recognized.")

But the truth is, there's no one Obama could have picked as his running mate--save maybe for George Clooney--who could have won the battle for attention with Palin over these last few weeks. Even Hillary Clinton--the preferred veep choice among many of Biden's harshest critics, including one HuffPost-er who's urging Obama to dump Biden for her now--would have been swamped by Palinpalooza. Sure, the press would have paid attention to Hillary initially, but once she demonstrated that she had no interest in engaging in a "cat fight" with Palin, reporters would have turned their full attention back to the newbie from Alaska. Her story is simply too fresh--and too weird--for them to ignore.

At least for now. As the campaign goes on and Palin becomes a more familiar figure, the Palin bubble is likely to deflate. Indeed, you can already see Palin fatigue setting in among voters, with her favorability ratings plunging over the last week. And the moment Palin stops selling magazines or boosting TV ratings or generating page views, you can bet the press will go back to covering her the same way they cover an American Idol winner who isn't making news with a "platonic baby-making partner"--in other words, not that much. (When was the last time you heard much about Ruben Studdard?)

And that's when the advantages of the Biden pick will come more clearly into focus. Because even the Obama campaign's description of that pick as a "governing decision" is, of course, political posturing. Yes, Biden doesn't have the celebrity wattage of Palin, but in the midst of an economic crisis and two wars, it's likely that voters are ultimately not going to be making their pick on star power. Which is why Obama needed Biden for political reasons as much as governing ones: His longtime service in Washington, his penchant for running at the mouth, even (in a strange way) his vote for the war all serve as important bits of ballast for voters who worry that Obama's too inexperienced, too aloof, and even too fuzzy-headed.

It's hard to imagine now--not after reading things like the WaPo's recent series about a vice presidency run amok--but it was only eight years ago that Dick Cheney performed this same sort of balancing function for George W. Bush. For voters who were worried that Bush was too green, too cocky, too impulsive, Cheney quelled their doubts. His calming influence was, as Nicholas Lemann memorably described it in the early days of the Bush administration, like "a powerful timed dosage of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors." (I'm not quite sure what psychopharmaceutical you'd compare Cheney to today. Probably something that never made it to market because clinical trials revealed that it had disastrous side-effects.) Democrats obviously wouldn't want Biden to be the sort of vice president Cheney turned out to be, but he could do worse than being the sort of veep candidate Cheney was in 2000.

And I think that once people begin paying attention to Biden again--which they will by October 2, the date of the vice presidential debate, if not sooner--they'll find a candidate who may not have Palin's pluck, but who radiates the sort of expertise and commanding presence that are politically advantageous in times like these.

Don't believe me? Why don't you see for yourself? If you're a Democrat and you're wondering where your veep candidate is 48 days before the election, he's in Ohio giving a couple of speeches. You should check them out. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Jason Zengerle