You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

That's the Ticket!

Why loquacious Delaware senator Joe Biden is a terrific vice-presidential pick for Barack Obama.

It’s a great pick! He connects with blue-collar voters and reassures voters worried about Barack Obama’s foreign policy inexperience.

It’s a lousy pick! He’s prone to gaffes and, as a senior member of the Senate, steps on the message of change.

In the next few days, pundits will be obsessing over the political impact of putting Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket. But the more important questions are the more tangible ones. Is Biden qualified to serve as an advisor to the president and, in an emergency, his stand-in? What does this selection tells us about the way Obama makes decisions?

The answer to the first question is unambiguously “yes.” Start with the resume: Biden first came to the Senate in 1973, after a brief career in local government. He rose through ranks, eventually becoming chairman of the judiciary committee, a position he occupied from 1987 through 1995. In 1997, he became ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations a Committee, which he chairs today. As a result of this experience, Biden can boast of real policy expertise--and genuine accomplishments. Chief among them are the Violence Against Women’s Act, which he sponsored and eventually shepherded to passage as part of the 1994 crime bill, and American intervention in the Balkans, for which he was an early and influential advocate.

Biden’s history of public service has its blemishes, too. After masterminding the defeat of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987, he famously botched the hearings for Clarence Thomas, presiding over a spectacle that somehow managed both to confirm a deeply conservative judge while making himself, and many liberals, seem insensitive to the concerns of women. Biden also voted for the Iraq War. He did so more reluctantly than some other Democrats, openly decrying President Bush's doctrine of preemption and promoting (with Republican Senator Richard Lugar) a measure that would have authorized war only to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. But when that effort failed, Biden voted for the final, broader resolution--thereby breaking with more prescient colleagues like Carl Levin and Jack Reed, who thought Bush hadn't made the case for war. Most recently, Biden supported the strongly anti-consumer 2005 bankruptcy law, although that was presumably a typical act of local political boosterism. (Delaware is home to the credit card industry.)

For many Washington insiders, it’s Biden’s words--not his votes--that deserve scrutiny. His promising 1988 presidential bid ended quickly following revelations he’d used quotes from other famous politicians, without attribution, and that he had a habit of exaggerating his past exploits. And while those transgressions are old news, might a general election campaign bring forth new ones? It’s a legitimate worry. The Obama campaign doesn’t need those sorts of distractions--not now and not for the next four years, should the Democrats win in November.

And yet as politically unfortunate as those instances have been, the more important question is what they reveal about Biden’s character and leadership qualities. I have no special reporting insights here, but the consensus that emerges from past writings about him--including the descriptions in Battle for Justice, Ethan Bronner’s account of the Bork hearings--is that Biden suffered from an acute case of intellectual insecurity. The boasts, in this view, reflected Biden’s constant fear that he would be perceived as a lightweight, either because of his (then) youth or lack of top intellectual credentials. (He graduated from the University of Delaware and, later, Syracuse Law School.) Biden is older now. Washington considers him, legitimately, an elder statesman. One can imagine--or at least hope--that the insecurity has waned over time.

And even if it hasn’t, it’s important to put this character flaw in context. Biden may have stretched the truth about his own accomplishments, but that’s a far lesser sin--at least in my book--than calculating every move based on political expediency or using high office to gain personal wealth. And there’s no sign that Biden has ever been prone to these sorts of problems. On the contrary, his political history suggests real courage on behalf of important, but controversial, causes. Biden had to fight for both VAWA and the Balkans intervention. As for using office to get rich, Biden’s record looks to be squeaky clean. Based on public disclosure forms, he is the least wealthy member of the U.S. Senate. It’s a reflection of his working-class roots--and the everyman sensibility that remains one of his most endearing characteristics. But it’s also a tribute to Biden’s virtue. Such a long tenure in office, surely, has presented ample opportunities for graft and shady dealings.

So Biden is not just qualified for the job. He is very qualified for the job. He can help Obama govern; should the unthinkable happen, he would make a capable and trustworthy commander-in-chief himself. But what does this tell us about Obama and how he makes decisions?

Political considerations surely played a major role in Obama’s thinking. If you believe what you read, he had higher regard for--and a closer relationship with--several other contenders, including Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, and Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed. But voters might have rejected a ticket with Kaine or Sebelius, concluding it lacked sufficient experience in national and international politics. Reed, an Army veteran and highly respected lawmaker, didn’t have that problem. But he’s notoriously dull.

But it’s unlikely politics were Obama primary motivation. If they had been, Obama might well have selected Evan Bayh, whose presence on the ticket would have put Indiana into play and--as a result--reshaped the electoral map. (Among other things, it would have drained McCain’s financing, by forcing him to advertise in the expensive Chicago television market.) But Bayh, although a perfectly respectable senator, is not exactly a heavyweight. He claims no policy area as expertise; he has no major law or initiative that he can claim as an accomplishment. There’s nothing terribly wrong with Bayh but there’s nothing terribly right with him, either. It’s been said that Bayh was the “safe” candidate--and, as a political matter, that’s true. But given his less than sterling record, putting him a heartbeat away from the presidency would have actually been a little risky.

Biden’s choice presents real risks for Obama, too--and not just political. Biden can be difficult. He speaks his mind, even when he has nothing nice to say. But if that sometimes makes conversations uncomfortable, it also makes them valuable. Obama has always said he didn’t want a “yes” man--that he wanted a vice president who would challenge him intellectually and promote a vigorous debate about policy decisions. It’s precisely the sort of environment that the current White House lacks. By choosing Biden, Obama tells us he’s serious about that change.

One other, perhaps less appreciated, virtue of the Biden choice is what it says about Obama philosophically. Biden can be counted upon to play the role of house dissenter and skeptic. But he does so as somebody whose fealty to the basic values of the Democratic Party is not in doubt. On a wide range of issues, from economics to the courts to national security, Biden has compiled a record that would please the majority of progressives. Liberal groups generally give him good scores for supporting their agendas, particularly on economic issues.*

Conservatives will blast this record, just as surely as liberals will (or should) celebrate it. But one of the virtues of having Biden as the vice presidential nominee is that he won’t take those kinds of attacks lightly. He’ll fight back. He’ll remind people, rightly, that being a liberal Democrat means raising the minimum wage, making sure everybody has affordable health care, providing strong public schools, and protecting human rights. Then, he’ll ask why conservative Republicans don’t want the same things. That’s exactly the kind of political debate this country needs. By picking Biden as a running mate, Obama has signaled that he welcomes this argument--and intends, finally, to win it.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic and the author of Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis--And the People Who Paid the Price.

*This article originally mentioned that Biden's rating from Americans for Democratic Action was "a perfect 100, just like Obama's." But ADA spokesman David Card points out that 100 is last year's score. This year he got a 75, which is actually his lifetime rating, as well. Biden tends to be more conservative on social and foreign policy than he is on economic policy; that helps account for the lower ratings. But the trend (notwithstanding this latest ADA rating) has been for him to grow more liberal over time, as this National Journal analysis shows.