Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Joe Biden Problem

Some of my earliest research into the Vice Presidency was an attempt to get a glimpse of the office from the eyes of the VP himself. Since it's been popular and profitable to do so, just about every VP since Henry Wallace has written or had written a memoir or official biography, to say nothing of the pre-campaign biographies meant to boost the exposure of said Vice President to aid the party’s standing in the national elections (see "From Kaw Teepee to Capital: The Story of Charles Curtis, Kaw, Who Has Risen to High Estate."). I urge anyone who picks up one of these books to finish it. It’s not an easy task, I can assure you, as they can be so self-serving as to miss the point of a biography – to put us, the reader, in the shoes of the person in a position with which we are unfamiliar – but it's well worth the effort, usually, at least in terms of laughs per page.

Believe it or not, Dan Quayle’s book, “Standing Firm,” self-serving though it may be, gives the reader an unexpectedly detailed (Quayle in the War Room during an emergency? Yep.) slice of the life of a man who has been painted – lets face it – as an ass. His smartest move in the book is to acknowledge that image, and his least smart move is to try too hard to convince us it isn’t true, especially when he tries to defend his side of the "You're no Jack Kennedy" debacle. A straighter narrative of his time in office would have better served his image, but for when it was written and its actual purpose, it serves us fairly well as a glimpse into the office when it was slowly gaining momentum and slight usefulness.

In his book, Dan Quayle says that he was once told that he had “The Joe Biden problem,” to which he explains that then-Senator Biden was often chided for spending his after-work hours taking the train home and staying there with his family. To his credit, Quayle was very similar, despite each man’s propensity for opposing types of outbursts. It was an exceptional tidbit to have in front of me, especially considering that I first picked the book up not long after Obama and Biden were made the clear winners in the 2008 election. The “Joe Biden problem,” though Quayle seems to have considered it a clear obstacle, worked strongly in favor of Joe Biden. It may not have gotten him elected, but in an election clearly leaning towards a need for a “man of the people,” having Joe Biden’s clear-cut history as an aging family man didn’t hurt.

How is it that being a family man could ever hurt Dan Quayle? During a time when Newt Gingrich’s new party line, of "family values" and the like was becoming the one to tow, as conservative – and was he ever – as Dan Quayle was, he came off - according to his own accounts, at least - as a kind of “Washington Outsider.” On the other, hand, Quayle pointed out that he, himself, was almost more of a party-line Republican than George H.W. Bush – a pattern one tends to find in the post-1804 days of ticket-balancing. Finding a VP candidate who fits your worldview, but who yells it to the mountaintops for you, is a long-standing tradition, at least in successful campaigns. It’s a great way for a presidential candidate to appear to be moderate while never actually having to act as such.

Biden has, in recent months, with only five months to his tenure, already been painted as close to another Dan Quayle as any Vice President since. Every mistake, slip, or misstep he makes is quickly a "gaffe," especially if being covered by the likes of Fox News. The media, whether nitpicking and trigger-happy with the editing machine, or simply telling the truth, have fairly uniformly, over the years, created convenient caricatures out of our Vice Presidents, at least as often, if not more so, than our presidents. The reason for this is fairly self-explanatory – despite the tendency on the part of comedians or commentators to mock power – it is much easier, and fun, to pick on the guy seemingly closest to the power, but who, himself, was chosen for the exact purpose of being the public’s, the media’s and the government’s whipping-boy. It’s also a way to pick on the current administration without hitting too close to home, just in case.

The characters have been obvious and fast-developing. Whether first nailed down by the likes of Conan O’Brien or of Brian Williams, we have had clear, distinct characters since Dan Quayle (Bush’s “wimp” image notwithstanding, he still had the secretiveness of a CIA “background” under his belt). Quayle himself was the Dunce, Al Gore followed as the Robot, and Dick Cheney was any number of pop culture figures, ranging anywhere from Darth Vader to Satan himself. Such caricaturing, though, is one of the many sacrifices that comes with a job with no real constitutional power. Thus far, though, Biden's "Loud Mouth," has, luckily, given the Obama administration little to fuss over.

Your accomplishments can only boost you once in the presidency. Once in the Vice President’s seat, however, all is quickly forfeited as you, alone, are singularly no more than your title. The Vice President starts at a deficit, for sure, as the “runner-up” stigma, once a fact of the presidential game, remains, perhaps erroneously, as a reminder that one of these things is not like the other. One of these things, usually, lost the primary – his reward of this position becomes equally a punishment.

For a moment, though, for the victorious voters on the side of the (usually apparent) majority, even the Vice President is a celebrity. No Vice President in recent history has likely ridden such a wave as Joe Biden. From Senator with presidential designs and a political affliction named after him to second-highest in the land, Joe Biden rose through the ranks pretty well on his own, but were it not for his most charismatic competitor-cum-counterpart, there is little likelihood he would have inspired the fanaticism on his own that his association with Barack Obama has afforded him.

This says nothing, of course, of the man’s qualifications to be president (the true measure of a VP candidate – at least, how he ought to be gauged). Though he did poorly in the primary elections (who but Obama and Hillary didn't?), not even the top of the zero-superdelegate-vote-getters, Biden had clear advantages over the other candidates. For one, he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, gunning for the office. Nor was he pretty-boy and former VP-failure (who refused the office before it was an option this time) John Edwards. He was the safest choice because he wasn’t a boat-rocker like cult-icon Dennis Kucinich, or exceptionally old for a VP.

Obama and his team obviously saw this and, likely, couldn’t help but see Biden’s clear resemblance, both physically and in demeanor, to the Centrist John McCain many had grown to love before the unexpected rightward pander that piqued at his choice of Sarah Palin as second-in-command, and decided to bring in a man that represented not only experience, but seemingly less financial means than Barack Obama.

Like most choices for VP, there is an obvious superficial side to choosing Joe Biden. At the same time, Joe Biden, as VP, seemed to be yet another of Obama’s early decisions that rode on reason. One of the longest-serving Senators when he was chosen, Biden’s pure experience didn’t just balance Obama’s apparent lack thereof, but it spoke of a decision that took into account that the Vice President should be President-in-Training, rather than just a mouthpiece. Whatever their true reasons for choosing Biden, one thing became clear when the announcement was made – men with the Joe Biden problem consistently become Vice President. I would suggest you start taking the Amtrak now to get a head start, if the VP chair is for you.

Just to make it clear, I hope it isn’t. For your sake.

Also, as for Biden, the verdict is still out, and will be until he leaves office. No free rides, Mr. Vice President.

- Jason C. Klamm, B.A.

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