Monday, April 8, 2013

Resuscitating Joe Biden

Barack Obama surprised millions of people when he nominated Joe Biden to be the Democratic Party's vice-presidential candidate. Both Biden's friends and his enemies considered Biden's political career to be long over. Inertia alone had kept Biden in the Senate for several terms after his failed 1988 bid for the presidency. He had done little of note since that time.

When Biden announced that he was seeking to be his party's presidential candidate in June 1987, he was on the young side. Had he won that election, only Teddy Roosevelt and JFK would have been younger upon assuming the office. But Biden quickly made himself an albatross around his party's neck - an embarrassment because of his pompous tendency to take himself very seriously, combined with a rhetorical ineptitude which either left him explaining and apologizing for his own remarks, or left him as the butt of political humorists who capitalized on his gaffes.

When Michael Dukakis, who was also seeking the nomination, assembled a weak case against Biden based on alleged plagiarism - Biden borrowed a phrase from a British politician - the party eagerly seized on the charge, ignoring its flimsiness, because it urgently needed to get rid of Biden to save whatever credibility the party might have had left. Dukakis, himself a weak candidate, went on to lose the presidential election in a record landslide.

From that point forward, the power-brokers within the Democratic Party saw Biden as unmarketable. He was increasingly regarded as a buffoon and little more. Thus it was that Obama's selection came as a shock to many observers.

To win the 2008 election, Obama would need to do a lot of damage repair to Biden's public image. As the media, which had paid diminishing attention to Biden during the previous decade, looked again more closely at Biden, blemishes appeared on his reputation. Historian Ann Coulter writes:

both the brother and son of Barack Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, were accused by a former business partner of defrauding him out of millions of dollars. Two lawsuits were filed against them in June 2008. That was mentioned on page A-9 of the Washington Post in August. By Election Day, the New York Times still had not reported the lawsuit.

Scandals surrounding Biden's family might be deemed irrelevant, were it not for the contributions from them into Biden's campaigns. Obama's handlers, however, skillfully repaired the damage, however, by persuading the Washington Post to downplay the scandal, and persuading the New York Times not to tell the voters about it at all. Obama's campaign skill trumped Biden's tendency to land in trouble.

It would likewise be the Obama campaign's skill at handling the press which got Biden out of a different problem. In 2006,

Democratic senator Joe Biden told a questioner of Indian descent at a town hall in New Hampshire, "You cannot go into a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking." Biden's line was treated, as it should have been, as a buffoonish comment from a harmless fool. Indeed, Biden's repeated gaffes didn't even prevent him from being chosen as Barack Obama's running mate in 2008.

Once again, the Democratic Party persuaded the press to downplay or overlook Biden's odd remarks. The party which had practically disowned him earlier now used it resources to rescue him. Being nominated by Barack Obama may have been the best thing that ever happened to Joe Biden. The party which had rejected his bid in 1988 now went to work to salvage him. The Obama campaign reigned in the press and put the news media into his service.

Thus the astounding rebirth of Joe Biden, back into the American political landscape. But why would Obama have taken such an unlikely individual and placed him again into the nation's civic life? The answer may lie in money.

Like most members of his party, Biden is significantly richer than the average American. In 2006, Biden's total income was $248,459 - but in that same year, the national median household income was $8,201. In 2007, Biden's income was $319,853 - while the median American household had to make do with $50,233.

Although Biden places comfortably into the top 1 percent of incomes in the United States, his income is small compared only to his fellow party members. Barack Obama is comfortably a multi-millionaire, as are Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid. John Kerry, on the other hand, is a multi-billionaire. Similar wealth levels extend throughout the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Biden, then, while being richer than 99% of citizens in the United States, has a humbly small income relative to his party's leaders, allowing him to portray himself as "the common man" or "one of us." Yet, at the same time, Biden has not-so-visible connections to donors with deep pockets: the people who fund campaigns. Hence the interest in Biden's son and brother.

Although Biden is a liability when he's in public - the Democratic Party leadership winces whenever he speaks on camera or before a crowd - behind the scenes he have some influence and important connections.

So Obama unearthed and resuscitated Joe Biden's political career, surprising many observers, and utilizing his party's influence among the news media to hide Biden's personal and professional shortcomings. But it was calculation, not whimsy, which caused Obama drag this unlikely political fossil into the limelight: Biden brought with him a shadowy underground network of campaign supporters, and Obama's 2008 campaign would swim in more cash than any other American political candidate in history. Obama had not merely more wealth, but several times more wealth, for his campaign than candidates of either party were accustomed to having.