Settling for Biden

True, Senator Biden's Washington experience—especially on national security—can help Obama. But flaws in other potential picks, like those Democrats with military service, made Biden the most risk-averse choice.

It's 3 a.m. on Saturday and do you know who Senator Obama's running mate is? At that proverbial hour in this election cycle, the Obama campaign finally announced its choice for the ticket, expected with much anticipation since Wednesday morning. If a President Obama should be confronted at that symbolic hour with a crisis abroad, he would have by his side a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has presided over fifty hearings since January, 2007. Neither a realist nor a liberal nor a neo-conservative, Senator Joseph Biden is perceived to be a pragmatic internationalist who supported the NATO campaign in the Balkans and in 2002 voted in favor of giving President Bush authority to use force in Iraq.

At the very least, the Obama campaign has demonstrated a degree of media cunning in building anticipation and announcing its choice for its newest recruit. And Biden displayed an uncharacteristic ability to remain quiet. (He was reportedly notified on Thursday.) The Biden roll-out curiously fused the most notable aspects of the Clinton and Bush presidencies: savoir faire with the press and a hermetic discipline to keep a secret. The Biden and Obama camp so effectively guarded against any leak that, pending the announcement, a little-known Representative from Texas (Chet Edwards) was suddenly catapulted to Google News stardom on Friday, after a rumor that he was Obama's chosen one gained considerable momentum. Inside the beltway, an unknowable number of people were becoming quick studies of that obscure legislator.

Of the names on the short-list, Biden seemed the choice for Obama if he was going to use the ticket to compensate for his relative inexperience and select a candidate with national recognition. His knowledge of, and perhaps entrenchment in, the Washington machinery could prove useful to Obama. And Biden seems considerably more hard-scrabble than Obama has thus far demonstrated. Biden is also a skilled debater. And if it is true that a pithy barb can help decide an election as some observers argue (recall President Reagan's "There you go again"), Biden just may be the candidate to deliver. For instance, he memorably summed up former Gov. Rudy Guiliani's shortcoming: "There are only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9-11."

General Attraction

Unfortunately, some of Biden's comments are memorable for less positive reasons. The Obama camp will be kept plenty busy dealing with the downside of picking Biden. The question remains, then: why did the campaign formulate the short list the way it did? Why did it apparently not include a single candidate with a military background? Such a candidate could have given the ticket the heft of experience, along with all the cultural appeal that a military background lends; in many parts of the country that is of considerable importance.

Virginia Senator Jim Webb (who has broad appeal but was, similar to Biden, not ideally suited temperamentally) took himself out of consideration. General Wesley Clark could have been a compelling option, but he was reportedly not seriously considered. Some of Clark's statements may have made him politically unviable, but unfairly so, since the press largely took them out of context. Last month, only after his interviewer Bob Schieffer noted that Obama had never "ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down" did Clark make the much-publicized statement: "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president." Indeed, it would be difficult to logically make an argument to the contrary. Clark made the comments after stating that he honored McCain's service as a prisoner of war and that the senator was "a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war."

And in January 2007, some of Clark's comments were unfairly billed as anti-Semitic. Arianna Huffington asked Clark why he believed a military campaign in Iran was likely. He said: "You just have to read what's in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers." Clark, whose father was Jewish, was lamenting the impact of money on politics and policy in Israel and the potential for that impact to distort the will of the Israeli people.

The executive director of the Republican Jewish Committee, Matthew Brooks, distorted Clark's comments by saying: "That kind of language, based on old stereotypes about Jews, feeds into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish power. Clark's remarks were hurtful, damaging, and wrong, and Wesley Clark should apologize to the American Jewish community for saying them." But Clark was clearly lamenting the impact of money within the Jewish state, not about Jewish power within the United States, which is the focus of those anti-Semitic theories Brooks mentions.

So Obama can perhaps thank the media for making it more or less impossible for him to consider Clark, by often failing to clarify the context or clear intent of the statements. And while it is true that Clark may not be as scrappy a contender as the irascible and agile Biden, Clark does not have Biden's record of making gaffes that are difficult to defend even when put into their full context. With both Webb and Clark non-starters, Obama was hard put to find a Democratic military man of stature.

Biden versus Obama