When Joe Biden was an undersized kid in Pennsylvania coal country, he relished a good scrap.
Granted, the Democrats this week are talking so much about “the scrapper from Scranton” that the moniker is already threatening to become a cliché, and hence devalued. But it just so happens that childhood stories about Biden are truly abundant – as first reported 16 years ago by Richard Ben Cramer, in his seminal book on campaign politics, What It Takes.
For instance: “Joey was always quick….Once Joey set his mind, it was like he didn’t think at all – he just did. That’s why you didn’t want to fight him. Most guys who got into a fight, they’d square off, there’d be a minute or so of circling around, while they jockeyed for position. Joey didn’t do that. He decided to fight – BANGO – he’d punch the guy in the face.”
That’s a key reason why Barack Obama ultimately decided to put Biden on the ticket. And those pugilistic instincts were on display during Biden’s acceptance speech last night, when he barked like an attack dog and bared his teeth at John McCain. Biden has been tasked to make this campaign a referendum on McCain, to strip away the phony “maverick” image and redefine McCain in accordance with the facts - as a conventional conservative Republican - for the millions of voters who actually know very little about the guy (aside from a noun, a verb, and POW).
“We’ve known each other for three decades,” Biden said of his Senate friend, thereby establishing that he can critique McCain with considerable authority, starting with the fact that “John” has voted in sync, 95 percent of the time, with one of the worst presidents in history. Biden noted, among other things, that McCain has repeatedly voted against raising the minimum wage, a factoid deliberately tailored for the working-class voter who is wary of Obama.
He tapped his foreign policy creds to argue that “the Bush-McCain foreign policy” has actually made us “less secure.” (The Republicans will push back hard on that one, but at least Biden signaled that, for once, the Democrats will try to go on offense.) He also pointed out that McCain is actually to the right of Bush on Iraq (if that’s possible), because the latter is inching toward establishing a troop withdrawal timetable with Iraq – something that McCain, ever focused on “victory,” has largely dismissed. And Biden managed to honor and dismiss McCain’s POW experience in the same sentence: “These times require more than a good soldier; they require a wise leader.”
Biden’s address wasn’t flawless, of course. He rightfully referred to Afghanistan and Pakistan as “the real central front on terrorism,” but took care not to mention that he’d voted to authorize war in Iraq, thereby making it tougher to militarily contest the central front. Meanwhile, he made only a semi-lame attempt to supersede his summer ’07 remark about how Obama was too inexperienced for the presidency; now that Biden has seen the light, he thinks that the Democratic primaries were sufficient experience: “You can learn an awful lot about a man campaigning with him, debating with him, and seeing how he reacts under pressure. You learn about the strength of his mind.”
And, yes, Biden reminded us (after we’d already been reminded multiple times) that he rides the train from Washington back to Delaware every night (message: he’s not a Washington insider). Indeed, I have seen him glad-handing up and down the aisles on a number of occasions. On the other hand, if anyone took the time to tally the roundtrip costs of riding the Metroliner/Acela five nights a week, I promise you that the tab would be way too steep for the average working stiff.
Nevertheless, as evidenced last night, Biden, by dint of those scrappy roots, is clearly adept at speaking conversationally to that selfsame working stiff. He seemed to connect best with the audience in the hall (and perhaps with viewers at home) when he riffed about what regular folks are probably saying at their kitchen tables: “Should mom move in with us now that dad’s gone? Fifty, sixty, seventy dollars just to fill the gas tank, how in God’s name, with winter coming, how are we going to heat the home? Another year, no raise, did you hear they may be cutting our health care at the company?”
No doubt, Democrats are hoping that this veep candidate will turn out better than the last two; Joe Lieberman and John Edwards are being reviled in absentia at these festivities. Biden does tend to come on strong; you can run your thumb over that volume button whenever he’s on the tube. But, arguably more than anything else, Obama and the Democrats need to forge an emotional, visceral connection with the financially strugglng voters who might make all the difference in November. In a typical election, to be sure, running mates are rarely pivotal players. But if Biden can help Obama achieve that key objective, then BANGO.