Biden's mission impossible
Vice President Joe Biden has one of the toughest choices in politics today. He can either stand aloof from his party's campaign collapse, or pick up the hatchet and join past vice presidents as the slasher-in-chief. If he picks up the hatchet and wields it skillfully, as so many other vice presidents have, he'll stay on the ticket in 2012. If he fails to mount a credible defense of the endangered Democratic House majority, he'll have to fight to stay.
Biden has been an impressive vice president thus far. He's no Dick Cheney, but that's been a good thing. Biden has been a mostly quiet but tough voice inside the White House on foreign and domestic policy alike. Although he's known for wandering afield and for occasional gaffes, he has taken firm control of a job known more for irrelevance than impact. He's well on course to joining the short list of great vice presidents (yes, there have been great vice presidents, including Nelson Rockefeller, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore).
The vice presidency has changed greatly since Hubert Humphrey described the post as like standing naked in a blizzard with nothing but a match to keep you warm. Biden has had all the access he can handle. He sees all the paper moving in and out of the Oval Office, has regular confidential meetings with the president, occupies prime real estate in the West Wing, and has a formidable staff.
Biden has used that access to significant effect. He shaped the final decisions toward ending the war in Afghanistan, did his share of heavy lifting on health care reform, and has played the devil's advocate on a number of lesser decisions. True, he hasn't made much noise as the designated czar to rebuild the middle class, but it is hardly his fault alone.
Biden's biggest challenge over the next six weeks is to swallow his pride and start behaving like the attack dogs who came before him. It's not an easy or pretty job, but someone has to do it. Cabinet secretaries get to talk about accomplishments, but vice presidents have to dish the dirt. That's how they earn respect inside the White House and an invitation to a second term.
Richard Nixon did just that by savaging the Democrats in the 1954 campaign and stayed on the ticket as a result; Humphrey used his formidable oratorical skills to defend at least some key seats during the 1966 midterm debacle; Spiro Agnew created an entirely new alliterative vocabulary by describing Democrats as nattering nabobs of negativism in 1970. Every vice president since has followed the script, albeit with simpler sentences. Even Dan Quayle gave it a feeble try.
At least thus far, however, Biden has been underutilized. He's been tough for sure, but has yet to hit stride. His job is not in jeopardy per se, rumors of an Obama-Clinton ticket notwithstanding. But he needs to get tougher in three ways.
First, Biden has to find a consistent message. He is always charming and friendly, but has to stay on his talking points on the impact of a Republican House majority. He has to make a clear case against the Republicans. Biden's Democratic colleagues are wrong to think that their party might benefit politically by putting Republicans in the governing crosshairs. That is proverbial whistling past the graveyard. A Republican House would make President Obama's defeat in 2012 even more likely than it already is.
Second, Biden needs to get mad, pound the lectern, and call out Republicans for their intransigence. Others have the happier task of waxing poetic about the Obama administration's achievements; Biden has to go negative.
Third, Biden needs to take his own party to task. The Democratic Party is frozen right now, unsure how to explain the jobless recovery, the rising federal debt and the recent breakdowns in government performance. They are doing more ducking than a battered prize fighter.
Blaming Republicans for all that ails the country is not a strategy; it is an excuse. Democrats have taken big money too, and have their own cozy relationships. Yes, they asked Republicans for help on the stimulus package. But Democrats had the votes to shape the agenda and used them poorly. They folded at a very low price.
Biden has more than enough talent to use a hatchet. At the same time, he has good reason to play the more comfortable role of an elder statesman. Why tarnish his career by becoming another Agnew? But somebody has to do the dirty work and push the Democratic Party to take responsibility for its own contribution to the public distrust. Biden is the one to do it. This is his mission impossible.
October 7, 2010; 7:39 PM ET |
Federal government leadership
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