Can Joe Biden Save Barack Obama?
People are underestimating the veep. They shouldn’t.
Biden quit the race and followed the pattern of senators who’d had their dreams crushed in front of national TV audiences. He focused on the work. In his subsequent debates, as he grayed and aged, Biden developed a debate technique that was half passion and half statistics, spit out as from a T-shirt cannon. In 1996, Biden drew a challenge from Raymond “Ray” Clatworthy, a Delaware businessman with no political experience. These debates give us the Biden we recognize, joshing with two fringe candidates, alternating between offense at Clatworthy’s personal attacks and offense at his ignorance.
In the first debate, the candidates took seats at a table and leaned forward to attack. Clatworthy was a factoid machine, repeating numbers and votes and ratings that made Biden sound like the greatest living threat to the Treasury. Biden kept his hand on his chin, jumping in to accuse Clatworthy of making up numbers. At one point Clatworthy claimed that Americans for Democratic Action rated Biden the most liberal senator. “On spending, Ray?” asked Biden. “The ADA gives me 95 percent on spending? You’re mixin’ your apples and oranges, Ray.”
Later, at that table, Clatworthy tried to thread the needle on his abortion stance. He opposed Roe; he would limit abortion through sound legislation. Biden interrupted him, mocking his callousness. “How would you do it?” he asked. “If you don’t mind my saying, how would you do it? If you get here, within three months you’ll have to vote on this. Will you vote yes on a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion?”
The Clatworthy debates give us a better idea of Biden’s style than the Palin debate of 2008. That match-up was sui generis. Biden’s job then: Just don’t do anything that would make a swing voter root for the put-upon Hockey Mom. But Biden’s job, in his Senate races, was to humiliate Republicans by pointing out how cruel their policies were, and how little they knew. Abortion and women’s safety issues, which he could never deploy against Palin, are the tools he knows best. When Biden meets Ryan tonight, it would be out of character if he didn’t try to mire him in a discussion of pro-life bills and “legitimate rape.” Plenty of pols use soft language when they have to discuss those issues. Biden doesn’t.
Really, whenever an issue can be mined for pathos, Biden thrives. In the second Clatworthy debate, after the Republican failed to trap the senator into a joint PAC money-pledge press conference (“See if anyone shows up and pays attention to you,” said Biden), moderators switched the discussion to entitlements. It was 1996, and the fiscal problem du jour was whether to balance the budget by 1999 or by 2002. Clatworthy suggested that a privatized Social Security system and privatized Veterans Affairs administration would be more efficient. Biden reacted like he’d just heard a Tourettes patient question the death toll of the Holocaust. “Unlike any other section of the economy, we guaranTEE the veterans,” he said, flashing his teeth on the exaggerated final syllable. “GuaranTEE a contract for their health care. Is the private market going to guaranTEE that?”
Biden was saying this to a novice, slightly clammy opponent. Paul Ryan is several leagues better than the businessman with the talking points. “He will spout figures with winsome authority,” predicts Jonathan Chait, “and Biden will come off an angry old man.”
Absolutely, that could happen. Also possible: Biden could show the pulse that hairshirted Democrats wanted Barack Obama to show last week. Obama’s a bore when he talks about legislating. Biden can brag in detail about Democratic bills like they’re his grown children heading off for college. Presented with the choice to mellow out or to emote about the threat of Republicanism, he always walks through Door No. 2.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.