Columns » Ernest Dumas

A shrewd choice

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Who can foretell how it will come out, but at this point Sen. Barack Obama's choice of Sen. Joe Biden is the shrewdest pick of a running mate in 50 years.

Far from demonstrating weakness, which was the Republican story line, the Democratic nominee showed strength and confidence by choosing as his junior partner the ablest candidate for president in either throng of contenders for the major party nominations. In the old days before money and charisma began to play decisive roles, Biden-Obama would have been the dream ticket, not the opposite.

Biden will not do much to help Obama carry Arkansas, but Dennis Milligan, the Arkansas Republican chairman, got to the heart of Biden's strength, though by reverse illustration. He said Obama could not have chosen anyone who would be more out of touch with Arkansans or more contrary to Arkansas values.

Now, who might better represent Arkansas values, a senator who is immensely popular with his colleagues from both parties (even Jesse Helms embraced him), who has stuck close to his working-class roots, who is legendary for being faithful and kind to his family, friends and employees, who is an acknowledged master of foreign policy and who is celebrated for his quick wit, or John McCain, to whom none of those descriptions could ever be applied? No senator from the other party, much less his own, has ever said that they lay awake at night in terror that Joe Biden might become president.

Vice presidential candidates are often chosen for their partisan instincts so that the presidential candidate can be above the fray, although few chosen for that reason were very good at carrying the fight. How could Obama pass up the man who delivered the most devastating bon mot of the 2008 campaign?

Back in October 2007 in the MSNBC Democratic debate, the moderator asked the candidates about former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's attack on Sen. Hillary Clinton — that she was not qualified to be president. Giuliani was the top-polling Republican candidate at that point.

“The irony,” Biden quipped, “is that Rudy Giuliani, probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency, is talking about any of the people here. Rudy Giuliani! I mean, think about it! Rudy Giuliani! There's only three things he mentions in a sentence — a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There's nothing else! And I mean this sincerely. He's genuinely not qualified to be president.”

No one ever summarized a candidacy so deftly. That may not have been the actual turning point, but Giuliani quickly sank like a sumo wrestler in an Olympic diving contest.

Biden ought to fill a serious void in the Democratic campaign, a reluctance to take on John McCain and the Republicans on what McCain maintains and seems to actually believe is their strong point — foreign policy and national security. Irrational as it seems, it is the single advantage McCain enjoys in the polls. He was one of the architects of the most disastrous diplomatic and war policies in history. Yet Democrats, including Obama, worry that McCain can make it stick that criticism of the administration's conduct of war and foreign policy exhibits a lack of patriotism and solidarity with the troops.

McCain ought to be terrified of the issue, and Biden has been about the only Democrat who believes that, too. No one, not even Biden, has been consistently right about the war. Biden, like most Democrats, voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to invade Iraq but first he and Sen. Richard Lugar, the chairman and ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, tried to persuade the Senate to force the administration to exhaust diplomatic efforts before invading. He later acknowledged that it was all a grave error.

Biden was asked on MSNBC in May if Democrats could be trusted on national security. He literally erupted.

“I refuse to sit back like we did in 2000 and 2004,” he said. “This administration is the worst administration on American foreign policy in modern history — maybe ever. The idea that they are competent to continue to conduct our foreign policy, to make us more secure and make Israel secure, is preposterous. Every single thing they've touched has been a near disaster.”

It has never been done, but there ought to be a foreign-policy debate between the Democratic vice presidential candidate and the Republican presidential candidate, who believes in the Bush policy more devotedly than the president. No one could argue convincingly then that it was a strength for McCain.

 

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