Joe the Talker: Can Biden be Good until Election Day?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In some Republican circles, the battle cry for the campaign’s final week is: “Let Sarah be Sarah!”

On the leading but nail-biting Democratic side, there is a very different mantra: “Don’t let Biden be Biden (at least until after Election Day).”

Let us not peddle malarkey, to borrow a vintage Bidenism the senator used during a rally here last week: In the two months since Barack Obama asked him to join the Democratic ticket, Joe Biden, by all objective measures, has been a major plus for the Illinois senator.

He has brought genuine foreign policy gravitas. He has connected with blue-collar voters in places like Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He has been cited as a key reason for endorsing the Democratic ticket by editorial boards and GOP-leaning foreign policy hawks. His poll numbers dwarf Sarah Palin’s: He has a 60 percent favorable rating versus Palin's 44 percent in a Pew Research Center poll released Oct. 21.

In the vice presidential debate, he was so disciplined and in control that for the first half-hour, he actually seemed subdued — a word never before used in the same sentence with the name Joe Biden.

But Joe Biden is always Joe Biden — a complicated, inexplicable condition long studied and analyzed in Wilmington, Del., and on Capitol Hill but that the rest of the nation (and a new squad of Obama-Biden aides) is only now coming to realize brings new levels of complexity and danger to the political game.

For starters, the state of being Joe Biden means odd things can come out of one’s mouth — sometimes harmlessly, even endearingly, but sometimes with real consequences, as when Biden famously declared that it will “not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy.” 

Biden spokesman David Wade dismisses the ensuing contretemps — including a McCain-Palin ad and a wicked "Saturday Night Live" skit this past weekend — as contrived and meaningless. "God's honest truth: haven't heard a peep from a single voter about this malarkey,” Wade e-mailed.

But some of Wade’s colleagues on the Obama-Biden staff acknowledge privately that Biden’s comment sent shudders through the campaign — and that was before the verbal miscue vaulted Biden into a new and alarming status as a punch line for late-night comics.

The level of concern in Obamaland was evidenced by the presidential nominee himself saying publicly, in response, that “Joe sometimes engages in rhetorical flourishes.” Ouch.

There is clearly an effort to keep Biden out of trouble until after next Tuesday.

Biden’s regular traveling press hasn’t had substantive time with him in weeks. He declined to be interviewed by Politico. And he’s dodging questions about the “tests” gaffe, a risk-avoidance process so foreign to Biden’s nature that it is painful to watch.

Reporters trying to make deadline have struggled for years to get Biden to talk less, not more, about controversial issues. When he bit his tongue and walked away during a photo-op/set piece in a Charleston ice cream parlor last Friday (he sampled “Biden Thyme” sorbet), it seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

Wade points out that Biden has done 179 interviews and appeared on network morning shows after each debate, implying that it would be unfair to accuse him of Palin-like unavailability.

It would also be unfair to paint a portrait of a campaign in which Biden is viewed as a liability. He’s something of a hero to the longtime Obama troops, an old pro who has largely done what he was told, accepted the exacting political culture he came into and on occasion even impressed these young insurgents with the podium magic that made him a presidential contender 20 years ago.

But Team Obama does seem to have arrived at a very predictable point: the realization that Biden’s gifts and drawbacks are part of an unbreakable package; you don’t get one without the other. It is one thing to read clips about and watch YouTube footage of the legendary Biden verbal hiccups.

It is another to live through one — and to realize that you might have to govern through quite a few more if Obama wins.

One senior Obama aide said the campaign hopes that Biden’s weaknesses — his goofy asides and hyperbole — will work to his advantage in the long run. “It makes him real,” said the aide. It’s Biden as the dotty uncle you might not want to be cornered by after Thanksgiving dinner — but who you might want to go to for help if you were in a genuine jam.

Wade argues that the country has seen the whole Biden package and likes it just fine. “The country has seen Biden being Biden, and they've decided he'll wear well for four years,” he says.

Phil Singer, a former senior aide to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, contends that Biden’s background as a serious person with serious views on real issues shields him from long-term damage that might otherwise be caused by comments like the “tests” faux pas.

“If Biden didn’t have the kind of intellectual foundation and basic gravitas that he has, I think it would be much easier for his critics to nitpick over the comments that he’s made over the course of the race,” Singer said.

“What might have been a major blowup in cycles past, this year is not, because the priorities that voters are using to gauge the race seem to be much more serious.”

To this reporter — a longtime amateur Bidenologist observing the subject for the first time in his veep nominee role — the senior senator from Delaware seemed to be in fine and vigorous form in Charleston.

There were a modest sprinkling of Bidenisms — quotes from his father, his grandmother, his grand-daughter. A few “marlarkeys.” West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller Jr. was cited, hyperbolically, as “the single most informed person in the Senate” — a judgment Biden later amended to refer only to intelligence matters. Pennsylvania Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. became “Bobby.” One can imagine Biden, 200 years ago, wisecracking about “Tommy” Jefferson.

His stump speech — tighter than those of us who listened to him in the Senate could ever imagine — connects with working-class voters on levels that Obama’s cannot. Biden is mocked by some for playing up his ties to Scranton, Pa. — a city he left a half-century ago — but there is something of Scranton’s dust on his expensive shoes to this day. Voters here responded.

“In his history, in his belief, and in his life story, he is a West Virginian,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said, his fragile health notwithstanding, in introducing Biden. “He is no child of privilege.”

And it was Byrd who prompted a moment late in the speech the can be used to sum up the paradox that is Joe Biden.

Biden wandered from a riff about how economic disaster can rob Americans of their dignity into a meandering anecdote about Byrd and how his life encapsulates the American dream. The crowd almost visibly drifted away. The eyes of this reporter rolled.

But Biden then came back to a personal note of privilege: his memory of how Byrd traveled to Wilmington for the funeral of his wife and daughter in 1972 — and how the exalted senator “stood in the rain for two hours, waiting to get in.”

“He didn’t even know me,” Biden said as the crowd hushed. “I was just a young kid.” The point was clear: In the real world, people do such things, even for people that they don’t really know — and not too many politicians are able to remember how the real world truly feels.

It was reminiscent of a moment during the vice presidential debate, when Biden’s halting recollection of his wife and daughter’s deaths and his sudden status as a single parent became the most genuinely emotional moment of the fall campaign. In a season of artifice, it was raw and real — qualities Biden has somehow retained despite his three-plus decades in Washington.

It is a double-edged sword, of course. Last year, the very same Joe Biden called Obama “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” And in 2006, the real Joe Biden, describing the large numbers of Indian-Americans in Delaware, said: “You cannot go into a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts [in the state] without an Indian accent."

Which leads us to this conclusion: over the course of the next week, Biden could do or say almost anything — and the people who run the Obama campaign know that all too well. He also, almost assuredly, will convince a number of voters who are skittish about Barack Obama that Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. knows a little something about how they live their lives, out there beyond the talk shows and the klieg lights and the campaign balloons and bunting.

That is the world of Joe Biden being Joe Biden — a world Barack Obama now lives in, too. It is sometimes mystifying, often frustrating and occasionally moving in a way American politics seldom is.

But it is never, ever boring.

And that’s not malarkey. 

Alexander Burns contributed to this story.

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