Vice presidents are a vestigial limb of politics. The position persists even though a vice presidential candidate rarely carries a state, leads a constituency or even commands a portfolio beyond whatever he negotiates ad hoc with the principal.
Once in office, a few vice presidents have been notably troublesome. Dan Quayle was just too lightweight to pass muster, which is why an added “e” on “potato” caused such a stir; there was little substance to counterbalance the gaffe. Spiro Agnew was corrupt. Dick Cheney was sufficiently toxic after having led the cheer for war in Iraq, and for torture in black sites around the world, that he volunteered to resign, telling President George W. Bush that he would bow out for “medical reasons” should Bush request it.
On the other hand, Joe Biden is about as good as vice presidents get. Born into a working-class family in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he has the bouncing personality of a Saint Bernard; he’s lovable enough to cast a warm glow even on Barack Obama’s cool restraint. A bearhugging veteran of 36 years in the Senate, he knows how to reach across the aisle, and he passed a raft of legislation during his career.
As a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, he can’t see Russia from his house, but he can tell you an awful lot about it -- and about Iraq and Afghanistan, too. His natural exuberance survived the death of his young wife and 1-year-old daughter when a truck hit their car in 1972; and it helped him through his own eight-month ordeal recovering from a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 1988.
Penchant for Gaffes
Biden has a penchant for gaffes, hyperbole and the politically incorrect utterance, slightly muffing crime statistics, for example, on a recent trip to Flint, Michigan. The Republican posse, led by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, has been up in arms over Biden’s comment that rapes and murders will increase if President Obama’s jobs bill isn’t passed.
It’s not clear just how impolitic the remark really was. Biden’s been surrounding himself with firefighters and police officers as he goes around talking up the president’s jobs bill, which would provide roughly $30 billion to state and local governments to help retain some 400,000 teachers, and an additional $5 billion to help keep 18,000 police officers and 7,000 firefighters on the job.
At an event in Philadelphia, he responded to complaints that the additional funding would provide only a “temporary” fix.
“Let me tell you, it’s not temporary when that 911 call comes in and a woman’s being raped,” Biden said, “if a cop shows up in time to prevent the rape. It’s not temporary to that woman. It’s not temporary to the guy whose store is being held up and a gun is being pointed to his head, if a cop shows up and he’s not killed. That’s not temporary to that store owner. Give me a break -- temporary.”
After six terms in the Senate, Biden can remember plenty of times when the parties worked together. Two of his signature pieces of legislation, the Violence Against Women Act and the COPS bill, which put 88,000 more police officers on the street, both passed in 1994 with help from Republicans. Now, he recognizes that Republicans are practicing political cryonics. They intend to immerse the economy in liquid nitrogen, then revive it only after they have captured the White House in 2012.
Rumor of Switch
The minor furor over Biden’s remarks, meanwhile, plays into the game of whether Obama will dump his vice president in an act of political expediency. One rumor has Obama switching out the garrulous Biden for his disciplined secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in an effort to shore up his standing with working class white women and men.
This makes no sense. Biden’s blue-collar roots and gift of gab may provide fodder to late-night comedians, but they are genuine political assets. In flying off-script in Philadelphia, he exposed Republican hypocrisy. Are Republicans so twisted by their hunger for the White House that they don’t hear themselves arguing that more police on the beat won’t reduce crime? When Biden put officers on the street with the COPS bill, Republicans joined him in making the same argument he makes now.
How would dumping Biden improve Obama’s standing? Moving Biden to the State Department in a switch with Clinton would introduce risk into Obama’s electoral equation without any promise of reward. Biden’s no Quayle, and he’s no Cheney. He’s done everything he’s been asked to do and done it well. This veep’s a keeper.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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