Biden: The Good, Great, Bad and Ugly

Joe Biden brings a host of assets to the Barack Obama campaign - chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; working class Irish Catholic roots; toughness on the stump; and the crucial, if difficult to describe, attribute of likability.

At the same time, the five-term Delaware Senator carries some baggage, including two alleged incidents of plagiarism; an episode of resume inflation; a tendency to shoot from the mouth - only sometimes on target; and the dubious distinction of becoming the first national party nominee with known hair plugs.

That said, the Biden choice is likely to be far less consequential to the outcome on Election Day than the current flurry of commentary suggests. Although political analysts and political scientists have explored the importance of vice presidential picks, "the quantitative research finds nothing," notes MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III. "You can't even really say that there's a 'first do no harm' principle involved, since there are plenty of examples of 'problematic' vice presidential choices, running from Johnson (alienated Kennedy's core) to Bush I (alienated Reagan's core) to Quayle (lightweight boy blunder)."

With that caveat, Stewart went on to remark, "it's clear that the Obama campaign felt they needed a forceful voice in foreign policy, with Georgia rekindling thoughts of a new cold war, and a bulldog on working class issues. Expect a lot of foreign policy pronouncement with Altoona, Pa. on the dateline."

Biden was born in Scranton -- just the kind of hard-scrabble, working class community found all over Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio where Obama most needs to improve his margins. When Biden was 10, he moved to Delaware, where his father sold cars. Like many Irish pols, he does not mince words when on the attack:

"This guy is brain dead," Biden declared about President Bush while campaigning in July in Iowa. "This is a guy who is on the balls of his heels, here's a guy who is lower off in the polls than any president in modern history."

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, was ecstatic: "Solid choice, great working-class roots."

The McCain campaign, however, immediately leapt on Biden's willingness to criticize adversaries and his occasional tendency to throw caution to the winds.

In an ad put up on Saturday, McCain shows Biden on July 19, 2007 on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos: "You were asked is [Obama] he ready. You said 'I think he can be ready, but right now I don't believe he is. The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training.'" Biden: "I think that I stand by the statement."

In addition, the McCain web site quotes Biden on the August 7, 2007 Diane Rehm show, "If the Democrats think we're going to be able to nominate someone who can win without that person being able [bring to the] table unimpeachable credentials on national security and foreign policy, I think we're making a tragic mistake."

It's doubtful, however, that Biden's campaign critiques of Obama will be held against him: every time a nominee has chosen a primary opponent to join the ticket (Reagan-Bush, Kerry-Edwards), the opposition has tried to use attacks made in the heat of campaigning, almost always to little effect.

In addition, McCain now appears to be leaning toward Mitt Romney as his VP pick and, if he does make that choice, there are numerous Romney quotes about McCain that will come back to haunt him.

Many of the people interviewed about the Biden choice - Republicans, Democrats and political scientists - cited the conflict between the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and Russia, and the potential for a conflagration overseas, as a crucial factor in Obama's choice of a running mate with extensive knowledge of international affairs.

Republicans are countering by suggesting that Biden's knowledge of foreign policy focuses attention on Obama's weakness in this area:

"It's a good pick for Obama, for he clearly realizes, that more and more voters don't see him with the experience and skills to handle the most important part of the Presidency-foreign policy," said Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman. "His problem is folks vote for a President not the VP."

Republican media maven Alex Castellanos started gently: "Good solid political choice," he said, before sticking in the knife: "The grey hair, maturity and foreign policy credentials help, of course, balancing Obama's Benjamin Button-like campaign, where he has grown more innocent and inexperienced before our eyes. It is a good safe establishment choice, much like Dean Smith at Chapel Hill running the 4-corners offense. It's a great way to protect a 20 point lead. The problem is Obama doesn't have a 20 point lead."

Some of the immediate media commentary elaborated on similar themes, a development the McCain campaign was quick to pick up on and send out in emails:

"The Associated Press's Ron Fournier: 'The Candidate Of Change Went With The Status Quo... He picked a 35-year veteran of the Senate -- the ultimate insider -- rather than a candidate from outside Washington.' ABC's Jake Tapper: 'Obama is running on the slogan 'Change we can believe in,' but the freshman senator selected as his running mate a six-term senate institution, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware'."

No slouches, the Obama campaign beat back the McCain folks in the email wars:

"Des Moines Register (David Yepsen): 'It's a choice that should help Obama in Iowa, a battleground state...Picking Biden is a solid choice that adds political savvy, national security experience and a pit bull campaigner to Obama's ticket.' Washington Post (Dan Balz): 'Still, Biden brings far more to the ticket than foreign policy experience. He has a powerful personal story... Biden's record in the area of crime and the judiciary is another asset Democrats can point to that will go beyond his foreign policy credentials.'

Democratic strategist Jim Jordan told the Huffington Post that Biden is:

"The best possible pick. Not only does he, of course, bring the right resume to the team with respect to foreign and military affairs and crime [Biden also served as chair of the Judiciary Committee], but he's got the perfect demeanor and skill set. He's aggressive and, despite his affability, he's got a commendable mean streak. Which is a nice and necessary change after the weak sisters [Lieberman and Edwards] picked the past two cycles. Not just [likely GOP VP picks] Romney or Pawlenty, but McCain, too, will just get their lunches handed to them."

Another Democrat, Tom King, argued to the Huffington Post that Biden not only "helps put away Pennsylvania, he might help [because as a longtime backer of Israel, he has strong Jewish support] in Florida. He also attacks well without being mean-spirited. The downside is that he's not change. He helps with foreign policy, but Obama still has to measure up."

In the initial surge of Biden commentary, there has been very little reference to early problems that derailed his 1988 presidential bid: his failure to attribute a long section of a campaign speech that year to its actual author, Neil Kinnock of Britain's Labor Party and his failure to disclose in a law school paper that he had used 5 pages of material '' from a published law review article without quotation or attribution'' according to a Syracuse law school faculty report, dated Dec. 1, 1965. The New York Times detailed the incident in a story on September 18, 1987.

Biden's plagiarism difficulties during the 1987-88 campaign were compounded by disclosures that on the stump, he had exaggerated his academic credentials.

On September 21, 1987, he acknowledged that an earlier claim - that he ''ended up in the top half'' of his law school class and that he ''graduated with three degrees from college'' - were not true. In fact, he was 76th in a class of 85, and he graduated college with one degree in a combined major of political science and history.

One of the most insightful analyses of the pros and cons of Biden was posted by Hillary Clinton's top strategist and communications director Howard Wolfson. He wrote:

"The fighting in Georgia underscored the need to bring some foreign policy experience to the ticket.....It's critical that the veep be willing and able to take an axe or at least an ice pick to the presidential candidate of the other party....Senator Obama also needs to improve his performance with lunch bucket and working class Democrats. Biden has spent his career appealing to those voters....The Obama campaign clearly made the decision that they did not need their veep pick to reinforce their change message, and that was a smart move. Obama brings plenty of change and excitement on his own."

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