Biden's Big Night

It's the biggest night of Joe Biden's life and he's getting lots of public advice, much of it bad. Here's hoping he has the good sense to ignore conventional pundit wisdom, which goes something like this:

Ignore Palin and aim instead at John McCain. People don't vote for vice president anyway; Palin's a woman and any hint of the condescension to which you're sometimes prone could be lethal; we're starting to put this one away so let's not take any chances.

This is mostly bad advice. Recall Lieberman/Cheney, wherein Dick Cheney, a certifiable megalomaniac and right wing fanatic, managed to come off like a friendly neighborhood pharmacist against Joe Lieberman, who was more into burnishing his bipartisan image than scoring points for the team.

Cheney was for cop killer bullets and letting Mandela languish in jail but no one found out because Joe devoted his 90 minutes to spotlighting their shared values. Thus Cheney, whom the country had previously regarded with deep suspicion, got rehabilitated.

So did George Bush, on whose judgment the Cheney selection had so poorly reflected. Before the debate Gore led most polls. Soon after, Bush got close enough that he was eventually able to steal the election.

Joe Biden is no Joe Lieberman, praise the Lord. But the parallels are striking: a lead in the polls, a Republican nominee taking a hard hit on a vice presidential pick vulnerable due to extreme views and a lust for cronyism and cutting corners.

Palin's views are as extreme as Cheney's and Alaska is her Halliburton. Palin's defiance of subpoenas in "Troopergate" echoes Bush, Cheney and Rove in the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame Wilson fiasco, the U.S. Attorney firings and a score of other dark dealings.

As an ex Judiciary Chair, Biden can go after Palin's stonewalling of subpoenas and ask if she still claims to know nothing of the bullying calls her husband, attorney general and top staff placed to her embattled Public Safety director. (It's clear she did know and spent months lying about it. As soon as her staff admits it, she's toast.)

Biden is equally well credentialed, and well positioned, to question Palin's extreme social views and of course, to expose her pathetic ignorance not just of foreign policy, but of the world at large.

Condescension is always a bad idea and especially so when mixed with apparent sexism. Biden must watch his tone. But if he wants to attack McCain the best means of doing so will be standing right there on the stage with him. He can make a strong case and still be disciplined and civil.

Winning also requires a positive message. After the polite but complete deconstruction of Palin, Biden must reaffirm the Democratic Party's commitment to working people and its willingness in times like these to stand as their tribune. For a relevant lesson on this score he can look to a more recent debate, last Friday's matchup between Obama and McCain.

We all had our takes on it. My sense was that Obama lost the first segment, the one devoted to the financial crisis, but won the rest by enough to walk off with a narrow but measurable win.

Like Palin, Obama is better when scripted. In the primaries he did better reading from a teleprompter on election nights than debating Hillary. He may have opened poorly against McCain simply because he'd rehearsed a different show, one about foreign policy. (It may also be that 45 minutes into the debate, he realized he was behind on points and started punching harder.)

There is another explanation; that Obama's message on domestic policy remains somewhat unclear. Whether opposing mandatory health insurance buy ins or backing Bush's energy bill, he shows a taste for incrementalism just where the country most desires transformation. A Capitol Hill rumor has him preemptively conceding mortgage workouts at that useless White House summit. I hope it isn't true. The problem is that it's believable.

Joe Biden's record has some hits and misses but it falls squarely in a tradition that traces back to the Democrats' glory days. For this night to rank among the best as well as the biggest of his life Biden need only do two things: Tell us who Palin is and remind us who he is. Then Obama can prepare for round two by watching him.