So, Senator Barack Obama has tapped Senator Joe Biden to be his running mate this fall. Senator John McCain may or may not know whom he wants, but in any case he has not announced a pick. At this point there’s not really much substance to the decision anyway, though I think the choices are interesting in what they say about the campaigns. That is, for all the hype, there’s not really much chance the VP choice does much to improve a candidate’s chances – in my entire life I cannot remember anyone saying something like ’I was going to vote for ‘X’, but when ‘Y’ picked so-and-so for his veep he won me over'. Sure, maybe there are some few, some very few voters somewhere that could be swayed by the running pick to vote for someone, but I have to think such a number is too small to really matter. It’s really more a case of three things; the VP pick is usually made when things are a bit slow and the campaign wants some good press – remember that the media is impressed more with the flash of a story rather than its merit, which is why CNN treats a Britney Spears event with greater attention than another success in the Iraq War. Also, the VP choice can be an opportunity to really screw things up, to pick some loser who damages the top of the ticket. Even there, the amount of damage done is generally not significant, as the first Bush’s pick of Dan Quayle in 1988 illustrated. The third thing that comes from the pick, however, is what it tells us about the candidate’s fears. In 1960, Kennedy’s campaign picked Lyndon Johnson because they were worried about the South and JFK’s thin resume. In 1968 Nixon tapped Spiro Agnew because he was worried about the Northeast. On the flip side, the pick sometimes reflects confidence. Bill Clinton’s choice of Gore in 1992 showed that he was comfortable with his team as it was, and Gore was picked because he fit what was already going. In 2000, Dubya picked Cheney for his VP because he saw Cheney as the most competent man for the role, ignoring the popular push to put McCain on the ticket to show party unity, or some prominent regional name to attract support from that area.
There are three effective reasons for picking someone as your running mate. One is the possibility that he might take your place, as five Vice-Presidents have become President through death or resignation since 1900. But Obama is in excellent health, and should expect great support from his party if he is elected. About the only way Obama could get impeached, would be if he announced immediately after taking office that his last name was really “Bush”. So that reason is not really in play. The second possibility is that Obama thinks Biden will help him win a certain region. Delaware is already locked in for the Democrats, and the Northeast is also a pretty deep Blue this year, so that possibility also falls by the wayside. This brings us to the third reason, the fear of some weakness in the nominee’s strategy. Obama picked Biden, it’s pretty obvious, because he hopes Biden’s three and a half decades as a Washington insider will make his own lack of work more tolerable. Obama’s naïveté in foreign policy statements will, he hopes, be overlooked in the light of Biden’s long experience in foreign policy. Of course, the historical record on that point is not promising. Ross Perot tapped an admiral for his running mate, but it did not make his own foreign policy credentials any more authentic. John Kerry got a lot of support from General Wesley Clark, but again the effort failed to undo the damage of Kerry’s own record. So a running mate with a long record does not do much to improve your own credentials. It does, however, prevent McCain’s camp from claiming that neither Obama nor his veep pick have experience in foreign policy.
Some are already saying that Obama’s pick of Biden is a good move, while some have said it was a mistake. At this point I do not really agree with either side. Biden is not likely to win over Clinton supporters who are still mad that Hillary was not even considered for the second slot – even though she would not have wanted the job, many in her camp see the decision to not even vet her as a deliberate insult. Biden is not likely to impress all those young people who are attracted to Obama because he is fresh and new in their minds, something Biden clearly is not. Biden is not likely to win over independents either, as his views have tracked with DNC talking points for a very long time. At the same time, it would be wrong to assume the move is a mistake, as there is no evidence – at least not yet – that Biden would prove a liability. While the man’s vanity and arrogant tone have brought him to many blunders in the past, at the moment Biden looks good where Obama needs him to look good, a union favorite and likely to reassure the party base.
The real effect of the Biden pick won’t be known for some time, partly because the effect will be demonstrated by how well Biden campaigns in battlefield states, but also because now the focus will swing to the question of McCain’s pick. McCain’s choice, like Obama’s, is more tactical in value than strategic, and he has more to lose from a bad choice than he stands to gain with a good choice. But knowing the Biden pick means that the McCain camp has the opportunity to choose a running mate who will appeal to the demographics missed by Obama-Biden.