John R. Bolton
While the Conventions were once decision-making events, where party leaders actually made key decisions, truly "contested" Conventions have been rare in recent years. State primaries and caucuses now make the decisions--actual voters rather than party leaders--as in the Nineteenth Century when Conventions were first held.
Accordingly, the Conventions' role today is to launch the general election campaign, and to "re-introduce" the Presidential candidates to voters. The Conventions are launching pads into the last two months of the campaign, after the Labor Day holiday (September 1 this year), when the voters, returned from summer vacations, really begin to focus on the choices they must make on Election Day.
Obama's choice of Biden makes McCain's decision on a running mate easier, since Biden poses no political challenge to the Republican electoral base.
In historical terms, this year's Conventions are very late, largely because neither party wanted to hold its gathering before the Beijing Olympics, fearing that so doing would lose the "bump" in public opinion polls provided by the intense media coverage of the Conventions. It is also very unusual for the Conventions to be in successive weeks, but Republicans had little choice, given the proximity of November 4.
Many in the media have concluded that the election is over, and Senator Barack Obama declared the winner. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Opinion polls now uniformly show the race to be very close, and several have Senator John McCain ahead. Moreover, U.S. elections are decided not by the national popular vote, but in the Electoral College, where the winner must receive a majority of the 538 votes allocated among the States based on their total number of Senate and House seats.
The key point is that, while national electioneering seems to have become an almost permanent feature of American politics, the real campaign is only now beginning.
Since it has been known for months that Obama and McCain are the nominees, the only unknown was whom they would select as their Vice Presidential running mates. For both Obama and McCain, the Vice Presidential decision is a critical opportunity, the first real moment of the general election campaign. Obama has chosen Senator Joseph Biden, and McCain has announced that he will announce his selection on August 29, just before the Republican Convention opens. In a sense, McCain has the advantage, because he can evaluate the reaction to Obama's selection before finalizing his own choice.
Biden is a strange choice for Obama. Consider the following reasons:
- Biden has been a Senator for thirty-six years, one of the longest-serving in either party, hardly the kind of "change" that Obama uses as his campaign mantra. Indeed, Biden is a true Washington "insider," who has failed twice in his own efforts to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, precisely because he is not well known "outside the Beltway."
- Biden will be sixty-six years old in November, just six years younger than McCain, not exactly the kind of "youthful" image Obama has tried to project. And while Biden was running in his first Senate election in 1972, McCain was trapped in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.
- Biden has made his reputation in foreign policy, thus highlighting Obama's inexperience in that critical area. In fact, the McCain campaign has already run television commercials featuring Biden's criticisms earlier this year of Obama's foreign policy positions. Some have compared Biden's role in any future Obama Administration to Dick Cheney's role in the present Bush Administration, hardly the picture one would think the Democrats wanted to convey.
- Biden's home state of Delaware has only three votes in the Electoral College, and was considered safe for the Democrats to begin with. He adds no new constituencies to Obama's campaign, and puts no typically Republican states at risk.
Biden has one other major problem: a lack of discipline that reveals itself in his inability to stop talking. Of course, Biden is not alone in Washington in liking to hear himself talk, but his unique capacity has given many Americans the chance to learn a new word: logorrhea. Dictionaries define logorrhea as "excessive and often incoherent wordiness." That is Joe Biden personified. Unless he is carefully scripted and shielded from contact with the press, it is almost inevitable that he will talk himself into difficulty.
Thus, selecting Biden is unhelpful politically because it obscures Obama's message, and because it is highly risky in a close election, where there is very little time to correct mistakes. Earlier this year, for example, when Biden was campaigning for President, he described Obama as "articulate and bright and clean." Biden's campaign had to expend enormous energy explaining that he was not being a racist by using the word "clean." This was merely one careless word on Biden's part, not the rivers of words he typically uses, and that will be required of him over the next two months.
Obama's choice of Biden makes McCain's decision on a running mate easier, since Biden poses no political challenge to the Republican electoral base, thus giving McCain significant flexibility in making his own Vice Presidential choice. The Biden decision may therefore be seen in retrospect as a major mistake for the Democrats, ending what was already a bad month for Obama, starting with his European tour. We shall know soon enough!
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.