Sunday, November 02, 2008

Biden v. Palin

When I last commented about Biden it was my claiming that his choice would be a mistake: "I think Biden would be a mistake. While he's a fierce partisan fighter, he's also a gaffe-prone goofball. Nonetheless, it won't be a disaster." And I had no follow up, so here it is: my analysis back in August was on the basis of politics and not governance. Biden is a mistake for politics - he makes gaffes, his state isn't helpful - and all the other choices were for electoral reasons only: Sebelius (woman, Midwest), Bayh (moderate, boring WASP, Midwest), Kaine (governor, swing-state).

But once Obama chose Biden I was quite happy with the choice and because it was the electorally poor choice. It showed me that Obama was (a) confident enough in the election, and in himself, that he was concentrating on being an executive and not the Permanent Campaign (the hallmark of the Clinton and W.Bush years), (b) that Obama chose someone who was fierce, independent and a contrary thinker, emphasizing the 'cabinet of rivals' model of Lincoln, (c) and ultimately, because Biden is the best sitting Democratic senator for both defense issues (chair of Foreign Relations) and Domestic/Legal (chair of Judiciary) it showed that Obama cares more for good governance than good politics.

If Obama had gone for the electoral/politics route - chosen the three above or Hillary Ugh - then I would have accepted the situation as reflective of a weak coalition or a difficult election road. Instead, by choosing Biden, Obama showed confidence, competence, and seriousness. It made me feel better for my support of Obama, presence as a Democrat, and hope for the country.

Then we get Sarah Palin. Who is the exact opposite. Chosen for purely partisan and electoral reasons. My feeling about Biden - which I had talked to people about but alas didn't blog about, so you'll have to believe me - shows the reason why I reacted so negatively towards Palin, even before I knew just how horrible she was.

But if I needed to use a shorthand to describe the difference, it would be Politics or Governance. And the GOP has shown that over the GWB years, they have placed governance and policy as the lowest of priorities, while for teh Democrats it has long been the highest priority - often to our detriment.

This argument about governance/politics is seen in this Sept 14 essay by Alex Massie, about why McCain chose Palin. Massie basically states what did you expect McCain to do? He needed electoral help! He was *forced* to choose an unqualified nutjob!

Massie is wrong about the order, though. McCain's current scorched-earth campaign - and the subsequent trouble he's in - comes as a direct result of the choice of Palin. If McCain chose a moderate (Lieberman, Ridge) or a friendly talented person (Graham, Crist), then McCain would be able to run in 2008 like he did in 2000. However, even through downright cowardice or doddering incompetence, McCain surrendered to the Rove Crew and decided to run like GWB in 2000 & 2004 - through fraud, fear, and polarization.

Can you imagine what a McCain-Lieberman vs. Obama-Biden election would look like? That would have been enviable. The last time we had two decent tickets was 1996 (and before that 1964). But McCain was threatened by the freakazoids of the gnarled GOP base that there'd be a floor-fight if Lieberman - McCain's first choice (whose vibes I somehow intuitively picked up) - were chosen. McCain, when threatened by the GOP base, blinked (in the argot of the GOP chickenhawks). He pooped his pants, he ran away from principles and good judgment and into the waiting arms of the Karl Rove Machine.

Why should McCain fear the floor fight? Because it'd make him look weak? Remind us of 1968 (similar times ya know)? I think it's because ultimately McCain is a weenie who cares more for winning than for honor. He's a disgrace.

But I digress. By choosing Palin, McCain decided on a campaign of fear and intimidation - because she has nothing else to offer but red-meat to the partisans. And any candidate that has to run to the extremes in the general election, is doomed.

Which leads us to the paradigms of VPs. I've discussed this at length, but I think I can make the binary chakira of VPs of Politics (VPP) and VPs of Governance (VPG). And both of these categories are part of the vagaries of how the VP is chosen. As opposed to the old days (pre-12th Amendment) and especially in post-1968 times, the VP is directly chosen by the Presidential nominee. While beforehand he was nominated at the convention just like the President, and as such could reflect a balanced perspective of the party, the modern VP choice is the sole decision of the Presidential nominee. And while the Pres Candidate needed to weather an often expensive, debilitating, pummelling primary campaign, the VP candidate is allowed to just waltz right in. The Pres. candidate needs millions of people to choose him/her, the VP needs only 1.

As such, the VP provides an opportunity not only for the electorate to evaluate the judgement and sagacity of the Pres. nominee, it also gives the nominee (and to some extent the whole party) a chance to nominate someone who could never get past the gauntlet of the primary campaign.

And this is where the Politics/Governance split comes in. Sometimes the VP couldn't get through the primaries because they are talented at governance but have no electoral appeal (cf. George HW Bush in 1980, Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, Al Gore in 1992, Jack Kemp in 1996, Joe Lieberman & Dick Cheney in 2000). Or the VP is a token ethnic/ideology that's to 'out there' to be acceptable by the primary voters, but is considered necessary for the general election (cf. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Dan Quayle in 1988, and Sarah Palin in 2008).

This is one reason why the electorate was so angry about Palin... here's a woman who could not survive a month of a primary campaign allowed to just shtup her way into the (second) most powerful job in the world. Dan Quayle in lipstick, as it were. I remember how angry I was, and the country was, after Quayle was chosen. This is worse. Yet this is why I'm happy about Biden and was happy about Lieberman - two men who would be good at governance but who are just too nutty or boring to survive the primaries. So it works both ways.

One thing Massie says that I very much agree with, and felt intuitively, which I will quote in entirety:
there's an argument you can make that the Vice-Presidential candidate needs to be more, not less qualified to be President than the chap at the top of the ticket. Why? Because a VP can only become President in an emergency and so needs to be able to start governing immediately. A President - eg, Clinton - can learn on the job even if this costs capital and credibility; a Veep does not enjoy that luxury. Of course, if Palin were to become President in, say, 2011, that would be one thing, but the potential for her to in the Oval Office next year is quite another. Biden could do the job next year, Palin probably couldn't. That's an unfortunate truth that her boosters just look silly trying to deny
Yes. The reason why most smart people think that the VP should be highly qualified - ironically, even more qualified that the President - is because of this intuitive understanding of the historical role of the VP: to step in when disaster strikes. Moreover, as I explained above, because of the unique opportunity to be able to easily place a person in line for the presidency who has high qualifications but could not otherwise make it through the primary, also depicts the feeling of lost opportunity when it comes to Palin... when Obama had to sneak someone into the White House, it was someone who conceivably could walk in on his own merit. When McCain chose, it was to sneak it some crypto-crazy Christianist hillbilly.

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