August 27, 2008
Biden’s the one
If Biden didn't exist, Obama would have to invent him.
Biden is just naturally what the Democrats used to be, the party of lunch- pail-carrying working people, not politically correct, prone to saying inappropriate things, but with a great credibility.
Sometimes Obama reminds me of Adlai Stevenson, the first politician to inspire me as a child. Obama is more dynamic, and has a spectacular organization, but also has some of Stevenson's elevated tone. It has taken Democrats a few generations to realize how successfully Republicans have painted Democratic candidates just as they did Stevenson; the "egghead" they called him.
But Republicans have never had a good answer to a different type of Democrat, neither smooth nor inspirational, but tough as nails, and that's Harry S. Truman. In fact, in David Halberstam's great book on the Korean War, "The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War" (Hyperion, 2007), he traces the bitter anger of the Republican Party today to its failure to defeat the feisty and apparently doomed Truman in 1948. Obama's choice of Biden suggests that he knows that it's time to morph from Stevenson into Truman if he is to win this election, and before Sen. John McCain turns himself into a Trumanesque underdog.
I would hazard a guess that Biden is the one person Republicans did not want Obama to select. He fills the key gaps for Obama; he's a major leader in foreign policy; he's very popular with Jews and a staunch supporter of Israel; he has a working-class background and a great and touching life story. And, most of all, he's full of beans and ready for a fight. When is the last time you could say that about a Democrat? When President Bush addressed the Israeli Knesset and associated Obama with Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, Democrats were "disappointed." Biden called it "bull----."
You can understand a lot about how Jewish voters are looking at this election by thinking about Stevenson and Truman. Stevenson's greatest appeal was to educated voters, particularly Jews. He did not, of course, have Obama's appeal to African Americans, a formidable combination that even the vaunted Clinton machine could not overcome. But for older Jews, and for those who are less drawn to an intellectual style of politics, there was nothing like Harry Truman. Imagine if a number of recent Democratic candidates had adopted Truman's aphorism about politics: "Carry the battle to them. Don't let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don't ever apologize for anything."
If FDR was the crafty politician who could be all things to all people, Truman was exactly what he appeared to be, no more and no less.
The Democratic Party today is an uneasy mixture of several different constituencies: minority voters, African American and Latino; upscale and upwardly mobile whites, often well educated; working-class and often struggling whites ("downscale Democrats," in pollster Stan Greenberg's formulation), and elderly whites, often Jews in key states like Florida. Democrats keep thinking if they win an extra state or two, then all will be well. But it's not just about states, except in the final count of electoral votes. It is about types of people and how hard it is to keep them in the same tent even when their "interests" coincide. As George Lakoff has written: "People do not necessarily vote in their own self-interest. They vote their identity."
Sometimes these blocs pull together, especially in congressional elections, but more often than not in presidential elections Republicans succeed in playing them against each other. Sure race is part of it, but not all of it. Much of it is about culture and other values. And there's also the resentment of elitism, of sophistication and worldliness, of political correctness. FDR was such a massive force that he could bridge the differences, but he was at heart an aristocrat. Truman was the genuine middle- class, upwardly mobile article. At first he resisted full U.S. commitment to Israel. But when we decided to take that position, he meant it without guile and with heart.
Older voters do not see the world the same way as younger voters. Young voters are usually ready to take a chance, to take a risk, while older voters see risks and downsides to great change. For younger Democrats, especially Jews, Obama is a great find, and many are pumped and ready to go along for the ride. Older voters, including many Jews, worry that Israel's security may not be in experienced hands, that Obama represents a risk, that he is a strong and different flavor. Once Hillary Clinton was seen that way, as a risk, but in time she came to seem safe. To have picked Tim Kaine or Evan Bayh or any of the other new faces on the scene would have been to assume that the desire for change that seems to be driving Americans would mean the same thing to each of those pieces of the Democratic Party. Get a state or two. Forget the idea that Obama needed to reinforce the image of change.
Instead he picked the exact opposite of the kind of change he offers: an older, white haired guy with a history of support among older voters, among Jews, and among downscale whites. He misspeaks and goes on too long. But he has heart. How many politicians would say, as Biden did, that he is a Zionist?
As great a choice as Biden is, there is no guarantee that it will lead Obama to victory. The key is whether Obama and Biden have found something in each other that elevates the game of each. Obama's strengths are truly remarkable, and Biden can draw on them. And for Obama, it's not enough to have a Truman with you; you've got to be a bit of a Truman, too. If that is what this choice means, that is good news for the Democrats.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. Read Sonenshein's blog on the Jewish vote and the presidential campaign, JewsChoose2008