Saturday, August 23, 2008


I like the Biden choice as VP for a number of reasons, most of which have been elucidated elsewhere. Obama's choice, to me, shows something he has demonstrated over and over: his understanding that the past always informs the future, even if critically and even if that future needs dearly to break with the bad habits of the past. This often tragic feature of the human condition is the main core truth shared by thoughtful conservatism (which barely exists today) and thoughtful progressivism. It's Peircean semiotics for everyday consumption.

Obviously, one can't agree with all of Biden's policy choices, and everyone makes fun of his capacity to talk, but I've always liked the guy mainly for the reason that he's smart, no-nonsense, has a fine wit, and is one of the few congresspeople who really does have a grasp of foreign policy concerns in both the big picture sense and the localized, human dimension. I like to hear Biden talk because he has something interesting and important to say. I honestly can't say the same thing about most politicians. McCain's foreign policy statements (as with Bush's), for example, can basically be predicted before he opens his mouth ("POW" is the least of it). There's no hard work involved. If we can do that, it's a good sign we don't have much leadership.

Furthermore, unlike those who think Biden's "foreign policy experience" fills a gap for Obama, I think Obama actually also has a strong foreign policy sense, in both the big and local picture. It may not be in terms of experience itself (using the language of "experience," by the way, automatically cedes the debate to McCain), but it is certainly in terms of diplomatic charisma and intellectual judgment. Compare McCain's reckless cold-warrior statements on Georgia, which got both the description and the prescription wrong. Obama-Biden is a strong ticket in this sense and, given McCain's ongoing gaffes on what is supposed to be his strong point, Obama's VP choice just won that territory, in my view.

Acknowledging that VP choices don't usually have a huge impact on elections, the Biden choice nevertheless also humanizes Obama's image at this point in the campaign. I mean this in a very strict sense. The Obama "brand" (yech, an awful term) does indeed have a certain amount of saintliness about it, which has occasionally given even strong supporters pause. If it didn't, the McCain camp's incessant criticisms of "The One" and Obama-as-celebrity would have no purchase on the public. Polls suggest otherwise which in turn says that the Republicans have effectively made inroads on the Obama image. Biden - partially because of his faults - brings the Obama brand back to earth; or to the kitchen table:
Your kitchen table is like mine, you sit there at night after you put the kids to bed and you talk about what you need. That's not a worry John McCain has to worry about. He'll have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at.
Nice. As many have noted, Biden won't back down from a fight and we can all relish the debates to come. But there's another crucial factor composed of two parts that seems to have been overlooked in today's commentary across the internets. Yes, Biden does well among older voters and "undecided" voters, which FiveThirtyEight (prior to the Biden pick) suggests have heavy overlap:
Biden's case is probably stronger than I indicated, because he tends to be most popular among voting groups with a lot of undecided voters, which means a lot of persuadables. In particular, Biden's strength with senior citizens could be a real asset. How so? Because seniors are far more likely to be undecided in this election than their younger counterparts.
But even further, one data point that's nearly impossible to poll is racism or, to put it euphemistically, racial discomfort (racism, after all, isn't always black and white, so to speak - its existence and effects come in a range of degrees). It's heartening that racism genuinely seems to have withered among this generation's younger vote. When I've talked with European friends about Obama, they've often said they don't think he'll win because of American racism. I've always responded that I think this has changed. But that response is inadequate. The reality is that it has changed among the youth vote. This may even be part of the promise of Obama, as when he himself uses the language of being merely a mirror or a blank slate for this generation to write its aspirations. But things are different with the senior vote.

Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, claims that the one thing that could lose this election for Obama is the racism of a significant chunk of the American public.
Much evidence points to racial prejudice as a factor that could be large enough to cost Obama the election. That warning is written all over last month's CBS/New York Times poll, which is worth examining in detail if you want a quick grasp of white America's curious sense of racial grievance. In the poll, 26 percent of whites say they have been victims of discrimination. Twenty-seven percent say too much has been made of the problems facing black people. Twenty-four percent say the country isn't ready to elect a black president. Five percent of white voters acknowledge that they, personally, would not vote for a black candidate.

Five percent surely understates the reality. In the Pennsylvania primary, one in six white voters told exit pollsters race was a factor in his or her decision. Seventy-five percent of those people voted for Clinton. You can do the math: 12 percent of the Pennsylvania primary electorate acknowledged that it didn't vote for Barack Obama in part because he is African-American. And that's what Democrats in a Northeastern(ish) state admit openly. The responses in Ohio and even New Jersey were dispiritingly similar.

Such prejudice usually comes coded in distortions about Obama and his background. To the willfully ignorant, he is a secret Muslim married to a black-power radical. Or—thank you, Geraldine Ferraro—he only got where he is because of the special treatment accorded those lucky enough to be born with African blood. Some Jews assume Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel in the way they assume other black politicians to be. To some white voters (14 percent in the CBS/New York Times poll), Obama is someone who, as president, would favor blacks over whites. Or he is an "elitist" who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn't one of them. Or he is charged with playing the race card, or of accusing his opponents of racism, when he has strenuously avoided doing anything of the sort. We're just not comfortable with, you know, a Hawaiian.

Then there's the overt stuff. In May, Pat Buchanan, who writes books about the European-Americans losing control of their country, ranted on MSNBC in defense of white West Virginians voting on the basis of racial solidarity. The No. 1 best-seller in America, Obama Nation by Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.D., leeringly notes that Obama's white mother always preferred that her "mate" be "a man of color." John McCain has yet to get around to denouncing this vile book.

Racism was always going to play some role, and we can set aside the overt bigotry of Buchanan, Corsi, and others who'll only ever vote for a white male Republican. I don't have much to go on but a hunch, but I suspect that Corsi and other's swiftboating won't have as much of an impact on this election. It's not that John Kerry was swiftboated; it's that the swiftboating of John Kerry gave us four more years of the hugely unpopular Bush.

But there are the others along the spectrum of euphemistic racial discomfort for whom the sense of racial identity is more complex and ambiguous. These are the people who hear the racial code language of "good American" or "elitist" or "patriot" or "us" from John McCain and picture white, even while they may say they're not racist. That's the code of demagogues. It's the kitchen table around which "people like us" usually sit. It's traditional America, the past informing the future, memory anchored politically by the senior vote. That ambiguous place is not necessarily racism, at least not overtly so, but it's easily convertible to "racial discomfort" racism by demagogues, an eternal truth of political elections.

Not to instrumentalize the whole affair (because I don't actually think it's so), this is where choosing Joe Biden, with his avuncular wit and his appeal to seniors, is an extremely clever move. His very presence shuts down the code by showing a gentler, reality-based version of a pluralistic kitchen table - which Obama embodies and which the younger vote already admires - than the one antagonistically presented by demagogues to the fears of racially uncomfortable, white senior voters.

But this is also less about election gaming and more about the consistency of Obama's character. He wanted someone to challenge him. Biden will do that in the best of ways as a smart thinker with long experience that doesn't hinder fresh ideas. I can easily see a terrific working relationship and a good friendship developing in an Obama-Biden White House, one that combines both dynamism and security. It is, however, also about the complex picture of American racial and class reality that Obama has been painting with perhaps its high point in his brilliant post-Wright speech on race and religion. This is a picture that understands that we always carry the past into the future, shared with conservatism, but that also understands that we can always tweak and evolve the meanings of national and international existence so that we don't merely repeat the past. It's a wise choice and says very good things about the wisdom of Obama himself.

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