Sunday, August 24, 2008

Biden: His time

Saturday in Springfield: It was Joe Biden’s maiden voyage as a vice-presidential running mate, with the Delaware senator thrust overnight into the vortex of presidential politics at a high level. And Biden was characteristically himself, invoking his rust-belt roots and his long presence in the Senate in the service of the Obama campaign.

Swinging from standup lines worthy of the late-night crowd to full-throated cries for a return to populism in Washington politics, Biden was a hit with the 35,000 who showed up outside the Old State Capitol building … and he was the beneficiary of the punditburo’s early blessing: Biden was a pretty good fit. So far.

Even considering the plusses and minuses of all the others being considered for the veep spot on the Obama ticket, Joe Biden makes the most sense at this time in the nation’s history and his own. His rise to this position is more than a validation of old bromides about Never Quitting and Getting Up When You’re Knocked Down. Biden represents the kind of politics that is, ironically, both old and new at the same time.

Strict observers of the calendar — especially those in the McCain campaign — have already tried to equate Biden’s time in the Senate with his being the very opposite of the change that Obama represents. But the particulars of Biden point to a meaningful distinction between him and his contemporaries on Capitol Hill. Compared to what we’ve had for seven years, Biden’s populist approach to politics does represent change, in the best sense of the word.

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Simply put, Joe Biden is a homebody. Joe Biden is a homeboy. His small-town personal narrative is one that points to an embrace of the solidity of family, an understanding of its foundational importance in American life. For most of the 35 years he’s been in the Senate, Biden has become something of an anomaly: Rather than remain in Washington when his workday ends, Biden boards a commuter train and returns to his constituents, and his home, in Delaware. It’s something he’s done since he first took office in 1972, after the death of his first wife and their 13-month-old daughter, killed in a car accident.

Year after year, he’s done his business — the people’s business — and he takes the train home. Predictable, maybe even a little dull. But if you’re expecting political fireworks — cavorting with strippers, illicit cash stuffed in the Sub-Zero, a tawdry affair in a hotel room — forget it. Go somewhere else. Joe Biden has had work to do.

That work has included working to advance legislation for college loan programs to aid working-class families; and working to enact several laws against violent crime, domestic violence, date rape drugs and the presence of steroids in professional baseball.

As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he took the lead in working to end hostilities in the Balkans, investigating war crimes in the region, and calling Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic a “war criminal” to his face.

As a member of various Senate Judiciary subcommittees, he’s worked on legislation on issues from human rights and the law to terrorism, from border security to consumer rights.

And at the end of the day, he gets on a train bound for Wilmington, his family and a "drop-dead gorgeous" wife.

Joe Biden — along with that other great wielder of the levers of Washington, Sen. Ted Kennedy — may be one of the best examples of how to be in Washington without being of Washington. He’s come to recognize the insularity of life in the machine-on-the-Potomac, and done his best to resist it.

Even as he navigates the corridors of power, Biden understands the importance of bumping up against everyday people, the everyday people who elected him six times to the Senate — the same people who come November may be inclined to give him a much shorter commute to work.
Image credits: Obama and Biden: © 2008 Daniel Schwen, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Biden at Petraeus hearings: Public domain. Biden in Davos: World Economic Forum, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license 2.0.

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