Perhaps it should have been a warning. Back in 2008, Joe Biden said of his then-rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” As vice-president, he has been caught on video telling an Indo-American supporter, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent . . . I’m not joking.” (He meant it as a compliment.) And at a campaign stop ahead of the convention, he introduced himself to some Greek Americans as “Joe Bidenopolous,” the “most Greek Irishman” around.
It’s vintage Biden: the glad-handing old-timey pol at ease with voters from all walks of life—and the ham-fisted loudmouth who won’t stop making America cringe.
The vice-presidency, complained John Nance Garner who held the office in the 1930s, isn’t worth a “bucket of warm piss.” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays a fictional vice-president on HBO’s Veep, sums up the institution as “someone in a seemingly powerful position who is also powerless.”
Generally, barring tragic circumstances, most vice-presidents are most important before they get to the White House. The right running mate can help “balance” the ticket—by appealing to a region of the country that differs from the candidate’s, or by appealing to a specific group of voters (by age, gender, ethnicity or religion) who may be more skeptical of the politician who won his or her party’s nomination.
Obama’s primary battle against Hillary Clinton in 2008 showed that—even among Democrats—white, working-class voters didn’t relate to a biracial Harvard Law graduate who famously mused about folks in small towns who “cling to guns or religion.” For his part, Mitt Romney has failed to distract from his Swiss bank accounts by pointing out that his friends own NASCAR teams.
There were multiple factors in play, of course, in the selection of each running mate. Like George W. Bush before him, the youthful and inexperienced Obama needed an older running mate well versed in foreign affairs, as Biden—then the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—was. For Romney, picking Paul Ryan—a staunch social conservative and chairman of the House Budget Committee who is considered the intellectual leader of the party’s fiscal policy—helped him appeal to conservative voters whose turnout and enthusiasm could decide the election.
Both Biden and Ryan also bear the burden of bringing the common touch. A descendant of Irish immigrants, Biden, 69, was born in the rust-belt town of Scranton, Penn., grew up in working-class Delaware, Md.,, and was dubbed a “lunch-bucket Democrat” for his pro-union blue-collar politics. Despite decades in the Senate and a mansion in Delaware’s historic “Chateau Country,” he continues to sprinkle speeches with references to “the neighbourhoods where I come from . . . ”
Ryan was picked in part to connect with those same voters. While he came from a relatively well-off family, at the age of 16, he lost his lawyer father to a heart attack, and he and his mother had to fend for themselves. Ryan talks—a lot—about flipping burgers at McDonald’s or waiting tables at the Tortilla Coast, a popular restaurant on Capitol Hill, as a young man. “When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life,” he said in his convention speech. Ryan also enjoys hunting and fishing and sport called “noodling” that involves a bare hand and a catfish, and is the subject of the reality TV show Hillbilly Handfishin’.
But he’s not exactly Joe Plumber. Ryan still lives in small-town Wisconsin, but in an elegant Civil War-era house with a tennis court. His wife is a former tax attorney and Washington lobbyist who inherited a multi-million-dollar trust fund.
Yet rather than boosting their ticket, both men are causing distractions.
With Biden, the problems are his unscripted outbursts. A particularly damaging flare-up of Biden-itis came in mid-August when he campaigned in Danville, Va., before an audience that included many African-Americans. Speaking about Romney’s plans to rewrite financial regulations, Biden said, “He said in the first 100 days he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”
The seeming allusion to slavery set Republicans accusing him of stoking racial divisions. “This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like,” said Romney. Clint Eastwood piled on at the Republican convention, during his chat with the empty chair. “You’re crazy, you’re absolutely crazy. You’re getting as bad as Biden,” Eastwood cracked in his made-up conversation with Obama. Biden protested that he was referring to the middle class, not blacks in particular. Obama merely called Biden’s phrasing a “distraction.”
But voters are disenchanted. When he was picked in 2008, Biden was reasonably well liked—his favourable rating was 16 points higher than his unfavourable ratings, but more than half of Americans were not familiar with him, according to a Gallup poll in late August 2008. Now Biden’s approval ratings are dramatically upside down: only 27 per cent say Joe Biden has done an excellent or even good job as vice-president, while 45 per cent say his job performance has been only fair or poor, according to an August poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Even Democrats are disappointed: now only a slim majority of 51 per cent rate him positively.
The Ryan pick has also failed to impress. Almost half of Americans surveyed (46 per cent) said he was only a fair or poor choice, while just 28 per cent called him a good or excellent choice. Ryan did make the base happy, though: 68 per cent of conservative Republicans rated him positively, and early polls suggest he may be helping close the gap with Obama in a small number of states.
But he has been causing controversy, too. Ryan’s convention speech was criticized by fact-checkers for implying that Obama was to blame for the closure of a GM plant in Ryan’s hometown—the plant’s closure was announced under Bush. (And in any case, Ryan has opposed more vigorous government interventions to help the automobile sector.) He also criticized Obama for cutting about $700 billion from Medicare to help pay for his health care law, when the same cuts were included in Ryan’s own proposed budgets to help pay for tax cuts.
Ryan’s credibility took another hit after it emerged that he bragged in a radio interview this month that he ran a marathon under three hours—an athletic feat. An investigation by Runner’s World magazine found that he completed his only marathon in just over four hours. Ryan later noted that the event took place over 20 years ago and made light of it, but the damage was done.
And so the story lines are set: Republicans say Biden is a clown; Democrats say Ryan is a fraud. When the two vice-presidential candidates face off in their single debate on Oct. 11, somewhere out there Sarah Palin will be smiling.
For exclusive images from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., see this week’s iPad edition of Maclean’s