By Tom Baxter
For all the ballyhoo leading up to it, the circus leaves town quickly after a presidential election. The Romney campaign staffers’ credit cards were cut off promptly after Ohio was called, and by the weekend the media had moved on to Gen. Petraeus and the fiscal cliff. But there’s one angle to this story which deserves more attention than it received in the wave of reaction to last week’s result, and one person who deserves a lot more recognition.
Joe Biden, ridiculed by the Republicans and dismissed even within his own party, owned this election. He did more to help his ticket than any vice presidential candidate in memory, and the manner in which he did it best illustrates the Democrats’ winning strategy this year.
To appreciate Biden’s role, we have to remember how different the race looked the day after the First Presidential Debate. In retrospect, Barack Obama’s campaign had already done most of what it needed to win this race. It had won the air war with an early Super PAC attack in the Rust Belt, spearheaded by one of the most effective campaign ads in television history, which Mitt Romney’s campaign had failed to answer. The Democrats had won the Battle of the Conventions, and their massive ground operation, unmatched by the Republicans, was well underway.
But as television screens multiplied with images of a halting, distracted Obama and a confident, articulate Romney, those advantages seemed to be melting away. Lulled into overconfidence by a string of Romney gaffes earlier in the campaign, Democrats were shaken by the debate, and undecideds suddenly were taking a second look at their choices. The impact was quickly registered in the polls.
The stage was set for one of the great moments in a political career which has had its ups and downs. If Democrats had gotten ahead of themselves in the expectations game before the first debate, Republicans were positively gleeful about the matchup between Paul Ryan, conservative wunderkind, and Biden, the frequent subject of late-night comedy show humor. Biden’s effective handling of a difficult assignment in the 2008 debate with Sarah Palin went virtually unnoticed.
After the Biden-Ryan debate, Republicans were outraged by the older man’s disrespectful attitude toward the younger. Independents – many of whom, it turns out, are former Republicans – also were offended by the vice president’s manner.
But virtually from the moment, early in the debate, when Biden cut off Ryan and said, “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” the Democratic Party regained its footing and never lost it again for the rest of the campaign. Biden, in that moment, was the real-life embodiment of the character Clint Eastwood plays these days: the gnarly old geezer hollering at some young punk to get off his lawn. It wasn’t pretty, nor was it intended to be. But it was deadly effective. The Republican bubble which had floated so effortlessly through the first Presidential Debate was burst in an instant. A re-fortified Obama came back the following week, acting more like Biden than himself two weeks earlier, especially in the famous exchange over Libya.
Put your cursor on any of the trend lines here, and the impact comes into dramatic focus. Obama’s slide ended a day or so after the Oct. 11 Vice Presidential Debate, and the direction of the race never changed significantly after that.
Right up to the end, Joe was being Joe. In one campaign rally in the closing days he referred to President Clinton when he meant to say President Obama. But that didn’t matter to the people he was connecting with, most importantly in the working-class neighborhoods of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
What Biden did was to give voice to a Democratic Party which over many election cycles has grown weary of playing for the middle while their Republican opponents attacked from their base. Obama acknowledged this when on Election Night he called Biden “America’s happy warrior,” passing on the mantle of the unabashedly liberal Hubert Humphrey.
It’s important to note that this was as big a year for the Democratic brand as it was for the Democratic president. The Democrats’ U.S. Senate victories over Republican hara-kiri candidates in Missouri and Indiana were the headlines, but Democrat Heidi Heitkamp’s upset win over Rick Berg in North Dakota and U.S. Sen. John Tester’s generally unexpected success in defending his Montana seat speak even more convincingly of the Democrats’ renewed vigor after their disastrous 2010 setback. The vice president, malapropisms and open-mike vulgarities notwithstanding, was the voice of that resurgence.
Biden may have been lightly regarded elsewhere, but Lesley Knope, Amy Poehler’s character on “Parks and Recreation,” has a serious crush on him. In this Thursday’s episode, filmed under top-secret circumstances earlier in the year, Biden will appear as himself, meeting his starstruck supporter. Quite a way for the happy warrior to mark the end of a most successful campaign.