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By Jay Cost

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On the Biden Pick

On Friday, Bill Kristol made two trenchant points in response to a column I wrote:

1) In the five open seat elections since 1948, three (1960, 1976, and 2000) have been razor-close. There's no reason to assume this one won't be.

2) With so many undecideds, the debates might well make a difference--as they arguably did in 1960, 1976, and 2000 (and 1988, for that matter; there was no debate in 1952). So after the conventions, the big day to focus on is Friday, Sept. 26--the first debate, in Oxford, Miss.

This is spot on. I'm guessing the Obama campaign, like Kristol, senses that the debates will be critical, which must be one reason it picked Joe Biden. Recalling Biden's successes during the primary debates, it is betting he'll do well in the veep debate.

On this particular item, I think the campaign's logic is sound, and there are other reasons to like Biden on the ticket. Nevertheless, I do not think Biden was the best choice.

Of course, Biden has plenty of upsides. He proved a good debater during the primaries. He has lots of experience, and so he might provide "gravitas." He has a working-class Catholic background, so he might appeal to some of the FDR Democrats who liked Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton. Plus, he's tough, so he can go after the Republicans.

On the other hand, his windiness is a big downside. I get the impression that most insiders who know Biden kinda like him - but they probably prefer small doses. I know I feel that way. Biden makes me grin when I watch him for 10 minutes or so. But after two months of Biden every day? I'm going to need a break from old Joe by then. And then there is the possibility that he will say something catastrophically stupid.

There are other downsides to Biden. One is that he highlights Obama's inexperience. Call this the ying to his gravitas yang. He also does not seem like the kind of change Obama has been campaigning for. Instead, he looks like one of the people Obama thought should be transcended.

All serious veep prospects have upsides and downsides (if they have nothing but upsides, they would probably have secured the top spot!). What a campaign must do is "total up" the upsides it expects from each, then subtract the expected downsides. The rational choice is the candidate who brings the greatest net benefit.

This is where my objection to the Biden pick lies. I like Biden, and overall I think he could be a reasonably strong candidate. However, Hillary Clinton would have been a much better selection.

Hillary brings just about every upside Biden brings. She brings seasoning. She brings toughness. She brings facility in debates. Meanwhile, her downsides largely overlap with his. She highlights Obama's inexperience. She is not consistent with his message of change.

Each brings downsides the other doesn't. He is windier and more likely to stick his foot in his mouth. In the course of that 18-month primary battle, Hillary said a few bone-headed things, but nothing approaching the clips of Biden now circulating on YouTube. One downside Clinton has that Biden does not - her negatives are already quite high. So that favors Biden in the calculus.

None of these considerations tip the scale to Clinton. At this point, I remain indifferent between the two. Clinton comes out ahead when we consider all those voters the ever so clever Jacob Weisburg thinks are "racists." They are why Hillary should have been the pick.

The Obama vs. Clinton battle was one hell of a fight. It split the Democratic Party along regional, demographic, economic, and cultural lines more than any contest in the open era. I don't think anybody should assume that the division in the party is ephemeral, that the hunger to win will resolve all matters by November. Remember, the Democratic coalition has fractured twice in the last fifteen elections - 1948 and 1968. That's not counting all the traditionally Democratic voters that the GOP has peeled off in years past - cf. 1972 and 1984.

The Democratic Party is powerful because it is broad. It can compete just about anywhere in the United States while the Republican Party cannot. However, its breadth carries with it an enhanced possibility of crippling division.

Accordingly, every Democratic nominee should do everything within reason to achieve unity - which, I would note, has been a premise of Obama's campaign. Most nominees need not worry about unity because their act of securing the nomination did not rend the party. However, Obama's nomination has rent it. Selecting Hillary would have been a reasonable step in reuniting it. I think he should have taken it.

Hopefully for the Obama campaign, the risk of passing over her will not materialize into electoral damage. Instead, pro-Hillary Democrats will see McCain as Bush III, and they'll be so hungry for change they'll pull the lever for Obama. Of course, hope has no place in one's coldly rational decision calculus. There is a non-trivial chance that the party will fracture - not necessarily at the Denver convention this week, but in the living rooms of Democratic leaners in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, etc., sometime before Election Day, as they quietly decide they like Hillary best, McCain second, and Obama third.

Selecting somebody other than Hillary Clinton does very little to reduce this risk. That leaves me asking: what special quality does Joe Biden - or Evan Bayh or Tim Kaine or Chet Edwards or Kathleen Sebelius - bring to the ticket that makes up for unity? If you want to argue that Biden was better than anybody else on the short list, I'm all ears. But nobody on the short list constitutes a significant step toward unifying the party, which must come first.

Obama is betting that Democrats will unite on their own. And so, the Biden pick reminds me once again that the party has nominated a very audacious candidate. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, Barack Obama is a bold guy. Watching him this cycle is like watching a cocksure poker player. When other players fold, Obama calls. When they call, he raises. Whatever he does, he always represents a good hand. But is it really?

We'll know soon enough.

-Jay Cost