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Say It Ain't So, Joe

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sometimes Joe Biden, bless his good intentions, doesn't know when to stop. I won't recount past instances of this -- I'll leave that to the RNC -- but the most recent is a painful example of what happens when a short answer will do and you give a long-winded one instead.

At a rally in New Hampshire, a questioner actually expressed his pleasure that Barack Obama had chosen Biden as his running mate over Hillary Clinton, a sentiment not universally shared among Democrats. Biden, to his credit, wanted to be sure that no one would later say that he had in any way questioned the New York senator's qualifications (as he once did his own running mate's).

"Make no mistake about this," Biden responded. "Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be vice president of the United States of America. Let's get that straight. She's a truly close personal friend, she is qualified to be president of the United States of America; she's easily qualified to be vice president of the United States of America…" That was the place to stop. That was the moment in which you succeed in not making news, which is the usual goal of a vice presidential candidate, unless the news relates to the poor judgment of your opponent, not your running mate.

Biden, however, known for his occasional loquaciousness, did not stop. He then made news, questioning the judgment of the would-be president who had placed him on the ticket instead of Hillary. "And quite frankly," Biden concluded, "it might have been a better pick than me."

It's not that I disagree. She might have been. But at this point, that's an argument that helps Republicans, not Democrats, and helps McCain, who did not pass over a woman whose qualifications are open to question, as opposed to Obama, who passed over a woman whose qualifications are not.

There is something happening with women voters in America, maybe not among the most elite women who blog on liberal websites, but among women of almost every political stripe who may decide the election this fall. They identify with Sarah Palin and are recoiling at the cheap shots that Democrats, who have no reason to be so desperate but are acting as if they do, are lobbing in her direction. Her only qualification being that she hasn't had an abortion? Ouch. Double ouch. Not just a poor choice of words, but a sexist sentiment. Say goodbye and good night to half the mothers in America on that one.

It is no time to remind voters that Obama could have, much less should have, chosen Hillary. It is no time to give them another reason to feel connected to a Republican ticket with whom they disagree on many of the issues that most directly affect their families.

Ultimately, McCain will win or lose, not Sarah Palin. Ditto for Obama. But vice presidents -- and especially the choice of them -- reflect significantly on the judgment of the would-be president. I remember talking to Bill Clinton a week or so before the Democratic Convention in 2000 -- and given how right Clinton turned out to be, I feel perfectly comfortable telling this story now. We discussed whom Al Gore might choose to be his running mate and why Clinton had chosen Gore eight years earlier. The one person I hope he doesn't pick, the then-president told me, is Joe Lieberman.

The reason was that the choice of Lieberman, one of the first senators to speak out against Clinton, would be seen as a direct effort to distance Gore from Clinton. Of course, President Clinton said all the right things when Lieberman was picked, but he and I and everyone else in the world understood what the choice signified. In my judgment, it was that choice, and Gore's underlying successful effort to distance himself from the economic accomplishments of the preceding eight years (for which he should have been taking credit), that turned what should have been an easy victory into a 5-4 loss.

By choosing Palin, McCain effectively distanced himself from George W. Bush, the man many Democrats hoped to run against this fall. The new "couple" is McCain and Palin, not McCain and Bush. Smart.

By choosing Biden, Obama effectively distanced himself from Hillary Clinton, no matter how many campaign appearances she may be making for him now. That may or may not have been a smart choice. But it is hardly one Democrats should invite voters to revisit in this post-Palin era. The casual and sometimes unconscious sexism of so many liberals in the two weeks since Palin was picked has raised hackles, which reminders of how Hillary was passed over by Obama can only exacerbate.

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