"Don't shake my hand, Joe Biden!"
On paper, Joe Biden shines as a vice president pick. Not only is the man a formidable politico in his own right (ample experience, foreign relations credibility, and a moving back story), but his qualities also nicely compliment Obama— which is a polite way of saying he’s an establishment-approved, nonthreatening party steward whose appearance at a country club would elicit exactly zero double takes.
But can an Obama/Biden ticket can parlay this commingling of strengths and sensibilities into swing state victories?
Maybe. But don’t count on it. Here’s why.
I began to have serious doubts about Biden-as-electoral-everyman on Halloween Day in 2006. Writing for The Daily Iowan at the time, I was assigned to cover his meet-and-greet in a Cedar Rapids grocery store deli. The pretense for Biden’s visit was he was stumping for Democrat congressional candidate Dave Loebsack. The real reason, of course, is that Biden was running for president in ’08 and, like nearly every other candidate, opted to get a jump in Iowa, home of the first (and therefore most crucial) caucus.
Wearing a slick black trench court, the Delaware senator sashayed through the deli to the subdued cheers of the three-dozen-or-so patrons. His aura was unmistakably Clintonian— debonair yet personable, cocky yet self-deprecating. Even more Clintonesque was his knack for making those with whom he conversed feel as if they were the only person in the room. When talking to patrons one-on-one, he would clasp their hand, put his other hand on their shoulder and lean his face in close and peer into their eyes with a mix of sympathy, intrigue, and mirth. The guy was good. No question.
But then something weird happened.
An elderly farmer, probably just in from the fields, sat in the corner, a corn seed trucker hat propped on his thick gray hair. He hovered over his eggs and hash browns oblivious to the smirking shitshow unfolding around him.
“Hi, how are ya?” said a beaming Biden, who was now standing directly above the seated farmer. He shot his hand downward for a shake. Thus began the most socially awkward exchange between two human beings I’ve ever seen. In any circumstance.
The farmer put down his fork without making eye contact, wiped his mouth with a napkin, and gazed up. He looked Biden straight in the eye and grumbled a stern warning:
“Don’t shake my hand.”
He turned his attention back to his pepper-doused hash browns.
For a full three seconds after this utterance, Biden’s hand remained outstretched, his charismatic grin unable to compensate for the befuddled look now creeping into the corners of his eyes. It was apparent he’d never before encountered such unrestrained disdain; you could almost see the gears turning in Biden’s head; Did this man not know who he was? Was he perhaps joking? Is this what passes for humor in these weird parts?
Just when it appeared all composure was crumbling and mutiny imminent, Biden snapped out of it. His urbane confidence returned and he carried on schmoozing with the deli patrons as if nothing had happened.
He proceeded to jerk-off the war-weary audience with the reigning platitude of the day. (“We need to bring our troops home.”) At the time, Democrats were pinning their midterm hopes on the notion that they represented something of a robust opposition party in the minds of voters. As preposterous as this was, most left-thinking Americans bought into it. Why shouldn’t they? Kick the warmongering cretins out and replace ‘em with the other team. End the war. Bring the troops home. It was that simple. That's why nobody laughed when Biden deadpanned, “If the Democrats win this election I think you'll see a fundamental shift in foreign policy in the U.S. because a Democratically controlled House of Representatives will put a break on Bush's dangerous policies.” It was as if he were serious.
While this was transpiring, the fuming farmer had scooted out of his chair, got up, and left the deli shaking his head in disgust. Half of his hash browns remained on the plate untouched.
A little more than a year later, Biden finished a distant fifth in the Iowa caucuses with 1.3 percent of the vote.