THE BLOG
09/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

But Has Joe Biden Ever Punched a Voter?

"It's Hillary, man. That's the dream ticket!." This was the view of Tony, an ex-infantryman living on the streets of Chicago; he liked McCain ("as a veteran"), but had grudgingly settled on Obama. "If he chooses Hillary as vice-president, he'll win." Later, an American-Kenyan taxi driver (a man, charmingly, oblivious to Obama's own roots) declared that John Kerry should be the running mate. Another fantasist wanted Gore.

But of all the many people to whom I've spoken during the last week about Obama's ticket, no one, anywhere, mentioned Biden. Certainly no one discussed the rather odd allegation that he had copied a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock in the 80s -- a contention which, if true, would show bad judgment on a whole number of levels.

So today, when I slapped the LA Times down on the front desk of my Santa Monica hotel and asked the immaculate out of work actors staffing it, "what do you know about this guy, Joe Biden?" I was faced with blank stares.

The public's silence contrasted strikingly with the noise of the commentariat.

Listening to that lot, you'd think that Senator Biden's elevation had been foreshadowed in Scripture. They extol his stewardship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his experience, the fact he's from Pennsylvania -- credentials all of which scream "I'm not Obama." He's perfect.

There may be some truth in their analysis. Biden's eloquent acceptance speech in Springfield, Illinois, while deliberately "veep" in tone, maintained a fireside rootsiness that played well; he and Obama looked good together. People may not have been talking about Joe Biden last week, but everyone's talking about him now. And, yes, it was strong of Obama to resist the so-called "dream ticket" of selecting Hillary.

In Britain, we experienced a political coupling during the Blair era, which bore some similarity to the thinking behind the Obama/Biden pairing.

Tony Blair, like Obama, was a metropolitan lawyer whose natural constituency was the latte liberal. He had attended an elite university; he had a professional wife; and, by the standards of his left wing party, he harboured relatively moderate views. But Blair lacked cachet with blue collar voters. It was desirable for him to have a deputy who could talk to those unions and that Labour Party that had put Blair in his place.

Barack Obama, a man whose book contains a whole chapter dedicated to the American constitution, also wanted a foil who could speak about policemen and fire-fighters, price inflation and kitchen tables; in Biden he seems to have found one.

However, Blair's choice of deputy differed from Obama's in one critical respect. While Obama selected a man noted for his substance, Blair -- it turned out -- had chosen a man whose central contribution would be comic relief.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was the British government's comedian-in-chief. Charged with being Labour's anti-Tory attack-dog, Prescott soon showed himself to be a self-wounding Mr Malaprop. His relations with the English language could at best be described as casual. During a meeting with Dick Cheney the Deputy PM reportedly referred to somewhere called "Kovosa." This was a territory apparently situated in a place Prescott is said to have dubbed the "Balklands."

That was not the sum of it. He was enormous, yet still able to bed his diary secretary. Most famously, he punched a voter in the face during the middle of a General Election campaign -- which Blair subsequently went on to win.

Eventually, after nearly a decade of gaffes, Prescott's credibility was buried once and for all when he was pictured playing croquet at his grace and favor manor. It was a photo no politician would want floating around -- least of all New Labour's working class pin-up. But it was even worse than that: Blair was out of the country at the time; technically, Prescott was in charge. The long range snapshot stripped him of what remaining use he had.

And yet, none of this mattered. Blair could get away with Prescott livening the place up. For while it was useful, especially in the early days, to have Big John around to broaden Blair's appeal, he was never really necessary. Brits, like other Europeans, are less suspicious of the noblesse de robe than Americans are of their lawyers and bureaucrats. If this election were in Britain, France and Germany, Obama would win hands down; not so - at least not yet - here. But this says more about the fascinating complexities of America than it does the manifest qualifications of Barack Obama to lead. Joe Biden's significance in this race, in this country, is so much greater than Prescott's could have been in the UK: Biden's folksy charm will be crucial to Obama's success.

So let's just hope that the senior senator from Delaware doesn't hit anyone -- because Joe Biden counts.

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