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Julian E. Zelizer Headshot

Don't Put a Muzzle on Biden

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So Senator Joe Biden is the pick. The wait for the text message is over. Everyone can go back to their business.

The temptation for Barack Obama's team will be to keep Biden on a short leash, as the pundits have been advising. Senator Biden is notorious for speaking before he thinks, which often gets him into trouble and has plagued his political career. In 2006, for example, Biden displayed made an exceptionally insensitive comment when he said, in front of C-SPAN cameras, "in Delaware, the largest growth of population is Indian Americans, moving from India. You cannot go to a 7/11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I am not joking."

Biden's penchant for poorly-thought out remarks violates an important characteristic for vice presidential candidates in this 24 hour, instant media age--pick someone who won't make an embarrassing mistake and turn into a liability for the campaign.

But Biden's quick verbal skills can be an asset for Democrats, and they should risk giving him room to speak his mind. The fact is that Democrats have not had a good "attack dog" as their vice presidential nominee for a long time. Just think of 2004, when Senator John Edwards sat there in a televised debate with his polished smile as Vice President Cheney systematically eviscerated his record and the Democratic Party in general.

Biden is a different kind of vice presidential candidate. During this campaign, Biden has offered some of the most biting comments about how Republicans have conducted the war on terrorism and foreign policy. In one debate, Biden offered a devastating critique of then Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani--and implicitly the entire Republican Party--when he said that all of Giuliani's sentences consisted of "a noun, a verb, and 9/11." Biden has called Bush's administration the "worst" in modern history with regards to foreign policy and argues that "every single thing they've touched has been a near disaster." He has been equally tough in his criticism of Senator John McCain. "The administration's policy and John McCain's view-- and I love him--are abject failures. We have never been weaker in relative terms than we are today," Biden said of their foreign policies.

This is the election when Democrats have the opportunity to go on the attack. The incumbent president is overwhelmingly unpopular, the economy is facing tough times, there is real confusion and uncertainty in foreign policy, and the Republican candidate only has tepid support from key factions in his own party.

From a strategic perspective, this is not the time for Democrats to play nice. Biden is the perfect candidate to take on this challenge, a man with a wealth of foreign policy expertise and political experience, yet a hardened politician who is willing to be as aggressive with the GOP as they have been with Democrats in recent elections. Democratic operatives should take the risk and give Biden some room to say the things that Obama himself probably can't say.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II.