For this entire week, the American people will pretend to care about Joe Biden. Such is the fate of anyone chosen to serve as vice president that we send him into oblivion until he (or she) says something worth mocking. Forget their views on national security or the environment: veeps only command attention when they misspell potato or claim to have invented the Internet.
Normally Thursday’s vice presidential debate, like the office itself, would be irrelevant in determining the outcome of this year’s election. In this case, that may not be true. The 2012 election is so close and the candidates so uniformly unsatisfactory that any slight shift of wind—a leaked video or a lackluster debate—can blow the polls in a different direction. This week Mitt Romney rides a wave in the polls. Or not, depending on which pollster you choose to believe.
On Thursday night, it will be Joe Biden and Paul Ryan’s turn to shift the winds again with gusts of hot air. At his best, Mr. Ryan is a young(ish) idea guy who is a rarity in politics: someone who actually believes what he says. At his worst, Ryan can come across as a heartless number cruncher—or the most physically fit accountant in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Unless Mr. Ryan lights the podium on fire or walks on stage in a tank top, however, most eyes will be trained firmly on our current vice president. And Mr. Biden has the trickier task—to reinvigorate the Obama campaign’s momentum while making the case against Mitt Romney that his boss seemed to think was beneath him. Can Joe Biden pull off such a task? Well, that all depends on which Joe Biden decides to show up. Here are the possibilities:
Uncle Cornball: We all know this version of our vice president: the cloying, cheesy, “God love ya, man” Joe Biden who gets so carried away with his voice that he gets himself into all kinds of trouble. We first saw this guy in 2008, when he was so excited America had the chance to elect a black president that he promptly insulted Obama and the entire black race, calling his future boss “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.” We saw this guy again a few weeks ago at a campaign rally where he announced to African-Americans in the audience that Republicans will put “y’all back in chains.” This is the goofy guy who says things like, “Folks, I can tell you I’ve known eight presidents. Three of them intimately.” Or “I promise you the president has a big stick. I promise you.” The guy who said “jobs” was a three-letter word. I kind of want to see this guy. But I bet Obama doesn’t.
Dan Quayle the Second: A slightly worse version of the above, this Joe Biden not only says foolish things, but gives priceless ammunition to the Romney campaign. The most memorable example occurred a few days ago when he told an audience that the “middle class” has been “buried” during the Obama years. A few years ago, this Joe Biden warned people not to ride on aircraft or subways out of fear of contracting “swine flu.” And this Joe Biden casually noted that Americans couldn’t go to a 7-11 or donut shop “unless you have a slight Indian accent.” Lest one hope that the vice president was kidding around on that last one, Biden quickly added, “I’m not joking.” Team Obama isn’t looking for this guy either.
Bazooka Joe: This is the Joe Biden that many Obama supporters are hoping for: the quick-witted lawyer able to throw some tough jabs and who presided over Judiciary Committee hearings to disqualify conservative judges. Bazooka Joe knows how to destroy a target. During the 2008 campaign, for example, he fired a devastating shot at former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose presidential campaign seemed to be built around his response to a national tragedy. “There’s only three things [Rudy] mentions in a sentence,” Biden said. “A noun, a verb, and 9/11.” He said Sarah Palin “was in sixth grade the last time John [McCain] had a good idea.” And he’s ratcheted up the rhetoric against Mitt Romney ever since the last debate. As a student, Biden was known to be an ace crammer; presumably he’s studied up enough on Romney and Ryan to do some real damage.
Delaware Joe: By far the most effective of the Joe Bidens, this guy was elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 29—the sixth-youngest senator in American history—running against a well-established Republican incumbent and given virtually no chance by the punditry. Just before Christmas of that same year, this Joe Biden lost his wife and their 1-year-old daughter in a car accident. It fell to him to heal what remained of his shattered family and to rebuild his life. Which is exactly what he did. This Joe Biden is a formidable weapon for the Obama campaign: the likable Irish Catholic who rode Amtrak every day from Washington to Wilmington so that his kids could stay in their family home in Delaware. This Joe Biden can make a powerful case to average Americans because he talks their language and understand their fears. This Joe Biden might just turn the election back in Obama’s direction. That is, if he shows up. We’ll find out soon.