Joe Biden’s Time in Sarah Palin’s Shadow

  • May 11, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET

Joe Biden was getting the hang of being overshadowed. It was not a bad life.

Less than a week had passed since Barack Obama, the Democratic supernova of 2008, had announced Mr. Biden, a recent presidential also-ran, as his running mate. And after a well-turned nominating convention in Denver in late August — “This is his time,” Mr. Biden told the crowd, pumping his fist on the key word, “this is our time” — the two were jetting off on a joint campaign swing when the patter of breaking news consumed their plane.

John McCain, their Republican opponent, had made his selection for vice president. Mr. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, briefed the front of the cabin. Mr. Biden scrunched his face a bit, searching his mental database:

“Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin,” he repeated, thinking aloud.

He had nothing to add. “He couldn’t even place the name,” Mr. Axelrod recalled.

Neither of these things would happen again.

Twelve years later, with Mr. Biden the presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee, the frenetic final months of the 2008 race stand as perhaps the most consequential stretch of his campaign career. It is a chapter at once critical to understanding Mr. Biden’s present thinking, according to former aides and allies — a moment, like this one, shadowed by grave national uncertainty and economic crisis — and freshly relevant after his pledge in March to name a woman to the ticket.

Mr. Biden has long described himself as a champion of women, and his competition with Ms. Palin, the last female vice-presidential nominee of a major party, is consistent with a public arc in which he has seemed to figure prominently, Forrest Gump-like, in signal episodes of complicated gender politics in modern American history.

He led the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, attracting criticism for his Senate committee’s treatment of Anita Hill. He pushed for the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which Mr. Biden has called his “proudest legislative achievement.” And he and his campaign have emphasized that work when faced with allegations of unwanted touching and, more recently, a sexual assault, which he has forcefully denied.

Now, as Mr. Biden considers his options for prospective vice presidents, his position mirrors Mr. McCain’s in 2008, to an extent: a septuagenarian statesman-candidate, primed to face a political celebrity in the general election, hoping that his choice can inject urgent energy into his campaign while sending a powerful signal to female voters who might have hoped to see a woman atop the ballot in November.

It is not lost on Mr. Biden that whomever he chooses might well be elected the nation’s first female president after his turn, or at least become a new front-runner for the distinction. He has called himself a “bridge” to the next generation of Democratic leaders, a transitional figure whose chief goal is the removal of President Trump. That Mr. Biden is a 77-year-old man likely to accept the nomination during a pandemic has attached even weightier stakes to his decision.

In private encounters before this campaign, Mr. Biden has likened running-mate evaluation to deciding among calendar models, with three broad categories (and outdated honorifics): Contenders can be a “Mr. August” (a shot of momentum in the summer), a “Mr. October” (a reliable and effective campaigner for the fall) or a “Mr. January” (a governing partner, politics notwithstanding).

Some close to Mr. Biden say that his process will be informed by one intuitive, if often overlooked, fact: He thinks he was a very good pick — a combination of Mr. October and Mr. January, at minimum — and views his own blend of résumé and campaign chops with high regard.

“It was a governing pick with political benefits,” Anita Dunn, a top adviser to Mr. Biden in 2020 and to Mr. Obama in 2008, said with a laugh. “The best kind of governing pick.”

Yet as much as any figure in modern politics, Mr. Biden appreciates the power and peril of an “August”-style spectacle: He was once the Democrat responsible for neutralizing one, while subsisting in her reflected glow.

The initial shock of Mr. McCain’s gambit would be difficult to overstate. Ms. Palin, then 44, had been on none of the presumed shortlists and was little known outside Alaska, where she had served as governor for less than two years after a stint as the mayor of Wasilla, a town with a population of about 7,000 at the time.

ImageMs. Palin’s down-home appeal as a “hockey mom” stood in contrast to Mr. Biden’s status as a Washington insider.

Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Her raw talent at a microphone made her an instant phenomenon, catching the Obama operation flat-footed. To date, Ms. Palin remains Mr. Biden’s most salient preparation for an adversary like Mr. Trump, gifted in the politics of grievance and belittling: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer,” she said at the Republican National Convention, cutting down Mr. Obama’s credentials, “except that you have actual responsibilities.”

Still, in Ms. Palin’s down-home appeal as an accessible “hockey mom,” Mr. Biden also seemed to recognize political kinship of a sort as he watched her from his campaign bus.

“A lot of people are going to see themselves in her,” he told aides, recalling the upset that propelled him to the Senate as a largely anonymous 29-year-old with an instinct for human connection. “People forget how I won in ’72.”

Mr. Biden’s political prognoses did not always find a receptive audience among Obama advisers, who chafed at his well-earned reputation for loose talk and strained to fold a self-described “gut politician” into their whirring campaign machine.

Tensions were often more pronounced than Mr. Biden cares to dwell on today, with trust so mutually fragile at times that he wondered if some traveling staff members were sending reports about him back to the Chicago headquarters surreptitiously.

“Are you one of my guys?” Mr. Biden would ask, according to a person present. The implication was clear: There were Biden guys and their guys.

In the end, of course, Mr. Biden did what he had signed on to do. He reassured voters, shaken by financial catastrophe, that Mr. Obama was ready to lead. He girded himself for the most anticipated (maybe the only anticipated) vice-presidential debate on record. He wended dutifully through the kinds of old-guard union towns where he had long made his electoral living.

Now, Mr. Biden holds up the work that the 2008 campaign made possible as the most significant of his professional life.

Then, it was not always easy to feel essential.

“Remember,” he told supporters in Ohio that September, “no one decides who they’re going to vote for based on the vice president.”

Credit…Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

The nominee made his case diplomatically.

“I want you to view this as the capstone of your career,” Mr. Obama said when he asked Mr. Biden to run with him, according to Mr. Biden’s retelling at the time.

“And not the tombstone,” Mr. Biden clarified.

It was a strange fit, in theory: a Washington veteran who cherished his committee seniority and a hyper-disciplined prodigy a few years removed from the Illinois State Senate.

In fact, Obama advisers viewed the presumed limitations of Mr. Biden’s long-term political future as an asset. He would be 74 by the end of Mr. Obama’s second term, hardly the profile of a natural heir, ostensibly making Mr. Biden less likely to prize executive ambition over day-to-day loyalty.

But the merger was not frictionless. Speaking in New Hampshire weeks after being chosen, Mr. Biden suggested that Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama’s leading rival from the primary, “might have been a better pick than me.”

Another comparison was dodgier: Mr. Biden, believing he was speaking in confidence, told reporters on his plane that he was more qualified than Mr. Obama to be president, reasoning that he would not have run in the primary himself if he thought otherwise.

When such flourishes distressed Obama advisers, Mr. Biden — who had been his own boss for decades — smarted at having his political intuition questioned or overruled, former aides say.

Ms. Dunn, the top Biden 2020 strategist who worked for Mr. Obama 12 years ago, played down any squabbles without dismissing them entirely. “There may have been a couple of times, but there was never anything major,” she said of Mr. Biden’s frustrations. “If he had conflicts, he never took them public.”

The factions lurched toward compromise. Early on, some on the Obama team watched incredulously as Mr. Biden began his remarks with exhaustive thank-you lists, sparing no detail in saluting the town, local leaders, the fire marshal on hand. This, to the campaign’s eye, gave cable networks every reason to cut away from Mr. Biden, who valued the reaction in the room over telegenic considerations.

Mr. Biden agreed to add an accessory to his speech materials for certain addresses: a stopwatch, ticking away in front of him as he spoke. He became helpfully competitive with himself, proudly marking any triumphs over long-windedness.

“Twelve minutes!” Mr. Biden boasted once, coming offstage and waving the timer. (Such brevity more often eluded him.)

Mr. Obama’s staff also came to admire Mr. Biden’s skills as a retail campaigner, sending him across the Industrial Midwest as a kind of ambassador to the white working class.

“I tell you, man, this is nice,” Mr. Biden said in Michigan, revving a Mustang engine at an auto plant.

“I’m dripping here, man,” he reported in Ohio, carrying a vanilla ice cream cone out of a diner.

“Get her on the phone, man!” he urged well-wishers on his rope lines, whenever they informed him that their mothers loved him.

Mr. Biden’s crowds were respectable and often animated enough. But there was no comparison to Ms. Palin.

“She was like a fireworks display in full technicolor,” Mr. Axelrod said. “And he was kind of your standard vice-presidential candidate.”

One Pew analysis, comparing Mr. Biden’s media coverage to his counterpart’s, labeled him “the virtually forgotten candidate.” His campaign plane was sometimes so neglected that reporters could commandeer full rows for naps.

Privately, some in the party tossed around Mr. Biden’s self-deprecating assessment themselves: Might Mrs. Clinton have been a better pick?

Ms. Palin was making an unsubtle — and, Democrats insisted, reductive — play for Clinton voters, invoking her by name despite their disparate views and telling supporters that “the women of America aren’t finished yet.”

During Ms. Palin’s grand introduction at the Republican National Convention, a group of former Clinton aides in Chicago listened with alarm.

“I remember sitting on my couch with other former Hillary staffers who had joined the Obama campaign,” said Patti Solis Doyle, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff for the general election. “We all sort of looked at each other and said, ‘Uh oh.’”

Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

There was an upside to Ms. Palin’s rise.

Mr. Biden — eager for a meaningful portfolio, a vital task to perform — had one in front of him now: He would have to debate a dynamic younger woman, in a suddenly much-hyped mega-event, while both avoiding condescension and holding her to account.

And the political press seemed unconvinced that he was capable.

“I remember him kind of laughing at the way that the question kept coming at him,” said David Wade, then a traveling communications aide to Mr. Biden. “It sort of sounded as if it was like a National Geographic expedition to confront the rare female.”

Mr. Biden found the skepticism bizarre. To his mind, he had spent much of his Senate life in the company of accomplished women, even if the Capitol remained male-dominated on balance.

If he was visited by any self-doubt dating to the Justice Thomas hearings of 1991, for which Mr. Biden has faced considerable blowback over his committee’s posture toward Ms. Hill, aides did not recall it.

Still, Mr. Biden was often uncharacteristically careful when discussing Ms. Palin on the trail, rarely mentioning her explicitly and conceding that their meeting might be fraught.

“Are there pitfalls? Yeah, there are pitfalls if two people of different genders or races, different ethnicities, debate one another,” he said in Wisconsin. “Either person may say something that comes off the wrong way.”

Mr. Biden seemed liable to be that person. At one event in Ohio, he had summarized their differences like this: “She’s good-looking.”

Ms. Palin’s gaffes were of a different type. In the weeks after her rousing debut, she appeared out of her depth on many basic questions of policy and readiness, most memorably staggering through an interview with Katie Couric in which Ms. Palin declined to name a news source she read. (Attempts to reach Ms. Palin were unsuccessful.)

Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

In recent years, Mr. Biden has been loath to criticize Mr. McCain, a genuine friend from the Senate whom he eulogized in 2018. But former aides say Mr. Biden seemed to lament that his Republican peer had, in Mr. Biden’s estimation, ignored his better judgment in potentially placing Ms. Palin a 72-year-old’s heartbeat away from the presidency.

Ms. Palin’s stumbles also made Mr. Biden’s debate challenge more delicate, lowering expectations for her and ensuring that even a technically proficient showing from him would be appraised harshly if he seemed patronizing.

As their forum in early October approached, Mr. Biden and his team gathered at a hotel prep space in Delaware, calling in Jennifer Granholm, then the Michigan governor, to play Ms. Palin.

Sprinkling her answers with known Palin flourishes like “you betcha” or a well-placed wink, Ms. Granholm also slipped in mistakes or outright nonsense to test Mr. Biden’s restraint.

“We had to take a step back and ask, ‘What does wiping the floor with her look like to the American people?’” Ms. Solis Doyle said. “There were several women in the debate prep, and he very much wanted to hear from us: ‘How does that sound? How does that look?’”

In one session, Ms. Granholm made inexplicable reference to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the 1967 film about the discomfort of a well-to-do liberal white couple whose daughter plans to marry a black man.

Almost any response from Mr. Biden might have landed awkwardly. So he trained himself, at least this once, to eliminate the risk.

“Well,” Mr. Biden replied eventually, “I guess I’ll just leave it at that.”

Credit…Richard Perry/The New York Times

The first round went to Ms. Palin.

“Can I call you Joe?” she asked as the two met onstage in St. Louis, a disarming touch for a national newcomer. Mr. Biden gave his blessing.

“Candidly, I kind of liked it,” recalled Terrell McSweeny, a Biden aide at the time. “Like, ‘Wow, good move.’”

It was not Ms. Palin’s only triumph of style. Though she frequently retreated to talking points, Ms. Palin spoke inclusively of “Main Streeters like me,” “Joe Sixpack” and “hockey moms across the nation.”

Ms. Palin’s mistakes came mostly when she strayed from such rhetorical comforts. Discussing counterinsurgency strategy abroad, she repeatedly referred to Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top American commander in Afghanistan, as “McClellan,” the surname of a 19th-century general.

Mr. Biden declined to correct her, or even use the name himself, for fear of appearing litigious. “Well,” he began, after Ms. Palin finished, “our commanding general did say that.”

By the end of a mostly cordial 90 minutes, each side seemed pleased. Ms. Palin had avoided disaster, defying predictions of full-scale embarrassment, and Mr. Biden was a faithful messenger for a campaign focused on presenting Mr. McCain as out of step with the times.

“He understood what his job was in that debate,” Ms. Dunn said. “It was not to make it about her and not to let her make it about her.”

That weekend on “Saturday Night Live” — where Tina Fey’s skewering of Ms. Palin came to define her in the public consciousness more than any opponent could — a fictionalized Mr. Biden enjoyed a victory lap.

“My goal tonight was a simple one: to come up here and at no point seem like a condescending, egomaniacal bully,” said the character, played by Jason Sudeikis. “And I’m gonna be honest: I think I nailed it.”

The real Mr. Biden was more gracious in public. But stepping offstage that night in St. Louis, something was still eating at him.

He had cleared his most significant obstacle of the fall. Advisers were congratulating him on his performance. At last, Mr. Biden could unburden himself:

“McClellan,” he told an aide, discreetly enough, “was a Civil War general.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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