The last vice presidential nominee to make a positive difference in a U.S. election was probably Lyndon Johnson in 1960. But that was another time, another world. To be sure, the vice presidency itself has become more important over time. Walter Mondale and Al Gore were key players in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and entire books will someday be written about Dick Cheney's central role in defiling nearly everything admirable and decent about the United States of America during the early years of the 21st century. Nevertheless, little evidence exists suggesting that vice presidential nominations move the electorate in any meaningful way.
That said, Barack Obama's candidacy has consistently defied conventional wisdom , and Obama has the opportunity to do so yet again in his selection of a running mate. It is critical, however, that he move past traditional notions of balancing a ticket, either by geography, experience, or ideology. Those white voters in Appalachia and elsewhere who reject Obama because of some combination of fear and bigotry will not be assuaged by the addition of Evan Bayh or Tom Kaine to the Democratic ticket. Nor would the resurrection of that crotchety old gay-baiter, Sam Nunn, reassure those who consider the presidential nominee too green and timid to be trusted with defending the nation. In the end, Barack Obama will win or lose based on his own ability to persuade voters that he is up to the job.
Regardless, at the moment, Obama's biggest problem remains the aura of heroism and rugged authenticity that surrounds his opponent. If voters go into November still believing that John McCain is a man of proven and unassailable character, a bipartisan maverick who puts country ahead of party and personal ambition, Obama will lose the 2008 presidential election. It is as simple as that. Either the Democrats find some way to raise doubts about McCain's character or they will fail to capture the White House during the worst Republican year since 1974. Since Obama seems unwilling to do the gut fighting necessary to save his faltering candidacy, he needs to find someone who is up to the job.
Enter Joe Biden. Sure, Biden has impressive foreign policy chops, but that's not really the point. Rather, the veteran Delaware senator possesses the ability to make the necessary attacks, and to do so in a style that suggests that he's really just joshing. It was Joe Biden who delived the coup de grace against another supposedly untouchable hero, Rudy Giuliani, hitting the smarmy New Yorker where it hurt the most. Every one of Giuliani's sentences, Biden joked, contains a noun, a verb, and 9/11. Clearly, Rudy created many of his own problems, and his presidential ambitions would have petered out with or without anyone else's help, but Biden's jab nevertheless drew blood.
It is this ability and willingness to wield the shiv--and to do it with a wink and a smile--that would make Biden invaluable to a presidential nominee who needs to even the playing field on the character issue. Evan Bayh can't do this. Nor can Tom Kaine or Kathleen Sebelius. Hillary Clinton probably can, but her own persistent ambitions would likely make her unwilling to play bad cop for a former rival whose success would defer her dreams for eight long years.
Barack Obama needs Joe Biden.