PRUDEN: A bad week for a running mate

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The rap on Joe Biden is that he’s bright, well-meaning and amiable, and when he opens his mouth you never know what’s likely to fly out. But sometimes he comes up with interesting ideas.

Joe thinks that Barack Obama, clearly rattled by the Sarah surge, should find a skirt to get behind as the runners finally make the clubhouse turn and head down the homestretch. Whose skirt is wider that Hillary Clinton‘s? Changing running mates in mid-campaign, for no other reason than the first running mate was a big mistake, would invite disbelief and bipartisan hilarity. George McGovern kicked Tom Eagleton off the train in 1972, or under the bus or out of the plane - choose your on-the-road metaphor. The kindly and agreeable Mr. McGoo never recovered. He might have lost 49 states, anyway, but Democrats were shocked, shocked.

One of our current running mates has had a similarly sad week, and it wasn’t Sarah Palin. Joe Biden continues to entertain everybody but persuade few. The man who boasted that Delaware was a slave state and fought on the wrong side in the War Between the States, who famously described the first black presidential candidate as “bright, clean and articulate,” who prescribes using “a slight Indian accent” for anyone seeking a snack at Dunkin’ Donuts or a 7-Eleven in Delaware, this week enthusiastically urged a paraplegic state senator in Missouri to “stand up and let the people see you.” Once he saw that the man couldn’t, he blushed deep red and said: “Oh, God love ya. What am I talking about?”

Good question, and one no doubt beginning to occur to Barack Obama, who thinks of himself as a quick learner. A man at a rally this week in New Hampshire thought he was saying something nice to Joe, telling him: “I’m glad you were picked over Hillary not because she’s a woman, but because, look at the things she did in the past.” Joe affected to be aghast, but not at unhappy things in Hillary’s past. “Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be vice president of the United States of America,” he scolded the man. “Let’s get that straight. She’s a truly close personal friend, she is qualified to be the president of the United States of America, she’s easily qualified to be vice president of the United States of America, and quite frankly, it might have been a better pick than me. But she’s first rate, I mean that sincerely, she’s first rate, so let’s get that straight.”

Now that we’ve got that straight, we can ask, why would Joe say something like that? Has he decided that he wants to get out of here while the getting is good, preferably before he has to face Sarah Palin next month in St. Louis? Is he setting up the long goodbye? Or is he putting a little butter on the fulsome praise for Hillary and Bubba, telling them as plaintively as he knows how that now is the time for every good man (and woman) to come to the aid of the party. The ticket clearly needs a little help from its friends, even if they’re not really his friends. Only a few hours after tossing a Valentine to Hillary, Barack Obama sat down with Bubba in Harlem to share a baloney sandwich and a little autumn angst, and to talk about all the things he and Hillary could do over the next seven weeks. When the senator departed and a reporter asked Bubba to predict the outcome of the November voting, he replied: “I think Obama will win handily.”

If that’s true Bubba stands almost alone among Democratic bigs, because everybody else thinks it will be close at best, and at worst Barack Obama might not make it close. The man who only a fortnight ago was the man we were all waiting for is beginning to look at home in the pantheon of familiar Democratic faces who won’t make it to Mount Rushmore: George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry. Nice guys all, and all finished last.

The only new polls Barack and Joe can take solace in are these just in from Europe. The Europeans love him, and none more than the French. The froggies give him a polling lead of 80 to 12, and John and Sarah aren’t likely to make up enough ground by November to avoid arrest for loitering if they visit Paris. These are, however, the same French who told other pollsters this week that the September 11 attacks were probably the work of America and Israel. The Republicans can take their solace in the knowledge that the entire European Union, though overflowing with righteous piety, nevertheless has fewer electoral votes than Wyoming.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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