By choosing Joe Biden, Barack Obama has – according to the conventional wisdom – added vital experience and foreign-policy wisdom to his campaign. What he's really done is add an exclamation point to the triumph of cynical, win-at-all-cost politics.
Remember: This was supposed to be a very different kind of contest. John McCain – the maverick. Barack Obama – the once-in-a-generation leader. A campaign that would rival Lincoln-Douglas for substance.
But the past few months have shown how hard it is to break old political habits. Senator McCain has gone negative, big-time. It's working. Senator Obama has become more mainstream. Now he's picked Senator Biden, the ultimate Washington insider, and someone who can fight back hard. It all adds up to what could be the dirtiest, ugliest campaign of the past 80 years.
2008 is a campaign that's become more politics as usual than change we can believe in.
I did not expect Obama to choose Biden as his vice president, even when the 35-year Senate veteran became the favorite pick of conventional wisdom week ago. For those of us in the netroots, Biden often represents the Beltway status quo that we have confronted in previous battles.
He has been referred to as Biden (MBNA) – instead of (D)– for the way he's carried water for credit-card companies, even when it puts corporate profits ahead of the welfare of the very poor among us. On matters such as voting for the invasion of Iraq and its continued funding, Biden has been in direct opposition to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and Obama, too.
Let's not fool ourselves into believing that Biden reinforces Obama's central message during the primaries: "change we can believe in." Nor does Biden symbolize a generational choice in the way that Al Gore was for Bill Clinton in 1992 – signaling the changing of the guard. No, Biden is the epitome of the Old Guard in Washington.
So why did Obama pick him? Because his team apparently recognized, just in time perhaps, that running a "post-partisan" campaign as an agent of change simply wasn't going to bring victory in November. Choosing Biden shows that the Obama team's reverence for a new politics has been mugged by reality.
That reality consists of two key facts: 1) Polls show lingering reluctance among white Democrats and independents to embrace Obama. 2) McCain's negative strategy is working.
Heading into the conventions, polls have pointed to the weaknesses in Obama's candidacy. It's not just white men, either. McCain's favorables are at least as high as Obama's, even in some states where Obama leads. In polls of generic match-ups between Republicans and Democrats for Congress, Democrats lead by double digits. Obama has no such lead – a signal taken by many that his support is not as strong as it should be, given the public's overwhelming rejection of the Bush presidency and Republican rule.
The bottom line: For all the factors that would seem to favor Obama and the Democrats this year, the race is a tossup, and the outcome is going to be very close.
A month ago, this race was in a different place. It was then that McCain realized he had a losing strategy. His current campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, gave the blunt advice that McCain would lose if the status quo of the campaign remained in place. So McCain drastically shifted to another strategy – the tried and tested one of driving your opponent's negatives higher. He has been gaining on Obama ever since.
Likewise, Obama's pick shows that his campaign has shifted strategy, too. Framing his candidacy as a harbinger of a "new politics" just wasn't getting the job done. By going with Biden – who represents what Obama was running against – he gets a blue-collar "fighter," someone who can punch back at McCain's jabs. Most likely, he wasn't Obama's desired choice, but he's probably as good a counter as Democrats could expect, given the shape of the campaign.
McCain would have loved to just jive it up with the press on the back of the bus and get favorable newspaper clips the next morning, the way he used to do back when he was running for president in 2000. Obama would have loved to ride above it all while the media glowed at his meta-narrative. But in the no holds barred partisan environment of the general election, both men have succumbed to the highly managed, and highly disciplined, practice of "message" politics and negative ads.
Despite it all, the netroots backing of the Democratic nominee remains strong. We recognize a highly partisan atmosphere as a feature, not a bug, in the campaign landscape of our times. We fight hard, and to win. We have been waiting for Obama to fight back against the smears, and believe that with Biden, some help has arrived.
In order to govern, you have to win first.