In a Nation forum in November 2007, John Nichols made this assessment of Joe Biden’s political skills, which shines a light on what kind of vice presidential candidate he will be.

I’m not in the habit of making campaign endorsements, and if I was, I’d probably urge a write-in vote for Russ Feingold, Joe Biden’s colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who combines Biden’s political smarts with a record on military adventurism and civil liberties that’s far more to my liking. But I do endorse realism, and as such I can’t buy the argument that Biden is significantly less acceptable than the Democratic front-runners. Biden maintains 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters, Citizens for Tax Justice, the Children’s Defense Fund and the NAACP; and 93 percent from the AFL-CIO–these numbers are every bit as liberal as his competitors’.

I don’t forgive Biden’s wrong vote to authorize George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq, but neither do I forgive those of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Unlike either of them, Biden tried to constrain the Administration when he and Senator Richard Lugar fought in 2002 to require diplomatic efforts before military options could be considered. As Foreign Relations Committee chair, Biden remains far more engaged than his opponents in the debate about how to address the Iraq crisis. That does not mean his “solutions” are better, but it does mean he is more agile than most Democrats when it comes to debating policy.

It is, to be sure, a hard-won agility. Biden has more bruises than his fellow Democrats because he has gotten in the ring more often than most of them. His bruises are the marks of experience and determination, which ought not to be underestimated. At a time when too many Democrats are prone to pulling punches, he knows how to throw them. No Democrat with an eye on the 2008 prize failed to thrill when Biden used an otherwise forgettable October debate to kneecap the GOP front-runner. While the other Democrats poked one another to uninspired effect, Biden ridiculed Rudy Giuliani for waging a campaign based on “a noun, a verb and 9/11.” This was Biden at his best: fast on his feet, muscularly partisan, devastatingly effective at tossing barbs. These strengths have kept the Delaware senator on the national scene for thirty-five years, and they make him the most quick-witted of this season’s Democratic contenders.

Of course, Biden is not always at his best, as a failed 1988 presidential quest and several false starts since then can attest. He’s a big talker, and he’s made some big gaffes. But no Democratic contender has been so steadily “on” during this campaign. And even if Biden’s poll numbers remain soft, that October debate confirmed his ability to stir things up.

In the blood-sport competition for the presidency, Biden’s flair for finding the GOP jugular ought to count for something among Democrats who grumble about their last two nominees’ failure to play offense. Of an old breed of Democrats who fought their way out of the back rooms of urban East Coast politics, Biden beat an entrenched Republican to enter the Senate, held his seat during GOP landslide years, used his Judiciary Committee chairmanship in the 1980s to block some of Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominees and corporate-sponsored tort “reform,” and not only wrote the Violence Against Women Act but got it reauthorized by two Republican-led Congresses. Biden is best understood as a relatively rare political archetype: a Democrat who pays less attention to internal party politics than to winning elections and governing. This skill makes him the one Democrat Republicans feel compelled not merely to attack but to answer. That’s because Biden has so far been the one Democrat who has consistently understood the importance of taking the fight to the other guys.

Other Essays in This Series

Ellen Chesler for Hillary Clinton
Katherine S. Newman for John Edwards
Bruce Shapiro for Christopher Dodd
Richard Kim for Mike Gravel
Gore Vidal for Dennis Kucinich
Michael Eric Dyson for Barack Obama
Rocky Anderson for Bill Richardson