Sunday, May 27 , 2018, 2:07 am | Fair 55º


Susan Estrich: Hats Off to You, Smokin’ Joe

Vice president shines in perhaps his last moment under the big lights

I turned off the television the minute the debate was over. I don’t care what the armies of talking heads (many of whom have never come closer to a debate than their television set) have to say. I’ve been there — for some of the best and some of the worst.

From where I sit, this was one of the best.

Yes, I’m a Democrat. Mitt Romney won the first debate. I was rooting for Joe Biden.

But I wasn’t pulling for the vice president because I thought it would be a real game-changer, but because of what it would mean for him.

Vice presidential debates, for all the talk you’ll hear from Democrats in the next few days, are rarely (meaning never yet) game changers. I was there for Bentsen-Quayle in 1988, waiting for Dan Quayle to utter the words “Jack Kennedy,” sure that it would provoke the reaction it did.

“Pray for Jack Kennedy,” I said to President Bill Clinton before the debate began. For once in that campaign, our prayers were answered. But I was also in a bar across the street an hour later when our pollster confirmed that while Lloyd Bentsen had won the debate, the horse race had barely moved.

So maybe Biden’s performance will stop Romney’s momentum (although I think the unemployment numbers already did), and maybe it will help President Barack Obama’s fundraising, and it certainly will energize his supporters and quiet some of the complainers. It is still a close race.

What made me smile was what it means for Biden. I’ve known the vice president for a very long time. I’ve known him through some of his toughest times. I became Michael Dukakis’ campaign manager in 1987 after the infamous “Biden tape affair” — the secretly leaked tape showing him channeling Labor Party candidate Neil Kinnock, a leak that looks like a playground stunt in light of today’s acceptance of ugliness as business-as-usual politics. I was less than thrilled with his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. I would have liked to see Hillary Clinton on the ticket back in 2008.

I’ve also seen Biden deal with challenges few of us would ever want to face: the death of his beloved wife and daughter, all those years when I first came to Washington and everyone knew that Biden was the guy who commuted home to Delaware every night to raise his boys. I remember when he suffered a near-fatal aneurysm, and years later, when a friend faced a similar crisis, Biden was one of the first to reach out and offer him encouragement and hope that, yes, he would be the same again.

Biden has been around. This was his last debate, perhaps his last moment under lights this bright, a moment when his president and his party were looking to him if not to win the election (see Bentsen ‘88), then to restore their trust that the cause was true and right, that Democrats had much to be proud of, that there were more than differences in style between the two parties.

He did that and more. He did it with passion and conviction, as well as facts and figures. He was true to himself. Yes, he laughed and smiled, but if you know Biden, that wasn’t a stage-managed tactic, but a genuine response. The guy on the other side was playing games, spouting a script, turning his back on his record, avoiding questions — and better a smile and a laugh than an angry scowl.

When Paul Ryan came back with what you know was a speechwriter’s retort about how surely the vice president understands wrong words coming out of your mouth, Biden didn’t scowl or cower. He jumped right back with what has always been true about him: It might come out garbled and impolitic, but he always means what he says.

I’m as cynical as the next one and maybe more. I’ve seen my love affair with politics turn sour. I’ve seen my dreams of who I would be when I grew up twisted by a system that few aspire to be a part of. So every once in a while, it’s reassuring to see someone who reminds me that there are still a few people out there, people older than me, more battle-scarred than me, people who’ve been up and down and back up again, giving it their very best shot because they still believe in, yes, the possibility of a better America.

Hats off to you, Joe Biden. I’m smiling, too.

— Bestselling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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