Biden's Debate Challenge: Keeping His Mouth Shut

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John Gress / Reuters

U.S. Democratic Vice Presidential nominee and Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and Republican Vice Presidential nominee and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin share the same stage in a vice presidential debate on October 2, 2008.

If Barack Obama had consulted 100 wise Democrats about selecting Joe Biden as his running mate, asking them, "What would be your biggest concern?," he would have received 100 identical responses.

In the words of Robert Draper's classic GQ profile of the Delaware Senator: "Joe Biden Can't Shut Up."

During the Veepstakes selection process, Obama and his advisers were well aware of Biden's Achilles' mouth, but they were equally aware of the Senator's strengths — his wisdom, his experience, his oratory gifts and his impressive life story. And if the primary prerequisite in a vice-presidential pick is finding someone unambiguously qualified to inherit the Oval Office, Obama made a judicious choice, especially in light of the competence questions that have continually dogged Biden's embattled Republican counterpart, Sarah Palin. Indeed, even the Republicans — who have hit their opponents on a wide range of issues, in keeping with the nonstop attack politics of the modern era — have not disputed Biden's readiness to lead. But as the vice-presidential hopeful heads into Thursday's debate with Palin, his unflagging propensity to make absurd, imprudent and often offensive statements is once again weighing heavily on Democrats' minds. (See a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)

Not a week, or sometimes just a few days, seems to go by without Biden committing a new, very memorable gaffe on the campaign trail. Since Obama selected him in late August, he has affronted Ohio voters with disapproving comments about building new coal plants; raised eyebrows by remarking how "attractive" Palin is; made a widely ridiculed remark about President Franklin Roosevelt addressing the nation on television during the 1929 stock market crash (Roosevelt, of course, was not President then, and TV didn't even exist); contradicted his own running mate on the wisdom of the government bailout of AIG; colorfully confronted Obama's stance on gun laws; and objected to his own campaign's negative television advertisement disparaging John McCain's computer illiteracy.

None of the screwups have been devastating, and none have made Biden the target that Palin has become — at least in part because Biden is already so notorious for misspeaking. But most have been the product of Biden's nearly inexplicable tendency to ramble into errors or indiscretions when giving a speech, answering reporters' questions or chatting with voters.

Obama advisers remain bullish on Biden's assets. They point to the largely favorable local media coverage he has earned, his indispensable capacity to appeal to the white working-class voters not fully sold on Obama, and the reassurance his 3 1/2 decades of Washington experience has brought to a Democratic ticket headed by a first-term Senator. (Click here for Joe Biden's defining moments.)

Still, debates are all about verbal discourse, which happen to be both Biden's foremost strength and his foremost weakness. As a boy, he had a pronounced stutter, which took years of hard work to overcome. As a young superstar Senator — elected to the country's greatest debating forum at just 29 years old — he burnished his reputation with dramatic speeches about the struggles of working-class Americans. (Speeches that Palin herself alluded to earlier this week in an interview with CBS's Katie Couric, joking that she had heard them back when she was in grammar school.)

In Washington, as a committee chairman presiding over high-profile hearings, Biden made passionate, incisive arguments but was ridiculed for such prolonged grandstanding during confirmation hearings that nominees often were rendered silent as Biden drained the allotted time with his own seemingly endless monologues. Out on the campaign trail as a two-time presidential candidate, he roused audiences with his fire and eloquence but sometimes turned them off with tactless blunders and goofs, like when he famously snapped at a voter before a C-SPAN camera and noted that in Delaware "you cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent." In January 2007, on the day he launched his own presidential campaign, he was quoted in a newspaper describing Obama as "the first mainstream African-American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

Although few details have leaked about how the Obama team has prepared for Thursday's event, it is a safe bet that Biden has been rehearsing short, crisp answers and general restraint to avoid droning on, showing off or Beltway bloviating. Given the reality of gender politics and the Senator's tendency for familiar glad-handing, Biden is in particular danger of saying something perceived as condescending or sexist to Palin. Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm has been serving as a stand-in to simulate the dynamic he will face, and Biden has reportedly sought out advice from Senate colleagues like Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein on how best to avoid any appearance of sexism in the way he interacts with Palin onstage.

For all the concern in Democratic circles about what Biden might blurt out, he nevertheless seems to have improved over the past year. In the nomination season debates, when Biden himself was running for President, he usually kept his commentary smart, snappy and on message. His most memorable debate moment, in fact, came when he was asked if he would have the discipline as President to control his mouth. His one-word answer: "Yes."

(See a gallery of the Top 10 VP Debate Moments here.)

(Click here for photos of Joe Biden.)