Jesus Christ!” Joe Biden barks, pitching forward in the captain’s chair in his cabin aboard Air Force Two. We have just departed Roanoke, Virginia, for Washington, D.C., after a three-day campaign swing through North Carolina and the Old Dominion, during which Biden has been on display in all his garishness and glory. He has given a series of scorching speeches aimed at Mitt Romney and his freshly minted running mate, Paul Ryan. He has mingled with the locals at a coffeehouse, a firehouse, a country store–cum–bluegrass showcase, and a high-school football practice (“You’ve started school already? That’s un-American!”). He has made an unscheduled late-night stop at Dairy Queen, inhaling a chocolate-and-vanilla-swirl cone. And, oh, yes, he has blurted out the latest addition to the epic Biden blooper reel—a question about which has now provoked him to take the Lord’s name in vain.
For the past 24 hours, Biden has been watching, fretting, and simmering as his remark before a substantially black audience that the Romney-Ryan plan to “unshackle Wall Street” would “put y’all back in chains” has ignited a flaming freak-show conflagration. An array of conservative ultra-Caucasians are accusing him of race-baiting. Representing the pot-and-kettle caucus, Rudy Giuliani is calling him stupid and Sarah Palin is spluttering that he is a drag on the Democratic ticket, while Romney himself has affected a tone of outrage so flagrantly faux—“the White House sinks a little bit lower”; “campaign of division and anger and hate”—that it qualifies as rhetorical trompe l’oeil.
The V.P. has so far largely held his tongue about the contretemps. But as we clear the runway, he sets that (in)famous organ free, emitting a succession of soliloquies by turns defiant, defensive, and indignant. “Look, I’ve been saying that exact same thing since [John] Boehner made his speech … where he used the phrase that you’ve gotta unshackle the economy, unshackle Wall Street,” he begins. “You got a whole bunch of examples of where I said, ‘The last time these guys unshackled the economy, they put the middle class in shackles—they shackled you’ … It’s the exact same thing Romney’s talking about: first, being able to do away with Dodd-Frank, and, man, if that happens again, the middle class is gonna get screwed.”
And: “I don’t make any distinctions with what I say to a black audience—and I have a better relationship with the black audience than anybody you know. I don’t think a single person in there who was African-American went, ‘My God, he’s saying Romney would put us [literally] in chains.’ By the way, would it be better if I’d used ‘shackles’? Yeah, that’d help!”
And: “What [the Republican reaction] does say to me is the desperation of Romney. You’d think after naming his vice-president, on their first magical mystery tour together, like Barack and I did, it would all be up, like it was after we got started. Obviously, it didn’t go so well or they wouldn’t be looking for this whole thing.”
Biden pauses and takes a breath. You think he’s finished. Foolish you. Air Force Two will be safely at cruising altitude before he brings his retort in for a landing with a one-fell-swoop dismissal of the Twitterverse, the blogosphere, the hot-eyed Foxified yakkety-yak-yakkers, Romney, Ryan, and, in a way, himself: “I don’t think this has a single little effect on voters.”
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has been in Washington for nearly 40 years, the first 36 as a United States senator from Delaware, the past three-plus as understudy to Barack Hussein Obama. (It should be said: Hussein and Robinette—what a country!) With a résumé like that, Biden is well aware that his assessment of the “chains” brouhaha could be readily applied to any vice-presidential candidacy in its totality: that, for incumbents and challengers alike, a running mate’s gig is severely limited in scope, tightly circumscribed in duties, and exerts an influence on the electoral outcome ranging from marginal to de minimis.
Until recently, Biden had no reason to see his role in this general election unspooling any differently. He would spend the fall doing what seconds-in-command always do, what he’d been doing for months already: wielding the hatchet, revving up the base, and shoring up Obama with working-class whites, old folks, and Jewish voters, mainly in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He would uncork a honking oration at the Democratic National Convention this week in Charlotte, “tell[ing] a story about my guy and how he’s governed,” as Biden puts it. He would find himself debating (surely) Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty—and no one would give a shit.
But then Mitt Romney pulled a rabbit from his hat and upended those expectations. In filling his V.P. slot with the 42-year-old cheesehead chair of the House Budget Committee and author of the seminal governing document of the congressional wing of the Republican Party, Romney injected a bracing dose of youth, substantive audacity, political risk, and partisan glamour (or what passes for glamour on the right) into a race that had been teetering on the edge of terminal torpor. Suddenly, with the spotlight trained on Ryan, whose speech last week at the Republican convention roused the hall and popped off the TV screen, Biden was bathed in luminescence, too. Suddenly, amazingly, the undercard mattered—with next month’s toe-to-toe between the No. 2’s elevated from a sideshow to a marquee event.