I am a political journalist of a certain, undisclosed age (50), so it’s no surprise that the late Richard Ben Cramer transformed my life. One follows the other. His book What It Takes taught me what Theodore White taught the previous generation of political correspondents: how to separate fact from fiction, how the big story is made up of small details, and how heroic and flawed personalities — not position papers or TV or bunting and confetti — drive the game.
Of George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988, Cramer wrote: “It takes a special man to enjoy the vice presidency, but George Bush was the man for the job.” Complimentary this was not.
Cramer captured the miniaturized vice presidency of the era, when caution and indolence qualified you preeminently. “The job didn’t call for deep thinking; if you thought too much, brought your insight and intellect to bear on the problems of the nation, you’d get out front of the president or, worse still, off to the side. That’s the surest way down the trash chute of the White House.”
The vice presidency has changed. Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and now Joe Biden have brought muscularity to the job. The vice president is no longer a West Wing bauble or errand-running figurine at state funerals or a ceremonial cypher on Capitol Hill.
Biden is a potent legislative force, having now led negotiations to resolve the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis and just-concluded fiscal-cliff madness. He made or took 13 calls from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky during the weekend that most cliff issues were resolved. Can anyone imagine President Obama calling anyone about anything 13 times? Biden is the closer. The only one the White House has.
I began covering Biden and Congress in 1990. It was four years until the senator from Delaware’s legislative skills became clear.
President Clinton’s $30 billion crime bill was hemorrhaging, and Biden, who authored most of it, performed triage to save Clinton’s legacy and create one of his own. Biden drafted the bill with the first-in-history assault weapons ban. But Biden also included plans for 100,000 additional police officers (the Justice Department Inspector General later said it turned out to be 60,000), federal drug courts, the Violence Against Women Act, nearly $10 billion for prison construction, and new federal “three strikes” life-in-prison sentencing. He also included the creation of 60 new death-penalty offenses. Biden called the approach holistic. It had, he thought, something for nearly everyone.
But the bill was dying, because the Democratic-controlled House wouldn’t even bring it to a vote. The stunning defeat of the vote on the rule for debate on the bill signaled the depth of Democratic divisions and sense of political fear gripping the party as it began to worry about whether the GOP insurgency bent on retaking the House had legitimacy. (It did.)
The House regrouped and passed the bill. Senate Republicans tried to pick apart the conference report on procedural grounds (not all of the spending was authorized by the House and Senate budget resolutions — these were days when the 1974 Budget Act still mattered). Biden quietly picked off enough Republicans (six) to overcome the GOP roadblock, and the bill passed, 61-38.
At the press conference afterward, the taciturn Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine called Biden the most underrated legislator in Congress and its most effective. Mitchell did not dispense compliments. They didn’t even occur to him very often. It was said Mitchell thought himself the smartest lawmaker in the room, and everyone else was tied for third. I had never seen Mitchell so effusive. Biden was taken aback, almost tearful. It still stands as one of the most surprising and genuine moments I can remember in 22 years of covering Washington politics.
Biden is, as we all know, the "BFD" joke in town. He’s grown comfortable with that slapstick caricature and all the flagrant but misapplied demeaning of his legislative and political skills.
Politics and legislating are different than they were in 1994. Much different. Partisan rigidity is more pronounced. Fear of primaries have turned lawmakers into primal, twitchy, and paranoid beings ever fearful of irritating their base of support. This is profoundly true in the House and increasingly so in the Senate.
As he did in 1994, Biden is moving toward gun-control legislation with a broad view. He’s meeting with all the stakeholders and won’t be reckless enough to propose to Obama a raft of gun-control limits without serious moves to enhance law enforcement, mental health counseling, and intervention and, quite probably, some new thoughts on violent video games, movies, and culture.
Biden knows the politics of gun control and knows how much it has spooked his party since it lost Congress in 1994 and saw Gore hamstrung by it in the 2000 campaign. He also knows Republicans are trying to slow-walk gun-control legislation by focusing on the next fiscal cliff and Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of Defense.
Biden can sense Republicans don’t want to discuss gun control and that the underlying demographic politics, as they are on many fronts, are not as hospitable to the GOP as they were two decades ago. Republicans are giving Biden a wide berth, most saying they won’t comment on their inclinations until Biden speaks.
Until Biden speaks. Not Obama.
Biden is the closer. He closed the assault-weapons ban in 1994 and he may close one again with many of the same tactics.
But even if he doesn’t, the centrality of his role means that Cramer, whom I consider a dogged reporter and brilliant writer, was correct about the vice presidency in 1998 but not anymore. The job has changed. Politics evolves. Just as Cramer would have wanted and would have delighted in chronicling: R.I.P. Richard Ben Cramer.