The administration’s unlikely attack dog

Justin Duckham Contributor
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Joe Biden was tapped as vice president with the role of attack dog in mind. That was one of the less explosive revelations from Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s book “Game Change.” As the nation will recall, the then-senator took his duty in an ironic direction. Yes, he was an attack dog of sorts, but the only leg he sank his teeth into was that of his running mate.

Now, a little over a year into his term, the vice president seems comfortable following in the steps of Spiro Agnew and being the bully in the White House bully pulpit.

The man from Scranton initially exhibited his willingness to defend the administration through his Sunday-morning clash with Dick Cheney. Later, when his former colleague Sen. Jim Bunning stalled an extension for unemployment benefits, Biden offered equally heated words.

“I am really disappointed … that right now a single Republican Senator is standing up in the chamber that I worked in for a long, long time filibustering,” the vice president noted tersely during an appearance alongside Peter Orszag.  He added that millions would be “thrown into despair” as a result of the Kentucky Republican’s move.

Biden topped both incidents Tuesday, when he issued a surprisingly strong statement criticizing the Israeli government for pursuing a plan to construct new housing units in East Jerusalem.

“I condemn the decision,” Biden said. “The substance and timing of the announcement … is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”

While it seems unnatural for the gaffe-happy Biden to assume the role of aggressor, it makes more sense when one considers the alternatives.

Gen. James L. Jones rose to Obama’s defense in the weeks surrounding the McChrystal leak, but projected too much gravitas for the dirtier work that comes with protecting a hyper-partisan figure like a modern president. Rahm Emmanuel has his well-deserved reputation, bolstered recently by the shower incident, but by openly letting the Chief of Staff off the leash, the White House would simply welcome the “ruthless students of Chicago politics” mantle that the right has been itching to affix.

Enter Biden, who dodges both extremes. As a fixture of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee he garnered the credentials of a statesman, but in nearly every other aspect of his political life he has been perceived in a less flattering light.

As a result, the vice president is blessed with the same can-do-no-wrong aura as Jon Stewart. When Stewart’s message sticks, he is often heralded as a brazen Zarathustra. When he misses, he can shrug it off and retreat behind the title of comedian.

Comparatively, by using Biden as an attack dog, the Obama administration has absolutely nothing to lose. If the vice president is effective, great; if not, then the remarks can simply be dismissed as Biden being Biden.

The unlikely attack dog may soon deliver the greatest gift to the White House front door. With reconciliation fast approaching, Biden will be placed in the unique position to overrule the Senate parliamentarian and thus usher measures into the health care bill that might never see the light of day otherwise. By letting an aggressive figure with nothing to lose call the final shots, the year-long debate over health care reform could come to a very interesting end; It could also leave members from both parties feeling mauled.

Justin Duckham is a Washington correspondent with the Talk Radio News Service. He was a music journalist in California before making the jump to politics. Justin was a member of UC Merced’s founding class and graduated with a degree in History and minors in American Studies and Philosophy.