By Peter Canellos, Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief
DENVER — Joe Biden last night turned himself into an angry working man, using a tone reminiscent of cable-TV talk shows to make a case for Barack Obama that was strikingly different than that which Obama makes for himself.
‘‘I’m here for everyone I grew up with in Scranton and Wilmington,’’ he declared. ‘‘I’m here for the cops and firefighters, the teachers and assembly-line workers — the folks whose lives are the very measure of whether the American dream endures.’’
So far, much of the Democratic convention has focused on a civil-rights narrative, in which those who were excluded from the American dream — women, minorities, immigrants — fought for a place at the American table.
Biden spoke for those already at the table but who are fearful of losing their place — a constituency of working-class men and women that has increasingly identified with Republican politics.
In his most effective sequence, Biden spoke of traveling home from Washington to Delaware every night and watching the people in the homes that line the tracks, wondering what they were talking about at the kitchen table. Then he laid out the questions: ‘‘Fifty, sixty, seventy dollars to fill up the car? How we gonna pay the heating bills? Another year and no raise?’’
Not the silky orator that Obama is, Biden frequently stepped on his lines and ad-libbed awkward changes to his prepared text. But he maintained a clear-eyed sense of outrage directed at the Republican administration, casting himself as the advocate for average folks who’ve lost ground in recent years and who have seen an alarming decline in American prestige.
Such voters have not, so far, been convinced that Obama is their advocate. Those who still identify with the Democratic Party opted in large numbers for Hillary Clinton over Obama, and polls show many of them trending toward Republican nominee John McCain.
Biden tried so hard to win over the audience that flocks to Lou Dobbs on CNN and Bill O’Reilly on Fox that he may might have slighted the designated theme of the day — foreign policy and national defense.
He devoted a modest chunk of the speech to overseas matters, showcasing some of the arguments the Democrats will use to counter McCain’s superior experience on foreign policy: Linking McCain to unsuccessful Bush administration policies, including its initial refusal to negotiate with Iran; pointing to areas where Obama’s judgment was more prescient, like such as the need for more troops in Afghanistan; and asserting that Obama’s call for a timed withdrawal from Iraq is now widely supported.
But the relatively short shrift given to such issues in Biden’s speech suggests that Democrat Democrats are still somewhat caught between their strong opposition to Bush’s Iraq policies and the need to assert a forceful approach to national defense in other areas.
Four years ago, John Kerry tried to separate Iraq from the larger war on terrorism with only mixed success. When he tried to express opposition to Iraq, he was chided as unpatriotic; when he tried to show forcefulness in other areas, he was mocked as inconsistent.
Kerry was around yesterday to deliver a fiery reminder that patriotism ‘‘doesn’t belong to any political party,’’ but he didn’t suggest any new way out of the dilemma that confronted him in opposing Bush’s war policies but supporting a robust national defense.
Former President Bill Clinton, speaking earlier in the evening, took his own crack at resolving the dilemma, suggesting that Obama’s good judgment in opposing the Iraq war, combined with Biden’s seasoned knowledge of the world, now gives the Democrats a ticket that can counter McCain on national defense.
‘‘With Joe Biden’s experience and wisdom, supporting Barack Obama’s proven understanding, insight, and good instincts, America will have the national security leadership we need,’’ Clinton declared.
Like much of what Bill Clinton says, it’s an intriguing argument, crafted to appeal to moderate voters; also like much of what Clinton says, America will probably have to digest it a while before deciding whether it agrees.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.