In the 1988 Presidential campaign I worked for Gary Hart as his Deputy Political Director and then, after Hart left the race, for Dick Gephardt as his Deputy Campaign Manager. Both campaigns feared one candidate that year: Joe Biden.
Young, charismatic, hard charging, with a take-no-prisoners tenacity, in the early days of the 1988 campaign you didn't have to look over your shoulder for Joe Biden, because he was in your face.
The Joe Biden of 1988, was sharp and smart, feared in debates, but seemed like a spring wound too tight. Instead of the cool, comfortable Obama of 2008, the Biden of 1988 was too hot, and too driven.
Much will be made by Biden's detractors, in the coming days, of the gaffes that drove him out of the race for President in 1988. But those gaffes seemed to me at the time to be caused out of his tightness, and over-reaching.
If you were in an opposing campaign you looked at his considerable talents and acumen with fear, and were relieved when he was so impatient to put them on display that he dropped another "Biden Bomb" and diminished his own chances to use them.
Many saw his candidacy in 1988 as driven by raw ambition. Perhaps. But from my vantage point it wasn't ambition in the cynical way we throw that word around in politics. Biden's ambition seemed to me to be driven by a volatile mixture of youthful idealism, and the "make every second count" attitude of a man who had lost his wife and infant daughter in a tragic accident just years earlier.
Something else happened far from the campaign trail that year. Biden was 45 years old in 1988, the same age Barack Obama is today, when he suffered two near-fatal brain aneurysms weeks after he left the race that year. The wound-too-tight, impatient, too-hot candidacy had ended just in time. Had Joe Biden still been on the campaign trail when the aneurysms occurred he would almost certainly not be with us today.
So it was with some fascination, 20 years later, that I watched Joe Biden on the campaign trail in 2008, this time from a front row seat as a Senior Advisor on the John Edwards campaign.
Sharp? He had gotten sharper and wiser. Twenty more years of knowledge and experience made him that much more formidable in debates. His mastery of events, issues, and policies were beyond question.
Gaffes? Oh, he had his share of gaffes, but they were different.
Joe Biden in 2008 was just as tenacious and just as in-your-face on the facts as I had remembered him. But now he knew when to pick his fights and make his case. Joe Biden in 2008 wasn't wound too tight, and he wasn't trying to get anywhere too fast. When he gaffed it seemed to be just an ordinary gaffe. You don't get through a year or two on the national stage in a Presidential campaign without making some of those.
I remember thinking after a particularly powerful debate performance by Biden earlier this cycle that if he ever got any oxygen he was going to be big trouble.
But Biden never got the oxygen his candidacy deserved, with Clinton and Obama dominating the race.
Much was different about the 1988 and 2008 campaigns for Joe Biden. One of the big differences was pressure. In 1988 he was under a ton of it as one of the hot contenders, and he faltered. In 2008 he was under no pressure at all, one of the lower tier candidates gasping for air, and he seemed to excel.
How smart a pick was Joe Biden for Barack Obama?
It depends on how Joe Biden handles the pressure cooker he has just climbed into. In 1988 the more pressure he came under the more tightly wound he became. It wasn't pretty. The McCain campaign has to be hoping for a replay now.
Because if Joe Biden can stay focused, disciplined, and loose like he was through most of the primary fight this year, Barack Obama just got the oxygen he needs to be big trouble, for John McCain and the GOP.
Twenty years later, a stronger, less restless, more comfortable Joe Biden is going to be a problem no matter what the RNC's talking points say today – and they know it.
That's my take.