Thursday, February 01, 2007

Joe Biden and the perils of candidate spontanaeity

I’m going to be uncharacteristically brief today, having already spent much time writing a Sunday print column about the impending Bush-Congress constitutional clash over Iraq. Brevity seems appropriate; after all, I would not want to wrest the award for loquacity away from Joe Biden.

Biden, who is either the ninth or 90th Democrat to announce a presidential candidacy, is truly God’s gift to political writers, because he provides such a verbal cornucopia. He has barely begun to formulate a thought, and it’s already tripping off his tongue without any editing in between. (Maybe he’s better suited to be a blogger than a candidate.) The odds are that he won’t be in the race long enough to require extended scrutiny, so it seems wise right now to briefly examine the remark he made yesterday about Barack Obama.

You’ve probably read it already; if not, here it is, one of many remarks in an interview with the New York Observer: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s storybook, man.”

I think this is what Biden was intending to say: Obama has charisma and a good personal story - assets which give him a serious shot at becoming the first black president.

But this is what Biden, by his verbosity and phrasing, seemed instead to be implying: None of the other black candidates (congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Rev. Jesse Jackson, former senator Carole Moseley Braun, and Rev. Al Sharpton) were articulate or bright or clean.

Nice move, Joe. A Democratic candidate is doomed unless he or she can draw substantial black support in the post-New Hampshire primaries…yet here was Biden seemingly implying that none of the candidates prior to Obama were articulate or bright. Which is another way of appearing to say, “This guy, at least, is a credit to his race.”

It’s more complicated than that, however. Biden inadvertently uttered a truth when he implied that Obama, unlike his predecessors, was at least “clean.” It happens to be a matter of record that Jackson fathered a love child, Sharpton championed a young black girl who made false rape charges against a white guy (Sharpton was successfully sued for defamation as a result), and Moseley Braun lost her 1998 re-election race amidst charges of financial improprieties. But for Biden, there was no percentage in implying (albeit unwittingly) that those preceded Obama lacked cleanliness.

Biden has already apologized (a modern ritual), and gone on Jon Stewart’s show that he has a sense of humor about himself (another modern ritual). All told, not a great first day for a new candidate. But I have some sympathy for Biden, as well:

We typically complain that political candidates are too scripted, too wedded to talking points and the message of the day. We plead for “authenticity.” Yet if candidates do something spontaneous and authentic or unexpected, they risk being savaged by the 24/7 scrutiny that voters now expect as their birthright. For instance, the other day in Iowa, Hillary Clinton sang “The Star Spangled Banner” in a voice that makes Yoko Ono sound tuneful, and this prompted a round of YouTube mockery from coast to coast.

One can argue that Biden will need to choose his words more carefully if he expects to be a serious candidate, yet still give him a few points for defying the narrow dictates of modern political discourse and instead being true to his authentic, loquacious self.


Biden is more adept in his natural habitat, the U.S. Senate. Today, he commented on the important news that key Republican senator John Warner will work with Democrats to forge an anti-troop escalation resolution, thereby forcing every senator to go on record in support of, or opposition to, President Bush’s “surge.” (By the way, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has now determined that Bush's troop hike is much larger than he has publicly indicated. Whereas Bush has told Americans that the figure is 21,500, the CBO concludes that, once the necessary additional support troops are counted, the real escalation tally is somewhere between 35,000 to 48,000.)

Anyway, here’s the key Biden remark: “Now we have a real opportunity for the Senate to speak clearly. Every Senator will have a chance to vote on whether he or she supports or disagrees with the President's plan to send more troops into the middle of a civil war. If the President does not listen to the majority of the Congress -- and I expect the majority of Congress will vote for our resolution -- if he does not respond to a majority of the Congress and a majority of the American people, we will have to look for other ways to change his policy.”

Wait, didn’t Biden just recently contend, on a Sunday talk show, that Congress really couldn’t do anything substantive to stop Bush’s troop hike? (Biden, on Jan. 7: "We have a standing army with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. You can’t go in and, like a tinker toy, and play around and say, ‘You can’t spend the money on this piece and this piece’…he’ll be able to keep those troops there forever constitutionally if he wants to.”) Rest assured that what Biden said today will not be his last word on the matter.