Thursday, November 01, 2007

Joe Biden, the underdog grown-up

I was thinking this morning about Joe Biden, and about how - in two important respects - he was arguably the real winner of the latest Democratic presidential debate.

That's actually no surprise, because, in many debates over many months, while his better-financed celebrity rivals have dominated the news coverage, he has often come across as the real grown-up on stage. He shouts too much sometimes, and sometimes his natural loquacity compels him to spew too many sentence fragments, but, just as often, the venerable senator has refused to pander, instead offering straight talk on politically sensitive topics.

Iraq is Exhibit A. Most antiwar liberals in the Democratic base want the U.S. troops brought home as quickly as possible, with scant concern about the consequences on the ground. Biden, with decades of foreign policy expertise, has been willing to suggest that such a view is naive. The Democratic base wants simple answers; Biden has been willing to describe our national security decisions as "complicated." In a recent debate, he said: "If we leave Iraq and we leave it in chaos, there will be a regional war. The regional war will engulf us for a generation."

More than anyone on stage, he has thought hard about the Iraq that we would leave behind. His longstanding plan - to establish a federal, decentralized Iraq, with separate enclaves for the warring sectarian factions - is probably imperfect (what plan is?), but he, at least, has been willing to think conceptually and pitch the idea to Democratic debate audiences. Meanwhile, 75 senators voted on Sept. 26 to approve the Biden plan in principle; the bipartisan resolution was non-binding, but it marked the first time that the chamber had decisively bucked the Bush administration's war strategy.

Biden has talked straight on other issues. In a September debate, he was asked whether, in order to guarantee the long-term solvency of Social Security, he'd be willing to essentially raise taxes. Currently, the tax we pay for Social Security is capped on the first $97,500 worth of income; some other Democrats, notably Hillary Clinton, have been reluctant to raise the cap, for fear that the Republicans will assail them as tax-hikers. At that September debate, Hillary said she'd study the issue by setting up a bipartisan commission, a classic Washington dodge. But would Biden be willing to raise the cap - and basically tax not only the rich, but the middle class?

"The answer is yes...You're either going to cut the benefits, or you're going to go ahead and raise taxes above the first $97,000...The bottom line here is, you can't (achieve Social Security solvency) by growing the economy alone. So I would raise the cap."

Which brings us to the Tuesday night debate. While John Edwards and Barack Obama were busy hammering Hillary, Biden did two noteworthy things: He talked like a grown-up about Iran, and he, more than any of his rivals, made the argument that Rudy Giuliani's 9/11 tough guy image is a fraud.

Host Tim Russert asked, "Senator Biden, would you pledge to the American people that Iran would not build a nuclear bomb on your watch?"

Biden, refusing to accept Russert's narrow question, put the matter in proper context. He began by cautioning, "This is complicated stuff" - uh, oh, there's that C-word again.

He said it would be wrong to "talk about this in isolation. The fact of the matter is, the Iranians may get 2.6 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium. But the Pakistanis (already) have hundreds - thousands - of kilograms of highly-enriched uranium. If by attacking Iran to stop them from getting 2.6 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium, the government in Pakistan falls, who has missiles already deployed with nuclear weapons on them that can already reach Israel, already reach India, then that's a bad bargain. Presidents make wise decisions informed not by a vacuum in which they operate, by the situation they find themselves in the world. I will do all in my power to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but I will never take my eye off the ball. What is the greatest threat to the United States of America: 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in Tehran, or an out-of-control Pakistan? It's not close."

In other words, he was arguing that a narrow focus on Iran, followed by a military strike on Iran, might have serious adverse repurcussions for the big picture, and for American security generally. He was also implicitly demonstrating the inherent limitations of these debates, which often devolve into yes-or-no game shows.

Meanwhile, at another point, he refused an invitation to join the Hillary-bashing, and signaled a crucial change in subject:

"I'm not running against Hillary Clinton...Rudy Giuliani (is) probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency. Rudy Giuliani - I mean, think about it. Rudy Giuliani - there's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11. I mean, there's nothing else. There's nothing else, and I mean this sincerely. He is genuinely not qualified to be president. Here's a man who brags about how he made the city safe. It was the Biden crime bill that became the Clinton crime bill that allowed him to do that. They wipe it out. He remains silent. The 9/11 Commission comes along and says the way to keep your city safe is to do the following things. He's been silent. He's done nothing. And now he's talking about he's going to go in and he will demonstrate to Iran, he's going to in fact lay down the law. This man is truly not qualified to be president. I'm looking forward to running against Rudy Giuliani."

Granted, one must wade through a number of Bidenesque non-sequiturs to reach bottom, but that passage was an important moment in the debate. Biden put his finger on the question that will matter most in 2008 - who will keep us safe? - and he targeted the Republican who presumes to be most qualified. If Giuliani wins the nomination, the Democrats will need to knock the 9/11 halo off his head; failure to do that could cost them the election. On Tuesday, Biden was virtually alone in taking him on.

He could have made his argument more concise (no surprise there). The Biden/Clinton crime bill put 100,000 new police officers on Americans streets, and New York City benefited from that; later, when the Republican Congress slashed the funding for that program (hence Biden's reference to "they wipe it out"), Giuliani barely uttered a peep. Meanwhile, regarding the 9/11 Commission, Biden could have mentioned that Giuliani testified in secret - and no wonder, because we now know that he admitted to the commissioners that, prior to 9/11, this alleged terrorist expert knew virtually nothing about al Qaeda and had to be briefed after the fact. There's a lot more in the Rudy file - such as his decision to place the crisis command unit inside the World Trade Center, despite the experience of the '93 bombing - but at least Biden was willing to defy the Hillary-centric theme of the debate and frame the '08 political stakes.

So perhaps the big question is, why does Biden remain mired in the second tier? It's the usual stuff, nothing new: He's tagged forever as a guy who runs his mouth too much without editing in his brain (on C-Span last spring: "You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent"); he's a career senator, with a penchant for talking about legislative nuance, and a fondness for recounting his work with other senators, yet most Americans ignore senators unless they're crossover celebrities (like Hillary and Obama); the embarrassment of his first failed bid in '87, when he lifted a British politician's rhetorical passages for his own use, has not completely faded (Giuliani retaliated yesterday by bringing it up).

But he's clearly providing a valuable service in these debates, and it would not be a surprise to find him serving in a new Democratic administration, free perhaps to attend to the nuances of foreign policy, far from the simplicities of the electoral arena, and the imperatives of celebrity.