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Donger
03-18-2005, 04:14 PM
http://newyorker.com/printable/?fact/050321fa_fact

Joseph Biden, the senior senator from Delaware, is the Democratic Party’s main spokesman on international affairs; he is also a man who, on occasion, seems not to know, when sentences leave his mouth, where they are going or what they are meant to convey. Sometimes, when he thinks that he may shock or amuse his listener, he begins by stating, “I’m going to get in trouble if I say this,” or, “This is a really outrageous thing to say, but . . . ” And so when I asked Biden, as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and one of John Kerry’s chief advisers on foreign policy during last year’s Presidential campaign, what advice he gave Kerry on how to convince voters that he was tough, Biden laughed and said, “I wish I could tell you. I wish I could tell you.” Then he told me.

At sixty-two, Biden has a cheerful vanity and an exuberant restlessness that make him seem far younger. Since the election, he has become a leader of a modest-sized faction—“the national-security Democrats,” in the words of Richard Holbrooke, an ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton—that includes the most hawkish members in the Democratic Party. Among them are Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards, Senator Evan Bayh, of Indiana, and Governor Bill Richardson, of New Mexico, along with a number of Clinton Administration foreign-policy officials, now in exile at think tanks scattered about Washington.

Biden can be eloquent in defense of his party, and in his criticism of President Bush, but his friends worry that his verbal indiscipline will sabotage any chance he might have to win the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008. (Biden is an interested, but undeclared, candidate.) On the question of Kerry’s mettle in the last campaign, for instance, Biden told me a story that was both entertaining and illuminating but did not capture the matter with complete accuracy.

On October 29th, Biden said, he was campaigning for Kerry in Pennsylvania, the state in which he was born, when he heard, on the radio, that Osama bin Laden had issued a videotape in which he belittled Bush and promised to continue to “bleed” America. Biden nearly panicked when he heard about the tape, he said, because he worried that Kerry’s reaction might seem tepid or petty. His advice to Kerry throughout the campaign—which, he complained, went unheeded much of the time—was to harden his message, to focus, as Bush was doing, on terrorism alone: to sound, in short, more like the President and less like a Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

“I’m listening to the radio,” Biden said. “‘Today’”—here he adopted a radio announcer’s voice—“‘the President of the U.S. said dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, and he said he’s sure Senator Kerry agrees with him. Senator Kerry, unable to resist a dig’—that’s what the announcer said, that was the phrase—‘said today had we acted’—I’m paraphrasing—‘had we acted properly in Tora Bora, we wouldn’t have this problem.’”

Biden continued, “I’m on the phone, I e-mail, I say, ‘John, please, say three things: “How dare bin Laden speak of our President this way.” No. 2, “I know how to deal with preventing another 9/11.” No. 3, “Kill him.”’ Now, that’s harsh. Kerry needed to be harsh. And it was—Jesus Christ.” Here Biden threw up his hands. “He didn’t make any of it. Let’s get it straight. None of it. None of those three points were made.”

This was not quite the case. In Kerry’s first comment, made during an interview with a Milwaukee television station, he criticized Bush for missing an opportunity to kill bin Laden at Tora Bora, as he often had during the campaign. But, not long after that, Kerry spoke to the press, saying, “As Americans, we are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists. They’re barbarians, and I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down, capture, or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes, period.”

Biden, apparently, did not actually reach Kerry until that night, so Kerry made this statement without Biden’s help. In any case, Biden failed to recount the dénouement; leaving it out better served the point of his story, which concerned the troubles that faced the Kerry campaign and, by extension, the Democratic Party—a party that Biden hopes to see revived. It was then, Biden went on, that he realized Kerry would lose the election.

“That night, I got off that trip, from Scranton, I got off the plane, Wilmington airport, only private aircraft, get off, pick up a phone, call a local place called the Charcoal Pit before it closes. They have great steak sandwiches and a milkshake. Triple-thick milkshake. And I hadn’t eaten. I’m going to pass it on the way home. They’re literally sweeping the floors. A woman, overweight, forty years old, a little unkempt, had a tooth missing in the side, not in the front”—he showed his flashing white teeth, to demonstrate—“walks up to me to give me my steak sandwich. ‘Senator Biden, I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve got a problem.’ And I take out a piece of paper, maybe Social Security for her mother, and she said, ‘I heard you’re for Kerry.’ And she said, ‘You’re so strong and he’s so weak.’”

Biden looked at me, to make sure I understood what he seemed to think was a point of considerable nuance. “I’m gonna tell you why I’m going to vote for someone,” he said, addressing the woman of the story. “Look, you’re working here tonight. If the Republicans have their way, you won’t get paid overtime. When you stay here tonight, you’re already closed. Besides that, what they want to do with your health care.” Then he quoted what the woman had replied: “But you’re so strong, and he’s so weak. And President Bush—he seems strong.”

In the peculiar vocabulary of Washington, Democrats who wish to be thought of as preoccupied with defense issues—and no one seeking elected office wants to be thought of as anything but firm on matters of national security—are frequently described by their staffs as “muscular,” or “robust,” or “hard-nosed,” or “forward-leaning.” Republicans do not often use words like these when describing their leaders, because the muscularity of the President and his partisans is assumed, just as Democrats don’t find it necessary to refer to themselves as “compassionate.”

The opposite of “muscular” is, of course, “weak,” and it was, for a moment, surprising to hear Biden suggest—even in his marginally sly, I’m-just-repeating-what-someone-told-me sort of way—that Kerry was weak. After all, he calls Kerry a friend. (The reverse is also true: Kerry told me last week, after I briefly sketched for him Biden’s critique, that he “loves” Biden and “welcomes his advice.”)

But Biden and Kerry are also rivals—for primacy among the forty-four members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate and, presumably, for the Party’s Presidential nomination in 2008 as well. “Weak” is a powerful epithet among the Democrats, who are still staggering as a result of last year’s election, which, polls suggest, seems to have turned less on such issues as gay marriage and abortion than on the perception that Kerry and the Democrats were not quite up to the task of defending the nation. And most Democrats I’ve spoken to in the past month have said that this issue will be a determining factor in the next election, too. To paint a rival as weak on defense is to ruin his chance for national office. As Senator Bayh put it, “If the American people don’t trust us with their lives, they’re unlikely to trust us with much else.”

Not all Democratic leaders agree that a credibility problem on national security exists. Kerry, for one, believes it doesn’t. “The country had concluded that I was prepared to be Commander-in-Chief,” he told me last week. The fifty-nine million votes he received, he said, should be proof enough that he was perceived as strong on the issue. “If we’d had a switch of sixty thousand votes”—in Ohio—“you’d have had a better outcome.”

We met in his Capitol Hill office. In the reception area stood a model, under glass, of the Swift boat that he commanded in Vietnam. Kerry appeared drawn and pale, but he was animated in defense of his campaign. “The bottom line is that, if you look at the data, the appearance of the Osama bin Laden tape had a profound impact. The fact is, we flatlined on that day. I presented stronger arguments, but there was a visceral unwillingness to change Commander-in-Chief five days after the bin Laden tape.”

Kerry considers himself to be a national-security-oriented Democrat—Holbrooke, too, puts him in that camp—and appeared to take no particular offense at Biden’s criticisms. “I’m not going to dissect the campaign,” he said. But he seemed displeased when I asked whether the Democrats had a credibility problem on defense issues, and he finally said, “Look, the answer is, we have to do an unbranding.” By this he meant that the Democrats had to do a better job of selling to the American people what he believes is already true—that the Democrats are every bit as serious on the issue as Republicans. “We have to brand more effectively. It’s marketing.”

Most national-security Democrats believe that the Party’s problems on the issue go deeper than marketing. They agree that the Party should be more open to the idea of military action, and even preëmption; and although they did not agree about the timing of the Iraq war and the manner in which Bush launched it, they believe that the stated rationale—Saddam’s brutality and his flouting of United Nations resolutions—was ideologically and morally sound. They say that the absence of weapons of mass destruction was more a failure of intelligence than a matter of outright deception by the Administration; and although they do not share the neoconservatives’ enthusiastic belief in the transformative power of military force, they accept the possibility that the invasion of Iraq might lead to the establishment of democratic institutions there.

In addition, national-security Democrats try to distance themselves from the Party’s post-Vietnam ambivalence about the projection of American power. In other words, they are men and women who want to reach back to an age of Democratic resoluteness, embodied by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. Their mission may have been complicated earlier this year by Howard Dean’s victory in the race for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, although Dean, the most stridently antiwar of the major candidates in 2004, has promised to suppress the urge to comment on foreign policy.

Biden could find little to say about Dean, other than this: “No goddam chairman’s ever made a difference in the history of the Democratic Party.” His colleague Joseph Lieberman, who is perhaps the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, said, “Dean was wrong on the war and what he was talking about was bad for the country. We’ll see what he does as chairman. If he devotes his energies to building a party at the base, as he talked about doing, good for him. If he continues to be a prominent spokesman on defense policy, I would regret it.”

Lieberman is a study in the dangers of steroidal muscularity, becoming an outlier in his own party. (He has edged to the right as his running mate in the 2000 election, Al Gore, has moved leftward.) His fate was sealed with a kiss, planted on his cheek by Bush, just after the President delivered his State of the Union address. “That may have been the last straw for some of the people in Connecticut, the blogger types,” Lieberman told me. But he is unapologetic about his defense of Bush’s Iraq policy, saying, “Bottom line, I think Bush has it right.” When I asked if he was becoming a neoconservative, Lieberman smiled and said, “No, but some of my best friends are neocons.”

For a Democrat who wants to cultivate an image of toughness on national security, the challenge is to adopt positions that, in some cases, are closer to those of Paul Wolfowitz than to those of Edward Kennedy while remaining loyal to the Party. This has become more difficult with the news from the Middle East over the past two months, which raises the possibility that the Bush Administration’s core argument—that the antidote to Islamic-fundamentalist terrorism is democracy—might turn out to be something more than utopian theory.

It is far too early to claim that the Middle East is moving irreversibly toward tranquillity and freedom. Fifteen hundred American soldiers have been killed, and thousands more have been wounded; the insurgency within Iraq—the assassinations, the car bombings, the hostage-taking—has continued unabated. But, at the same time, something appears to have been shaken loose. The Iraqi election in late January; the election in the Palestinian territories and the rekindling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the protests of the Lebanese against their Syrian occupiers; and the move by the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, toward more direct elections have given the Bush Administration—and the neoconservatives who contribute much of its expansive ideology—its first good news in quite a while. Some of these events cannot plausibly be attributed to Bush. “This is a very lucky President,” Biden said. “Why did Arafat die on his watch? I mean, give me a break.”

Biden and other Democrats agreed, though, that their party should not appear stingy when the news favors Bush. “The Democrats need to stand with the President when he’s right,” Bill Richardson told me. “His emphasis on being more pro-democracy in the Middle East seems to have galvanized some movement. The Democrats need to establish their credentials on national security, and we get hurt by reflexive negativism.”

Hillary Clinton says that she has been “forthright in agreeing with the Administration where I thought we could agree,” but she believes that the Administration has taken advantage of Democratic support—particularly in the days after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. “Joe and I and others offered our support to the President and stood unified with him in response to these attacks,” Clinton said last week, referring to Biden. “The Administration saw our actions as a sign of weakness,” she said, adding that it “had a campaign strategy to exploit the legitimate fears of the American people.” Clinton also said that the Democrats must criticize the Bush Administration for its foreign-policy failings—of which, she said, there are many—but that they are hindered by their role as the opposition party. “It’s hard to describe a Democratic Party foreign-policy position, because we’re not in charge of making policy,” Clinton said. “We are, by the nature of the system, forced to critique and analyze and offer suggestions.” This, she said, is where Biden comes in: he has managed to sound steady on terrorism, while still being able to criticize Bush policy. “He has a good sense of smell and touch about these issues, and so I often find myself wondering what Joe is thinking and saying.”

Biden says he is reminded of the Party’s difficult relationship with Ronald Reagan. “Everybody knew ‘Reagan is dangerous,’ remember? He talked about freedom, so what do we do? We say it’s a bad speech, dangerous speech.” Biden was referring to a 1982 speech delivered by Reagan to the British Parliament, in which he spoke of the power of democracy. Today, the Democrats are “making the same mistakes again,” Biden said.

Antiwar Democrats dislike the suggestion that Bush’s policies will lead to a democratic Middle East. Barbara Boxer, of California, who has been one of the most energetic critics of the Bush White House (she questioned Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice aggressively during her confirmation hearing, suggesting that Rice had been dishonest in her arguments for taking the nation to war in Iraq), told me that she took “great offense” at Bush’s inaugural speech. “He said that our freedom and our democracy depend on the freedom of other countries,” she said. “I think that America is so strong, it has such a strong Constitution and a great history of freedom, that while we must, of course, be deeply concerned about what happens in other countries, what happens to this country is up to us. His words ring hollow because of the mess in Iraq, and all over the world. Every day, another terrible thing is happening.”

I asked Boxer if events in Lebanon and Egypt had changed her views. “History will judge,” she said, but added that in Lebanon “the streets are flooded with protesters today”—a reference to the Hezbollah-sponsored pro-Syria demonstration—“and you wonder if maybe a little quiet diplomacy there might have produced better results.” She rejects the notion that her party is not in tune with voters on national-security issues. “We almost won the election,” she said, and attributed Kerry’s loss to superior Republican organizing and to Republican tactics, most notably the attacks last summer on Kerry’s war record.

Ted Kennedy has called on President Bush to set an exit date for Iraq. He argued, in a speech delivered the week before the Iraqi election, that the insurgency is made stronger by the presence of American troops on Iraqi soil, and he compared the Iraq war to the war in Vietnam. “Our military and the insurgents are fighting for the same thing—the hearts and minds of the people—and that is a battle we are not winning,” Kennedy declared.

When I spoke to Kennedy last month, he said that the election did not persuade him that the war was justified. He believes that it was fought under false pretenses, and is unconvinced that democracy can be brought by force to a place like Iraq. “How should democracy be exported?” he asked. “The First Amendment and food. We know how to grow it, and how to deliver it. The First Amendment is a pretty good starting point.” Kennedy said that the United States does have national-security interests that must be insured by force, if necessary. “We need to keep Hormuz and the Molucca straits and the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal open.” He does not, however, regret his 1991 vote opposing the first Gulf War. “I had not ruled out force, but I thought it was premature,” he said. “I thought we ought to have tried economic sanctions. They worked in South Africa. It’s breathtaking how fast they worked.” (Kennedy, it should be noted, was not alone in opposing the 1991 Gulf War. At the time, he was joined by all but ten of the Democrats in the Senate, including Biden, Kerry, and the defense stalwarts Sam Nunn, of Georgia, and David Boren, of Oklahoma. Gore and Lieberman were two who voted in favor of the resolution.)

Kennedy and Boxer—and Dean—are to the left of the Democratic center on foreign policy, but their views are shared by many of the Party’s active constituents. According to a recent Pew poll, seventy-four per cent of Democrats believe that it was wrong to go to war; twelve per cent of Republicans opposed the invasion. (The country as a whole, including independent voters, is evenly split on the issue.) Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn.org, the antiwar group that helped propel Dean’s campaign for President, told me not long ago, “I don’t see how Bush can create a state of fear in our country, and go off in a reckless rush to war in Iraq, and then take credit somehow for exporting democracy, which is a bizarre term, anyway, because democracy is about self-governance.” In an e-mail to MoveOn members after the election, Pariser wrote, “It’s our party. We bought it, we own it and we’re going to take it back.”

By at least one significant measure, though, it is not Pariser’s party. Few of the most frequently mentioned contenders for the Party’s Presidential nomination in 2008—including Clinton, Bayh, Edwards, and Biden—belong to the Democratic Party’s left. Instead, the most likely would-be nominees are at pains to appear hawkish on defense. Hillary Clinton has been particularly skillful—not only on defense issues but also on such sensitive subjects as abortion rights. While she has been giving speeches in praise of the United Nations and multilateralism, she has been careful to assert the right of the United States to act without the support of allies when necessary.

Biden’s views on the war have changed somewhat over the last several years—an evolution that reveals some of the dilemmas faced by the Democrats in responding to Bush’s single-minded message. In November of 2002, in an interview with USA Today, Biden recalled a conversation with an unnamed chairman of a military service, who told him that a war with Iraq would be “the dumbest thing in the world.” In the months leading up to the war, he often questioned the Bush Administration’s timing, its planning, and the grandiose scope of its mission. But as the invasion neared—around the time when former Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council that he had proof that Saddam Hussein was concealing an active weapons-of-mass-destruction program—Biden said, “The choice between war and peace is Saddam’s. The choice between relevance and irrelevance is the U.N. Security Council’s.”

Biden, like nearly all Democrats, argues that the Administration’s prosecution of the war has been inept. “The decision to go to war was the right one,” Biden said recently, “but every decision they’ve made since Saddam fell was a mistake.” In particular, Biden blames Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the troubles of postwar Iraq—for the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, for the failure to anticipate an organized insurgency, and for the difficulties encountered in the training of Iraqi soldiers. He told Condoleezza Rice, at her confirmation hearing, “For God’s sake, don’t listen to Rumsfeld. He doesn’t know what in the hell he’s talking about on this.”

Biden was once better known for his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee than for foreign-policy expertise; he oversaw the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, among others, and had established a reputation as a liberal in the mainstream of his party, and also as something of a grandstander.

His run for the 1988 Democratic Presidential nomination came to a sudden end when he was accused of borrowing, without attribution, from a television commercial by the former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. This embarrassment did no permanent harm to his standing in the Senate, and he has remained highly visible there. Biden sponsored the Clinton Administration’s 1994 crime bill, which funded a hundred thousand new police officers for local communities and helped neutralize the “law and order” issue that had hurt the Democrats in previous years.

By the mid-nineties, Biden had become more absorbed by foreign affairs, and he was deeply affected by the cruelty he saw on visits to Bosnia during the war there. He became a missionary in the cause of armed humanitarian intervention in Bosnia and, later, in Kosovo. “I came back to the Republicans and laid out the death camps in Kosovo, the rape camps in Bosnia—I laid it out in stark relief,” he told me. “These guys”—the Republicans—“said, ‘It’s not our business.’ What is so transformational in the last four years is that these assholes who wouldn’t give President Clinton the authority to use force” have now become, he said, moral interventionists. “Give me a ****ing break.” (In fact, there were Republican senators who supported sending United States soldiers to Kosovo in 1999, including John McCain and John Warner, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.)

Biden says that a “small faction” of the Party is mistrustful of even the occasional use of force. “There are some really bright guys and women in my party who underestimate the transformative capability of military power, when coupled with a rational policy that is both preventative and nation-building in nature,” he said. He told me about a recent visit to Los Angeles, where he met with a group of wealthy liberals and laid out the following scenario: “Assume you’re the President, and I’m your Secretary of Defense or State or C.I.A. director, and I come to you and tell you we know where bin Laden is, he and four hundred of his people, and they’re in this portion of Pakistan the Pakistanis won’t go into, and they told us not to go in. This is going to cost us five hundred to five thousand lives, of our soldiers, but we can get him. What do you do?” Biden said they had no answer. “The truth is, they put their heads down,” he said.

Richard Holbrooke suggests that the Republicans have boxed in the Democrats, by stealing their ideas. “The Republicans, who always favored bigger defense budgets—we were the soft-power people, the freedom-and-democracy people—now seek to own both the defense side and the values side of the debate,” Holbrooke said. He believes that if the Iraq war actually does bring about the hoped-for results it might help the Democrats. “We’d be better off as a country and better off as a party if Iraq is a success and we get it behind us. The Democrats can then talk about their traditional strengths, domestically and internationally.”

Senator Clinton said that complaints about a lack of Democratic steadfastness are “always surprising to me, because so many of the disastrous mistakes in foreign policy over the past forty or fifty years have been made by Republicans.” She went on, “I don’t know all the reasons voters and observers might hold that view. I think a lot of it is unfounded, so part of our challenge is to reassert our voices with clarity in the debate on foreign policy and national security.”

These days, Biden is touring the country, doing something that he hasn’t done since his aborted Presidential campaign, seventeen years ago: meeting wealthy donors to measure their enthusiasm for him, and accepting offers to speak to Democratic groups far from Wilmington. He is now a senior man in the Party—he has served in the Senate for thirty-two years—and, among his supporters, there is the not unreasonable assumption that the statute of limitations on the Kinnock scandal has been reached.

He told me that he won’t make a decision on a Presidential run for at least two years. “My honest-to-God answer is, I’m not going to go on a fool’s errand,” he said. “If I think I’m the horse that can pull the sleigh, I’ll do it. But if there’s someone else out there . . .” He trailed off. But he didn’t leave the impression that he sees an overly crowded field.

He has come to realize, he said, that many Democrats still haven’t grasped the political importance of September 11th, and again he recalled how he had urged Kerry to keep his campaign message focussed on terrorism. Kerry, Biden said, would tell voters that he would “fight terror as hard as Bush,” but then he would add, “and I’ll help you economically.” “What is Bush saying?” Biden said. “Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. I would say to John, ‘Let me put it to you this way. The Lord Almighty, or Allah, whoever, if he came to every kitchen table in America and said, “Look, I have a Faustian bargain for you, you choose. I will guarantee to you that I will end all terror threats against the United States within the year, but in return for that there will be no help for education, no help for Social Security, no help for health care.” What do you do?’

“My answer,” Biden said, “is that seventy-five per cent of the American people would buy that bargain.

Baby Lee
03-18-2005, 04:44 PM
Most national-security Democrats believe that the Party’s problems on the issue go deeper than marketing. They agree that the Party should be more open to the idea of military action, and even preëmption; and although they did not agree about the timing of the Iraq war and the manner in which Bush launched it, they believe that the stated rationale—Saddam’s brutality and his flouting of United Nations resolutions—was ideologically and morally sound. They say that the absence of weapons of mass destruction was more a failure of intelligence than a matter of outright deception by the Administration; and although they do not share the neoconservatives’ enthusiastic belief in the transformative power of military force, they accept the possibility that the invasion of Iraq might lead to the establishment of democratic institutions there.
If only they knew how many votes a clear enunciation of those sentiments would've garnered them.

Cochise
03-18-2005, 04:49 PM
Good lord, the oscar for most excessive abuse of the comma goes to...

Donger
03-18-2005, 04:52 PM
Good lord, the oscar for most excessive abuse of the comma goes to...

chiefs4me?

RINGLEADER
03-19-2005, 03:27 PM
Details a lot of the reasons I like Biden. I think the Dems really have it backwards regarding who politicizes the War on Terror. I think Bush's position is a lot closer to his real beliefs then what Kerry's or most of the DNC membership's are (even after they contorted themselves to try and sound less extreme). But I also think Biden is a pretty straight-shooter when it comes to national defense.

I just wish he'd be a little more open on tax policy and social security.

memyselfI
03-19-2005, 05:29 PM
Details a lot of the reasons I like Biden. I think the Dems really have it backwards regarding who politicizes the War on Terror. I think Bush's position is a lot closer to his real beliefs then what Kerry's or most of the DNC membership's are (even after they contorted themselves to try and sound less extreme). But I also think Biden is a pretty straight-shooter when it comes to national defense.

I just wish he'd be a little more open on tax policy and social security.

Biden lost my support for when he supported the Bankruptcy bill. Which is shame because I was quite ready to support his potential candidacy for 2008.

RINGLEADER
03-19-2005, 09:17 PM
Biden lost my support for when he supported the Bankruptcy bill. Which is shame because I was quite ready to support his potential candidacy for 2008.


How come you hate every politician I like...

:shrug:

;)