Politics & Policy

Biden His Time

Is there room for one more Democratic senator?

There are already enough Democrats jockeying for their party’s 2004 presidential nomination to make 1988′s selection of the “seven dwarves” look like a small, tight field. But the current group of eight or nine competing aspirants could get even wilder with the addition of Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Biden, once chairman, now ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is “preparing to enter the presidential fray.” Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reports that the senator met privately with former President Bill Clinton in New York recently to discuss the possibility of entering the race.

Of course, Biden told the Associated Press that he’s not going to make — or at least announce — a decision for a while, because a presidential campaign would change his current relationship with the administration.

“I’m no longer the Democrat who works with [Secretary of State Colin] Powell, the Democrat who works with this administration. I’m the Democrat who wants Powell’s boss’ job, and I’m not going to do that,” he said. “If that means I can’t be the nominee, so be it.”

An inability to start a campaign early would be only one of many challenges facing the frequently-verbose senator if his presidential ambitions prove irresistible.

“Much like Gary Hart, he’s identified more with the party’s presidential past than its present or future,” said political scientist Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia. “He was, after all, forced out by a mini-scandal which would come up again.”

In 1987, Biden quit the Democratic primary race early after the revelation that he had delivered, without attribution, passages from a speech by British Labor party leader Neil Kinnock. A barrage of subsidiary revelations by the press also hammered Biden’s image: a serious plagiarism incident from his law-school years, boastful exaggerations of his academic record at a New Hampshire campaign event, and the discovery of other quotations in Biden’s speeches pilfered from past Democratic politicians.

In the post-Clinton era, plagiarism may seem like small potatoes. But, Sabato explains, the key to a scandal is how it counters — or in the case of Biden, reinforces — his public image.

“The reason it became such an issue was that it reinforced the Biden image that already existed among the press, that he’s a blowhard, a guy who talked before he thought,” Sabato says. “Now, he’s a little older and more experienced, but do people really change that all much after they reach adulthood? I’ve rarely seen anybody change that much, and I’ve taught thousands of college students over the years.”

In his 30 years in the Senate, Biden has established a reputation for being a vocal, sometimes funny, reliable Democratic partisan, with a near-obsessive enthusiasm for Amtrak. At times, his shoot-from-the-hip style can look direct and bold, like in 1992, when Biden reportedly told Slobodan Milosevic to his face that he was “a damned war criminal and should be tried as one.”

Of course, it also can make Biden look like a maniac. According to The New Republic, in October 2001, Biden encountered a group of airline pilots and flight attendants who wanted his help in passing emergency benefits for laid-off airline workers. “I hope you will support my work on Amtrak as much as I have supported you,” Biden told them. “If not, I will screw you badly.”

The mouth of Biden had its most recent bout with controversy a little over a year ago when he expressed fears that the United States looked like a “high-tech bully” when it was bombing Afghanistan. But Biden had a quick and perhaps unexpected defense of his comments by pointing out that he said them in a speech urging the use of American ground forces to pursue al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Biden said the Islamic world was “exponentially” more likely to remain supportive if the United States fought “mano-a-mano” with Taliban and al Qaeda forces on the ground.

“I think the American public is prepared, and the president must continue to remind them to be prepared, for American body bags coming home,” Biden said. His vocal endorsement of ground forces placed him well beyond most other Democrats on the issue.

In an appearance on Chris Matthews’s Hardball, Biden said Bush is beatable.

“Oh, clearly he is,” Biden said. “Because the economy is so bad, but beyond that, I think the real hard part is coming now. It’s one thing to go in, if we do, and take out Saddam, another thing to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Look at Afghanistan. So I think he’ll be very tough. He’s a very, very strong guy. He has a very experienced, tough team around him, and so he’d be very tough. It wouldn’t be an easy race.”

In his Hardball appearance, Biden also made some oddly complimentary comments about two of his possible primary opponents, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

“I think Kerry is the strongest candidate in the field,” Biden said. “[Edwards] has a four-foot vertical jump, you know, and you know he may be able to step up to this … All kidding aside, he’s the single best natural candidate I’ve ever seen.”

Could Biden be jockeying for the vice-presidential slot?

“A Democratic nominee who would pick a candidate from three electoral vote Delaware, which tends to vote Democratic and is part of that Democratic northeastern base, would gain nothing in electoral terms,” Sabato says.

Biden’s experience and foreign-policy expertise could give him a chance to make a splash. But the large field of Democratic candidates means that many of the party’s aspirants will be roman candles, shining brightly for a few moments before burning out and disappearing in the night of the New Hampshire primary.

“The large field is very typical of out-party fields,” Sabato says. “When a party is out of the White House and the party thinks there’s a shot to win the election, people are attracted in a large number. But the field is going to be winnowed very quickly. People who don’t win Iowa or New Hampshire are almost certainly out of it.”

Sabato says, “Just as we’re having an announcement every few days in January and February of 2003, we’ll have a candidate dropping out every few days in February 2004.”

Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, covers Washington for several newspapers across the country.


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