Given the media drumbeat highlighting Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s lack of international policy experience and the corollary proposition that she’s unfit to be a heartbeat from the presidency, it might seem heretical to suggest that she’s the more qualified of the two vice-presidential hopefuls to assume the position of president should the need arise.
Yet Senator Joe Biden’s performance on the campaign trail over the last several months must give even the casual observer pause. Unlike Palin, whose tentative interview responses often seem like a recognition that she’s still on a learning curve, and whose default mode is discretion until she has the necessary facts, Biden has made a career of running his mouth — even when he has no idea what he’s saying.
I’m not talking about Biden’s comic gaffes — which were legendary even before Barack Obama tapped him as his running mate. To be sure, Biden hasn’t disappointed on this score: “John [McCain]’s last minute economic plan does nothing to tackle the number one job facing the middle class. And it happens to be, as Barack says, a three-letter word: Jobs. J-O-B-S. Jobs.”
“Part of what a leader does to instill confidence is demonstrate that he or she knows what they’re talking about. . . . When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on television and didn’t just talk about ‘the princes of greed.’ He said, ‘Look, here’s what happened.’” (Except FDR wasn’t president when the market crashed in 1929, and broadcast television wasn’t widely available until the 1940s.)
“Look, all you have to do is go down Union Street with me in Wilmington and go to Katie’s Restaurant or walk into Home Depot with me where I spend a lot of time and you ask anybody in there whether or not the economic and foreign policy of this administration has made them better off in the last eight years.” (Except it turns out Katie’s Restaurant hasn’t existed on Union Street in Wilmington for decades.)
During a speech before a large crowd in Columbia, MO., Biden acknowledged State Senator Chuck Graham: “Chuck, stand up, let the people see you.” It took him a second to realize Graham was wheelchair-bound, at which point Biden tried to cover: “Oh, God love you. What am I talking about? I’ll tell you what, you’re making everybody else stand up, old pal. I’ll tell you what, everybody else stand up for Chuck. Stand up for Chuck!”
More troubling than Biden’s blooper reel, however, is his habit of pontificating from a position of ignorance or outright error: “Vice President Cheney’s been the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history. He has — he has — the idea he doesn’t realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that’s the executive — he works in the executive branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.” (Except Article II, not Article I, of the Constitution defines the executive role of the vice president; indeed, the only mention of the vice president in Article I is to designate his legislative duty to break tie votes in the Senate. And, oh, by the way, does Biden’s assessment of Cheney as the most dangerous vice president include Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and, after being forced from office, possibly committed treason by trying to set up an independent republic in the Louisiana territories?)
“When we kicked — along with France — we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said, and Barack said, ‘Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don’t know — if you don’t, Hezbollah will control it.’ Now what’s happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.” (Except neither the U.S. or France ever kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon; in fact, Hezbollah is still there, as Biden himself correctly notes. But if Biden meant to say Syria, not Hezbollah, got kicked out of Lebanon, then he’s wrong again since the Lebanese people kicked Syria out, not the U.S. or France.)
“With regard to arms control and weapons, nuclear weapons require a nuclear-arms-control regime. John McCain voted against a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty that every Republican has supported.” (Except 49 other Republican senators voted against the treaty Biden is referencing.)
“Pakistan already has nuclear weapons. Pakistan already has deployed nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s weapons can already hit Israel and the Mediterranean.” (Except the most powerful missile currently in Pakistan’s arsenal, the Ghauri, can carry a nuclear warhead 1,000 miles . . . with poor accuracy; Israel is over 2000 miles from Pakistan, so Biden’s off by at least 1,000 miles . . . unless he has access to classified intelligence about Pakistan’s missile systems, in which case why would he mention that in public?)
Such factual blunders could perhaps be written off to the exhaustion of the campaign trail. But no charitable interpretation can account for Biden’s recent prediction of the consequences of an Obama victory in November: “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We’re about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember, I said it standing here if you don’t remember anything else I said. Watch, we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”
Even if Biden actually believes that America’s enemies are more likely to provoke a confrontation with a young and inexperienced president than they might be with an old hand in the White House, why would he want to advertise that belief to the world? Why underscore the inconvenient truth that the next executive decision Obama makes will be his first? To prep the American people for the idea that his administration might initially seem to screw up? Or, in Biden’s own words, “We’re gonna need you to use your influence, your influence within the community, to stand with him, because it’s not gonna be apparent initially, it’s not gonna be apparent that we’re right.”
Why is Biden massaging public opinion in advance of a hypothetical crisis before he and Obama have even been elected?
For all the questions that have been raised about Sarah Palin’s qualifications to serve as vice president, Biden now seems like the riskier running mate. After all, experience comes with time. Knowledge is acquired through study. But temperament doesn’t change.
Does Biden’s temperament disqualify him?
— Mark Goldblatt is the author of the novel Africa Speaks.