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Monday, August 25, 2008

In Defense of Biden: A Reply

Wes Oliver, a former Biden campaigner and a prawf at Widener, writes in with the following response to my post on Biden.  Here's his reaction, which I also respond to after the jump:

First, let me say that I appreciate the invitation to respond.  Much like the candidate I went to Iowa to support, I appreciate hard-hitting yet respectful debates.  Before I respond to your specific points, let me just offer a couple of observations about Joe Biden that may not be apparent to folks who only watched the meager coverage he received in the coverage of the primary.  This is one charismatic campaigner – with an extraordinary depth of knowledge -- two characteristics that manage to display themselves simultaneously.   Previous campaigns have led us to believe that a very sophisticated discussion of policy is not something candidates are supposed to do – that the public will be turned off. The problem has been that the candidates who have taught us this “lesson” were not blessed with a great measure of charisma in the first place.  Joe Biden has the remarkable ability to be fired up – and fire up a crowd – while he is explaining details about a matter of national security or economic policy.

One quick example – the one that first made me a Biden fan:  On September 10, 2001, I was sitting in an apartment in Portland, Maine flipping channels and saw Biden on C-SPAN.  I always thought he was insightful, so I stopped and watch.  Biden began explaining that we were prepared to meet the threats of the Cold War era, but that our defense strategy did not account for the threats of the modern era – that  a small cell terrorist group like al Qaida, not the threat of thermo-nuclear destruction, posed the greatest threat to American security.  I was drawn in and I am not a foreign policy guy – his account made sense and it was gripping and conveyed a real sense of urgency.  Anyone could get his head around what Biden was saying and yet his analysis lacked nothing in sophistication.  THEN, he said, “the next attack on this nation will come in the hull of a ship or the belly of a plane.”  My second thought after the towers came down: “My God, Joe Biden was right.”  (My first thought was the same mix of horror, anger, sadness and disbelief that I am certain I shared with everyone reading this.)   This is, of course, a dramatic example, but I’ve seen him hold an audience of ordinary, hard-working Iowans in the palm of his hand as he dissected Bush’s Roadmap to Peace in the Middle East or explained how government development of infrastructure is the key to economic revitalization.  He is the rare politician who can take complicated, important ideas, make them accessible and make people who lack expertise in the area he’s describing care passionately about the ideas. He does it without dumbing down his discussion – he teaches using the advice Oliver Houck gave me when I started teaching – teach with enthusiasm, everything else will take care of itself.

To address the specifics of Dan’s post.  And Dan, while I like and respect you greatly, I strongly disagree on your points, offering the specifics that follow:

1) Biden’s “support” for the war has been caricatured.  True, Biden voted for the Authorization to Use Military Force but he and Richard Lugar proposed an amendment (the Biden-Lugar Amendment) which would have required a UN Authorization OR the president to personally certify that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States, not just its allies, before using force.   This would have effectively prevented the Iraq invasion, or ensured that we did it with the support of the international community, which wasn’t likely, but would have created a very different international climate.  (The amendment had wide bi-partisan support but Joe Lieberman shut down this amendment by moving for a cloture vote.)  Biden was then perhaps the greatest critic of the way we were planning to go to war.  He may have been the one to have coined the phrase “we can win the war, but we are not prepared to win the peace.”  Every night or so I saw him on tv saying this.  Biden was, at every turn, an opponent to the way we were carrying out this operation.  And he was the first to offer a reasonable political solution to get us out without leaving chaos behind – a proposal accepted by 75 members of the US Senate to create three states within the country.

2) As to what Dan describes as the boneheaded comment about Obama.  He did say Obama was clean and articulate.  Context, however, is everything.  In that same quote he described him as brilliant and used the color metaphor “lightening in a jar.”  (What would give to have a student describe you as “lightening in a jar”?) This was an off-the-cuff comment that, when looked at in context, had no malice – quite the contrary.  He has gotten so much grief for leaving the word “cut” off of clean.  And for the articulate comment – I understand the objection, but I am certain he meant, by the standards of presidential candidates, Obama is articulate and exceedingly so – and is he ever.  He sure can fire up a crowd with sharp and soaring rhetoric – Joe Biden wasn’t saying Barack could conjugate.  If anyone should be offended by this, it would be, I guess, Barack Obama.  And Obama thinks that, other than himself, the best qualified person in America to be president is Joe Biden.  Obama said at an Iowa debate that he knew Biden’s heart and that he knew that was not a racially animated statement. Does Biden gaffe?  Sure.  The flip side of Biden’s gaffes is that he is exceedingly candid and THAT comes across in spades.    

3) The plagiarism point.  Is it is honesty or dedication to learning that you’re questioning here?  His entire life since that moment has been dedicated to the scholarly understanding of issues and presenting them unvarnished to the American public.  Biden did more than any candidate in the primaries to explain the complexities of the issues facing this country without dumbing down the issues.  (See discussion above.)  Maybe it is my Baptist upbringing, but I still believe in redemption – and if this isn’t a redemption story, I don’t know that I’ve heard of one.

Thanks for allowing me to respond.

Wes, thanks for the response. To my mind on point 1, Biden's support of the AUMF is not an inherently obvious mistake--given the intelligence stories from many credible sources, I'm sure I would have been inclined to do the same, even though like Biden, and many Republicans too, I have grave reservations about the way the war was conducted. FWIW, Biden opposed the surge. At the time, I believed the surge was the right thing to do; once we mangled another country, we have some strong obligation to fix it or at least provide the conditions of security to help the citizens of that country rebuild it. So far, it's proven its worth and so that's another major issue Biden's been on the wrong side of, though again, reasonable people may disagree about that.

As to the gaffes, though they are plentiful  I don't for a minute think he's an evil or malicious person; he's just insensitive to various social cues and norms [said the professor who gets chastised by his wife for that on a daily basis; of course I'm not on a ticket for VPOTUS]. The significance of the plagiarism during law school seems more problematic than the Kinnock-cribbing, b/c he used to credit Kinnock in previous iterations and probably innocently forgot to during the stump speech. But lifting 5 pages from a law review article that's not yours, if true, is more than just a blunder. In any event, I hope I'm wrong about his gifts and remain open-minded. Thanks for your response, Wes

Posted by Administrators on August 25, 2008 at 11:12 AM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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Biden did more than any candidate in the primaries to explain the complexities of the issues facing this country without dumbing down the issues.

Although it wasn't in the primaries, listening to Biden's long and rambling questions at the confirmation hearings of Alito and Roberts, I can confidently say that Joe Biden is an utter failure at explaining complex things.

Biden doesn't have foreign policy experience, he has seniority in the US Senate. He has been there since he was 29-30, his whole adult life. He has no other work experience (I don't count Biden's adjunct classes at Widener Law as real world experience).

Posted by: anonymouse | Aug 26, 2008 3:10:40 PM

He did say Obama was clean and articulate.

What struck me was that Biden began the comment by saying that Obama was the "FIRST mainstream African-American" with those qualities. MLK didn't come to mind? (And he wouldn't have been the "first" either.) I'm sure Biden didn't mean it that way, but his mouth goes way ahead of his brain sometimes.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Aug 26, 2008 10:54:54 AM

that's funny; i thought "lightening in a jar"--as opposed to, i don't know, "lightning in a jar"--actually WAS a "color metaphor," although i couldn't figure out why biden's accusing obama of being an elixir for increasing the reflectiveness of african-american's skin would be particularly politically advantageous. now i suppose your comment makes more sense, although i still think you're somehow getting the star trek IV reference wrong.

Posted by: anon | Aug 25, 2008 11:57:31 PM

It should come as no surprise to those who know me best that I am willing to forgive gaffes. I managed to commit one even in this email -- of course I meant "colorful metaphor" not "color metaphor."

Posted by: Wes | Aug 25, 2008 2:13:50 PM

I note, as an aside, that in Debt of Honor, Tom Clancy predicted that a jumbo jet could be used in such a manner.


Posted by: Jonathan | Aug 25, 2008 1:07:07 PM

Paul, I'm not going to delve into the merits vel non of the surge. Like I said, reasonable people can disagree. My sense is that the surge has at least coincided with tremendous gains in the security of Iraqis and American soldiers too. Some doubt whether the surge has caused it, or whether tje improvements are a result of a confluence of various factors. Fine. My point is simply that Biden appears to me to have been on the wrong side on that issue, much like he was on the first Iraq war. Obviously those are just two pieces of data within a long career, much of it relatively distinguished from my point of view, but not sufficiently promising to warrant the plaudits as a choice to be VP. I hope my "cautious dissent" is proven wrong.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Aug 25, 2008 12:51:55 PM


Wes has you on this one. Thoughtful and persuasive.

And the "surge" has only been a success if you think sending more troops into a Serbonian bog one has created something to be in favor of. And what do you mean "it has proven its worth?" Explain.


Posted by: Paul | Aug 25, 2008 12:21:17 PM

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