Joe Biden: Pretty Good Politics, and a Mixed Bag on Policy
By Joshua Holland
Joe Biden has the potential to put Obama over the top in this election, but his record overall is a mixed-bag for progressives.
Politically, Barack Obama's choice of Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) as his running mate is a strong one. Biden, an experienced white guy with working-class roots and a reputation as one of the leading Democrats on foreign policy, does for the ticket just what a VP pick should: he balances out Obama's perceived weaknesses. As far as policy goes, Biden's record, with a few notable exceptions, is pretty strong on most of the domestic issues that progressive voters hold dear. In terms of his foreign policy inclinations, however, Biden is a dedicated "liberal interventionist," which should cause pause among those hoping that an Obama presidency might usher in a dramatically different foreign policy paradigm; Biden is not one to reject American militarism, only to cloak it in a veneer of multilateral cooperation.
Most mainstream pundits are almost giddy about the selection of Biden. David Yepsen writes in the Des Moines Register that Biden is "a solid choice that adds political savvy, national security experience and a pit bull campaigner to Obama's ticket." USA Today's Susan Page says Biden "instantly bolsters the ticket's credentials on foreign policy," adding that Biden, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "is one of Congress' most knowledgeable and respected voices on national security." The WaPo's Dan Balz adds that the senator "brings far more to the ticket than foreign policy experience. He has a powerful personal story... [and] Biden's record in the area of crime and the judiciary is another asset Democrats can point to that will go beyond his foreign policy credentials." Even Fox News grudgingly acknowledged that the "choice shows that [Obama] can exercise good judgment."
In other words, Biden brings with him a degree of "seriousness" that the Washington establishment values highly. By selecting him, Obama has acknowledged that his brand of "change" will be tempered by moderation -- that nothing in his agenda will threaten the status quo too much.
Politically, that in itself makes the pick a good one, and we can expect a week of positive reactions in the media that will coincide with the Democratic Convention beginning in Denver on Monday. The end result will likely be a more significant convention "bounce" than the modest two-percent bump John Kerry enjoyed in 2004.
Biden brings other political benefits to the ticket. An articulate and hard-hitting debater, Biden will do well serving the traditional vice presidential nominee's role of attack-dog, while Obama himself stays (somewhat) above the fray. Despite decades in Washington, Biden's reputation as a straight-shooter who says what he means regardless of the repercussions -- a tendency that has gotten him into trouble a few times during his career -- gives him a bit of an ousidery caché. He is, in a sense, a Democratic version of John McCain, appreciated by the Beltway media for his availability and ability to come up with a pithy quote when need be. He has also long appealed to those much-discussed "white working-class" voters who have so far approached Obama's candicacy with a certain amount of trepidation.
He has some political baggage, with a reputation for grand-standing -- they say the most dangerous place in DC is between Joe Biden and a camera. During the primaries, Biden questioned whether Barack Obama was ready for the Oval Office, saying in one debate "I think (Obama) can be ready, but right now I don't believe he is. The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training." The McCain campaign was quick to seize upon the claim immediately after the announcement. It's unlikely, however, that voters are going to make too much of that -- as The Nation's John Nichols noted, "Democrats, and ultimately Americans, should be able to reconcile themselves to the fact of a No. 2 who suggested Obama was not ready to be No. 1. How? By recognizing that in the modern era political-party tickets really do blend into a whole."
That's politics. In terms of policy, Joe Biden has a relatively strong record on domestic issues, with a few notable exceptions. An analysis by the Washington Post gave him a 76.8 percent "liberal" voting record over his career, and he's taken the lead on environmental issues, is strong on labor, with a number of years with 100 percent "pro-labor" voting scores by the AFL-CIO (his 2007 score of 85% was not among the top scores for Senate Democrats).
As Chair of the Judiciary Committee in the 1980s, Biden led the fight to defeat Ronald Reagan's nomination of the right-wing ideologue Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, a fight that ultimately gave the court its current swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy (Biden would later join two dozen other Senate Dems in voting against the cloture motion that brought the nomination of another conservative judicial activist, Samuel Alito, to the Senate floor).
He has a mixed record on a woman's right to choose, having voted for the ban on "partial birth abortion" -- a nonexistent procedure invented by the religious right -- and opposing federal funding for abortions for low-income women, but he has also been a consistent defender of the basic tenets of Roe V Wade.
He's received a 78 rating from the Human Rights Campaign, and is a strong advocate for domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples. He voted against the proposed Constitutional ban on gay marriage but supported the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2003, when asked if gay marriage was an inevitability, Biden responded, "I'm not sure. I think probably it is."
Biden's most problematic domestic issue, as far as progressive voters are concerned, is probably his record of fealty to the finance industry. Not only did he vote in favor of the 2005 bankruptcy "reform" bill, he also voted against most of the proposed amendments that would have strengthened consumer rights under the legislation. Biden, whose top contributor over his career has been the credit card giant MBNA Corp., was one of only 18 Democrats to vote for the bill. He's often referred to by progressive critics as Joe Biden (D-Mastercard).
There's quite a bit of debate about exactly what impact the 2005 law had on the current housing crisis, but it's clear that it's contributed to the financial sector's woes, making it harder for consumers to dig out from under mountains of consumer debt, forcing more people to walk away from their homes and adding to the large amounts of bad paper being held by finance companies -- paper that has effectively rendered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two quasi-public mortgage companies that have allowed millions of Americans to purchase homes -- essentially worthless institutions.
But looking at his entire record, Joe Biden is strong on the issue that polls show to be Americans' number one concern in this election cycle: the economy. According to the Drum Major Institute, which tracks votes that are "supportive of America's middle class," Joe Biden's score so far in 2008 is over 95 percent. He received an A+ from DMI in 2007, and has earned an A rating from the group in each of the last 5 years except 2005 -- the year the bankruptcy reform bill passed.
Foreign policy is another matter. Biden is considered one of the leading experts on foreign policy within Washington circles, but his approach to the world -- his views on the use of American power -- is very much in keeping with that of the Democratic establishment. He is, in short, a "liberal hawk," a more multilateralist version of John McCain who has consistently supported the use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as earlier "interventions" in Kosovo and Bosnia. He's called for U.S. troops to act, unilaterally if need be, in Sudan.
He not only supported the invasion of Iraq, but he did so with gusto, providing bipartisan political cover for what is probably the worst foreign-policy disaster in American history. As the scholar Steven Zunes pointed out, "one of Obama's strongest distinctions from McCain was his wisdom and courage in opposing the invasion of Iraq. By choosing Biden, however, who was as big a backer of the war as the Republican nominee, Obama is now saying that this doesn't really matter, thereby negating one of his biggest advantages. Biden's 'experience' is that of a militarist whose contempt for international law has been apparent in hard-line positions on Iraq and other critical foreign policy issues."
In July of 2002, when Biden was preparing to chair a series of Senate hearings on Bush's plan to invade Iraq -- which we now know was finalized at the time -- former U.S. weapons inspector Scott Ritter told the Institute for Public Accuracy that Biden "is running a sham hearing. It is clear that Biden and most of the Congressional leadership have pre-ordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts, and are using these hearings to provide political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq. These hearings have nothing to do with an objective search for the truth, but rather seek to line up like-minded witnesses who will buttress this pre-determined result."
In late 2002, Biden took to the Senate floor in support of giving Bush the "option" to use force in Iraq, saying, "I do not believe this is a rush to war. I believe it is a march to peace and security. I believe that failure to overwhelmingly support this resolution is likely to enhance the prospects that war will occur.... [Saddam Hussein] possesses chemical and biological weapons and is seeking nuclear weapons." Unlike John McCain, who consistently argued that the invasion would be a cake-walk, Biden was at least realistic. As the Institute for Public Accuracy notes, Biden said the conflict would be a long one, but was still in favor of it. "We must be clear with the American people that we are committing to Iraq for the long haul; not just the day after, but the decade after, " He said.
Biden has consistently voted to fund the occupation, and he was the architect of the "Biden-Gelb" plan to partition Iraq into regional blocs divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, a plan that Raed Jarrar and I called a "blueprint for ethnic cleansing" at the time. The partition plan was opposed by a significant majority of the Iraqi people, as well as a majority of Iraqi lawmakers, but Biden said that Iraq's dissolution into a series of regional governates with a weak federal government was "inevitable." He has also taken the line that much of the conflict in Iraq stems from the Iraqi government's unwillingness to reconcile politically, without acknowledging that the accommodations Washington seeks are deeply unpopular among the Iraqi people.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, Biden, who said in 2002 that he was "absolutely confident the President will not take us to war alone," has since expressed regret for his vote, and it remains to be seen how the issue will play out with the Democratic base. While hardly progressive on foreign policy, his views are significantly more nuanced than some; his proposed Pakistan policy was thoughtful, if imperfect.
Biden is also a dedicated Drug Warrior, who has long supported the disastrous policy known as "source country interdiction" -- essentially militarizing friendly governments' assaults on poor farmers -- and has consistently opposed medical marijuana. In 2007, he said that while he opposed federal raids on medical marijuana facilities in states in which they're legal, "there's got to be a better answer [to pain management] than marijuana. There's got to be a better answer than that."
In the final analysis, Biden is probably a strong choice politically, complementing Obama's perceived weaknesses as a running mate must, and in terms of policy his record is a mixed bag. From a progressive perspective, Obama could have done a lot worse, and it's possible that the selection of Biden might be one that puts Obama over the top with crucial swing-voters.
Ultimately, Biden is not running for president, and the big question is whether the selection of a guy who's been a part of the Washington establishment for almost four decades will undermine Obama's message of change. On a similar note, Obama has made much of the fact that he opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning, and it's unclear how the selection of an Iraq hawk will impact the national security debate this fall.
Those questions will be answered in the coming weeks and months.