Joe Biden, without a Script
On a recent weekday afternoon, he was discussing his rivals over a bowl of tomato soup in the corner of a diner in Delaware, about a 15-minute drive from his Senate office. He wore a red cardigan and blue shirt, periodically raising his raspy voice over the sound of loudspeakers summoning customers to pick up their sandwiches. He had showed up carrying a Mead notebook filled with handwritten talking points, but once he’d gotten started, he closed the book and pushed it aside.He may be wishing he had kept the notebook open:
The subject he prefers to talk about these days—particularly when contrasting himself with his prospective Presidential rivals—is Iraq.If you're a second tier candidate, you want to differentiate yourself from the leaders. Biden has twice the experience in the Senate as the three front-runners combined.
Addressing Mrs. Clinton’s latest proposal to cap American troops and to threaten Iraqi leaders with cuts in funding, Mr. Biden lowered his voice and leaned in close over the table.
“From the part of Hillary’s proposal, the part that really baffles me is, ‘We’re going to teach the Iraqis a lesson.’ We’re not going to equip them? O.K. Cap our troops and withdraw support from the Iraqis? That’s a real good idea.” The result of Mrs. Clinton’s position on Iraq, Mr. Biden says, would be “nothing but disaster.”
Most early polls show Mrs. Clinton as the party’s clear front-runner. Mr. Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is firmly in the thick of a pack of third-tier candidates. Still, he thinks that at such a precarious point in the nation’s history, voters are seeking someone with his level of experience to take the helm.
“Are they going to turn to Hillary Clinton?” Biden asked, lowering his voice to a hush to explain why Mrs. Clinton won’t win the election.
“Everyone in the world knows her,” he said. “Her husband has used every single legitimate tool in his behalf to lock people in, shut people down. Legitimate. And she can’t break out of 30 percent for a choice for Democrats? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in a place where 100 percent of the Democrats know you? They’ve looked at you for the last three years. And four out of 10 is the max you can get?”
Mr. Biden is equally skeptical—albeit in a slightly more backhanded way—about Mr. Obama. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
But—and the “but” was clearly inevitable—he doubts whether American voters are going to elect “a one-term, a guy who has served for four years in the Senate,” and added: “I don’t recall hearing a word from Barack about a plan or a tactic.”
(After the interview with Mr. Biden and shortly before press time, Mr. Obama proposed legislation that would require all American combat brigades to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of March 2008.)
Mr. Biden seemed to reserve a special scorn for Mr. Edwards, who suffered from a perceived lack of depth in foreign policy in the Presidential election of 2004.
“I don’t think John Edwards knows what the heck he is talking about,” Mr. Biden said, when asked about Mr. Edwards’ advocacy of the immediate withdrawal of about 40,000 American troops from Iraq.
But it wasn't the criticism that got him in trouble, but the comment that started out as an attempt to compliment Obama that got him in trouble. Later today, in a conference call with reporters recounted by The Politico, Biden tried to minimize the reaction:
"I believe I was quoted accurately but they weren’t meant to take shots," he said, backpedalling to the position that this is "probably the most qualified field of Democrats that he Democratic party has fielded in a long, long time."Joe Biden has always most capitivating when speaking without a script. But can he succeed as a candidate without what is known in the business as message discipline? And if he does stick to his talking points, will he sacrifice some of what makes him so interesting?
And...about Barack "Clean" Obama: He's "Probably the most exciting candidate that the Democratic or Republican Party has produced at least since I’ve been around. He’s fresh, he’s new, he’s smart, he’s insightful, and I really regret that some have taken totally out of context my use of the word 'clean.'"
He said he'd called Obama, who told him, "Joe you don’t have to explain anything to me -- I know exactly what you meant."
Update: Paul Kiel at Talking Points Memo argues that the enunciation, and hence the punctuation, of the key sentence are important to understanding Biden's meaning:
The difference in punctuation was subtle but the difference in meaning was not. Transcriptions get put together quickly. And usually a comma added or omitted doesn't make a big difference. But this wasn't one of those times. It made a big difference. Listen to the audio and see whether you agree.I have listened and do agree; consider what the insertion of this comma does to the sentence:
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American[,] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy... I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”Read this way, Biden isn't saying Obama is the first African American candidate who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy, but using those words to describe Obama himself, and not in contrast to other blacks who have run for President.
Joe Biden often finds himself working his way through subordinate clauses when speaking extemporaneously; in this instance the meaning may have gotten mangled in the process. Unfortunately for Biden, you can't get to the White House by pointing out the nuances of English punctuation.