Talking for a Purpose

Joe Biden on the trail


MASON CITY, Iowa—Listen to any politician for long, and you can expect to catch him in a fib. But at a stop in Algona, Sen. Joe Biden opened with a whopper that no voter familiar with the Delaware Democrat would ever believe. "I'll be brief," he promised—and then talked without interruption for half an hour.

Biden has often been ridiculed for needless verbosity. Critics lamented that during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, he needed 13 minutes to ask one question. On the presidential campaign trail, though, it might be more accurate to describe him as needfully verbose. He thinks that in an age of war and terrorism, a mastery of national security issues is an asset voters will prize, and he is happy to demonstrate it, no matter how long it takes.

He has credentials to match. He has twice served as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he's been to Iraq eight times, he's gone nose-to-nose with Slobodan Milosevic during the Balkan wars, and he gave a speech warning of the danger of a major terrorist attack on the United States—on Sept. 10, 2001.

All this has gotten him little attention in a campaign that has offered such diversions as John Edwards' haircut and Rudy Giuliani's family drama. But Biden's quest rests on the hope that after the failures of a president who arrived without conspicuous expertise in international relations, Americans want someone who doesn't regard foreign affairs as foreign.

At each of his four stops today, there was a moment when he got the attention of his audience. It came when he noted, ruefully, that he's often mentioned as a possible secretary of state in a Democratic administration. "I have a rhetorical question for you," he said in Algona. "Are you prepared to vote for anybody for president who isn't capable of being secretary of state?"

He went on: "If you're not capable of being secretary of state, are you capable of being president in 2008?" He doesn't need to add that no one has ever suggested Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards for that job. And he chooses not to mention that his years of experience didn't keep him from voting for the original war resolution.

Running for office is usually an exercise in finding the right words to tell people what they want to hear. Biden is trying something different. The first surprise is that he spends most of his time at each stop addressing Iraq, rather than all the goodies he can promise to Democrats hungry for new domestic programs.

The second is his insistence that however badly they want to end the war, it's critical to end it carefully, to minimize the danger of chaos in Iraq and the region. He tells audiences he's the only candidate who has offered a serious blueprint for withdrawal, and he warns them it will take at least a year to get out. He is hoping that even after four and a half years, Democratic primary voters have the patience for prudence.

Biden, however, is not immune to a politician's occasional flights of fantasy. Addressing "sanctity of life" issues, he says the number of abortions fell under President Clinton but has risen 22 percent under President Bush. But according to the Guttmacher Institute, abortions declined in 2001, 2002 and 2003—the most recent years for which data are available.

The famous ego also makes periodic appearances. When the Supreme Court's rightward drift comes up, the former Judiciary Committee chairman says, "Imagine had I not defeated Robert Bork"—forgetting that he had the help of 57 other senators in rejecting that nominee. On the domestic side, he invites his audiences to "imagine what I can do as your president with $120 billion not being wasted in Iraq." Democrats who remember Newt Gingrich know a president can't do much without the cooperation of Congress.

In voter surveys so far, Biden is bringing up the rear. But here in Mason City, he came out well in an unusual sort of poll. After speaking for more than an hour to a crowd of 100 people at a hotel, he asked for a 5-minute break, told his listeners they were welcome to leave, and said he would return to answer additional questions from any who wanted to stay longer.

Thirty did just that. On this evening, for them, too much of Joe Biden is barely enough.