The Democratic Party didn’t set out to hand its nomination to the least experienced major presidential candidate. But if Democrats wanted a nominee who stood from the beginning with the majority of their voters against the invasion of Iraq—and they did not want to nominate Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel—they had little choice. Barack Obama’s response to the charge that he was unprepared to lead was simple: he alone among the viable contenders possessed the judgment to oppose the Iraq War before the shock and awe faded. Implicit in this rejoinder was a willingness to reject the soft neoconservatism that has come to dominate the Democratic foreign-policy establishment.
So what message did Obama send by picking Joe Biden as his running mate? A Gilda Radner-like, “Nevermind.” Certainly, Obama could have done worse. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine would have given the Democrats a pair of leaders who began the decade in the Illinois state senate and on the Richmond city council. Evan Bayh would have given Obama a running mate who voted for the Bush tax cuts and a Republican opponent who voted against them.
It is nevertheless difficult to reconcile Obama’s choice with a desire to shake up the Democratic establishment—Biden, a classic Washington pol, is a fixture of that elite. He has been in the Senate for six terms and first made a run for the Democratic presidential nomination 20 years ago, back when Neil Kinnock was actually the British Labour leader and not merely some fellow whose speeches Biden once cribbed.
Biden voted for the Iraq War, agreeing with the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein in 2002 was “a long term threat and a short term threat to our national security,” as well as “an extreme danger to the world.” As late as 2007, he was defending the original rationale for the war. On “Meet the Press,” Biden said of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, “everyone in the world thought he had them. The weapons inspectors said he had them. … This was not some, some Cheney, you know, pipe dream.”
In 2005, Biden told the Brookings Institution that withdrawing from Iraq would be a “gigantic mistake” and any “deadline for pulling out, which I fear will only encourage our enemies to wait us out” would be “equally a mistake.” In the run-up to the 2008 Democratic primaries, however, he criticized Obama and Hillary Clinton for voting against Iraq funding bills that did not contain a timetable for withdrawal, arguing that it would result in American forces having to return at a later date. Such rhetoric is little different from John McCain’s.
During the 1990s, Biden was clamoring for U.S. forces to intervene in the Balkans even before McCain did. He supported airstrikes against Serbia and the Kosovo war before Bill Clinton. Since then, he has favored humanitarian involvement in all the usual places, including Georgia and Darfur.
That’s not to say he has never departed from our current foreign policy in any significant way. Biden worked with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar to craft a more restrictive war resolution that would have required President Bush to exhaust all diplomatic options before using force —though, again, he voted for the more permissive resolution that actually passed. He also worked with Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to oppose the surge. Biden has advocated a soft partition of Iraq as a way of ending sectarian strife. And his call to make security aid to Pakistan conditional on results represents an effort to refocus the war on terror on al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Little of this amounts to a major rethinking of American foreign policy nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, however. Rather than standing athwart the Bush Doctrine yelling stop, Biden’s counsel is “Slow down and bring more friends.” It would be less significant if this were the only sign that Obama’s thinking on this subject was mostly conventional. When Ronald Reagan chose the elder George Bush in 1980, it was clear that he still intended to nudge the Republican Party to the right even if he was willing to work with the country-club old guard. Obama, by contrast, has been sending mixed signals about where he would lead his party.
Obama selected Biden to address a real political problem. As Jay Cost observed on the RealClearPolitics website, the race has so far been close because jittery Republicans nominated a candidate who can appeal beyond their base and distance himself from Bush while confident Democrats opted for a nominee with a slender résumé and exotic background. Swing voters tend to agree with Obama that the Iraq War was a mistake, but still think McCain is better qualified to be commander in chief. Biden is supposed to add experience and gravitas to the ticket.
It’s easy to imagine a bolder choice—someone who recognized the folly of Iraq early on but still has foreign-policy credentials, and a long record of defending our country from threats to national security, a candidate who does not embrace Pax Americana, yet whose Cold War history makes him impossible to caricature as a pacifist. Jim Webb could have played that role, or Sam Nunn, or perhaps—in a reverse Lieberman—even Chuck Hagel. But that would have required a Democratic Party more interested in a prudent approach to international affairs than gays in the military or abortion on demand.
Understanding the Democrats’ priorities helps explain why Obama went with a safe pick who toes the party line on domestic policy and goes with the flow on foreign affairs. Biden is a smart and capable man, whose talents are well suited for the Senate. He can savagely attack Robert Bork or Clarence Thomas one minute, then deliver a moving eulogy for Strom Thurmond the next—post-Trent Lott. He can support a partial-birth- abortion ban and then denounce the Supreme Court when it upholds the very law he voted for. Biden’s wit and blue-collar persona will help balance Obama’s aloofness and lack of appeal to white working-class Catholics. On the other hand, his windbaggery may weigh down an already loquacious ticket. The Politico warns, “the Obama team will spend some sleepless nights wondering what he might say at any given moment.” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman says simply, “He can’t keep his mouth shut.”
Opposition researchers will surely have a field day with Biden’s gaffes, temperament, money from lobbyists, and especially his past criticisms of Obama’s readiness for the presidency. Yet the biggest vote of no-confidence may have come from Barack Obama himself. In choosing Joe Biden for vice president, he was seeking a reassuring old establishment hand, a second Dick Cheney. That doesn’t say much about his stomach for undoing the handiwork of the first one.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.