Also-Ran Biden Shows the Way at Debates

082007 kornacki web Also Ran Biden Shows the Way at DebatesIt’s a shame Joe Biden’s campaign hasn’t gone anywhere.

The Delaware Senator, who was first elected when M*A*S*H was a brand new series, actually announced his plans to run ahead of everyone else—in June 2005—but the head start has done him no good: He can’t raise money, can’t move his poll numbers, and can’t break his way into the Hillary-Barack-and-John storylines that define the media’s coverage of the Democratic race.

But every time the Democratic eight gather for yet another debate, it is Mr. Biden who takes the scraps of free television time he’s afforded and turns in the most consistently presidential performance of any candidate from either party.

He was at it again Sunday, when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos took his turn quizzing the Democrats in Des Moines.

As all of the moderators before him have done, Mr. Stephanopoulos dutifully focused his most pointed questions and follow-ups on the big names, trying to create public conflict between them. And as usual, the instant press analysis afterwards played up the clashing—or lack thereof, as the case was on Sunday—of the front-runners.

But once again, it was Mr. Biden who offered the most compelling presentation, in substance and style. Too often, he is rather curtly dismissed as a windbag, a not entirely unfounded criticism that ignores his innate knack for locking in and connecting with an audience—mixing deep policy knowledge with a quick wit and some of the flair of a good storyteller.

The best ingredients in Mr. Biden all seem to congeal when the subject turns foreign policy. Take his dust-up on Sunday with Bill Richardson over Mr. Richardson’s nakedly opportunistic—and entirely too easy, since as a Governor his musings are all theoretical—“plan” to withdraw every single U.S. troop from Iraq by this December. Mr. Richardson, rather than bothering with the pesky details, has sought to score points with his party’s base by staking out what it seemingly the clearest anti-war position among the six credible Democratic candidates.

Given the chance Sunday, Mr. Biden called him out.

“My reaction,” he said when he was asked about the December withdrawal idea, “is that it’s time to start leveling with the American people. This administration hasn’t been doing it for seven years. We should.”

If you began withdrawing forces now, Mr. Biden noted, it would take a minimum of one full year to drawn down completely—with the issue of the safety of civilians left in the green zone still unresolved. He also sketched out his plan for a loosely federated Iraq, with separate regions for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, one of the themes of his campaign and an idea that, he noted, is gaining some traction in Washington.

In another answer on the same topic, Mr. Biden connected Iraq to the Balkan violence of the 1990s, arguing that the same concept of “separating the parties” had produced peace there. “If it ends with this country splintering, we will have for a generation our grandchildren engaged in a regional war that will be consequential far beyond—far beyond—Iraq,” he said.

There is so much to like about Mr. Biden in moments like this.

Of all of the candidates, he is easily the most respectful of the audience’s intelligence and maturity. He and Mr. Richardson are both steeped in foreign policy and can rightly claim to speak with authority on it, but Mr. Biden refuses to pander by offering a gimmick he knows could never actually work, the way Mr. Richardson does with his December withdrawal plan.

Mr. Biden also doesn’t water down his views on Iraq, even though he has known all along that they put him somewhat at odds with the Democratic base. Instead, he explains—with evident and refreshing passion—how he arrived at his views, assuming a certain level of foreign policy sophistication on the part of the audience. There is an inherent respect for the intellect of his audience—and his skeptics—in Mr. Biden’s presentation, a welcome contrast to the insulting manipulation often evident in Hillary Clinton’s canned evasions.

And when Mr. Biden delivers his message, there is more inflection in his voice than the other candidates’, and he always seems to match the right pace and pitch to the topic at hand. Despite his past verbal slip-ups, he is actually an outstanding television candidate, someone who knows how to show he has blood in his veins without being too hot.

Every debate, it seems, ends up producing an observation from some pundit, strictly as an afterthought, that Mr. Biden was actually the best candidate on stage. And since there’s still no sign that his campaign is catching on after more than a half-dozen high profile debates and forums so far, it’s hard to see how he can get much beyond this footnote status.

It’s a shame, but it looks like the only way Mr. Biden will make history when this campaign is over is as a curiosity: the candidate who won no delegates, but every debate.