Clift: Joe Biden's Horse Sense

It was classic Biden. He was late for lunch and would have to leave early, but in the 20 minutes he stayed and took questions, he got more words out than most politicians do in twice the time. He didn’t have anything scripted to say, his press aide told us, but then again he rarely does. Joe Biden makes it up as he goes along, drawing on his 34 years in the U.S. Senate.

He is a force of nature—smart, even brilliant; passionate about what he believes, and a challenge for any mere staff person to rein in. At least four aides circled around trying valiantly to corral him. He had five minutes to get back to the Senate. He is willing to miss votes if his absence won’t change the outcome, he explains, unless there are political implications. The Senate was voting Thursday afternoon on a card check, which labor unions oppose, and Biden, who’s running for president, wanted to be there even though his vote was not needed to defeat the measure.

Biden is carving out a role for himself as a truth-teller. He blames the dive in approval ratings of the Congress—down to 24 percent in the latest Gallup poll—on the failure of Democrats to be candid about their limitations in taking over control. With a one-seat majority of 51 and South Dakota’s Tim Johnson still recuperating from a brain hemorrhage and unable to vote, the Democrats fall far short of the 60 votes necessary to cut off a filibuster, as well as the 67 votes needed to prevail over a presidential veto. “Join the Congress and understand what the rules are,” Biden says with a touch of irritation in response to the call for members to end the war that has become a centerpiece of rival candidate John Edwards’s campaign.

To end the war, Democrats need 17 Republican votes in the Senate. That’s what it would take to overcome a Bush veto and compensate for "independent Democrat" Joe Lieberman’s support for the war. What makes Biden think there will be this tectonic shift? When you’ve been around as long as he has, he says, “You get a sense when the horses smell the water. They haven’t smelled the water yet, but they’re sniffing it.” Republicans have dropped plenty of hints that time is running out for Bush’s war policies. If everyone on the Republican side were given a lie-detector test and asked, “Do you genuinely support the president’s policies?” Biden believes Bush wouldn’t get more than 12 senators to back him.

Biden’s political horse sense will be tested in the fall. He is certain there will be “no discernible change on the ground” in Iraq. “This surge is a loser from day one,” he says. The administration will point to some success—notably in Anbar province, where tribal chiefs are cooperating with U.S. troops, an accommodation that should have gotten underway four years ago. But it’s too little too late, and Republicans looking ahead to the ’08 election will be following a political calculation. “They know they can’t stay with the policy, but they want to avoid offending their conservative base as long as possible. Their future depends on when they pick the time to cut,” he says. This fall will bring a shift on the Republican side to change the mission, with the Iraq Study Group serving as the roadmap out of Iraq, Biden believes. “About a year late,” he notes.

The way he sees it, Republicans and Democrats are backing the wrong policy. Republicans supported the surge to get the violence under control and give the Iraqis breathing room so they could work together and share power. That hasn’t happened. Democrats want to reduce U.S. troops and force the Iraqis to take charge. “They can’t get their act together,” says Biden. His advice? Give up on the idea of a strong central government trusted by everybody in Iraq. “It’s not going to happen in the lifetime of any of you in this room,” he told the assembled reporters. The likely outcome once U.S. troops leave is a splintering within the Shia and Sunni communities, not unlike the crime-family power struggles played out on "The Sopranos." Biden didn’t invoke the popular HBO crime-family drama, but he quoted a three-star general in the south of Iraq who told him there were five different militias there acting like Mafia dons vying to be godfather of the neighborhood once U.S. troops leave.

Asked if he thinks the war is lost, Biden said it will never be won on the basis the president has stated. But he thinks it is still possible to achieve a loose federation that is not a threat to its neighbors, not a haven for terrorism and that is secure in its borders. That can only happen if the international community puts its imprint on it, and though Biden didn’t say it, that can only happen with a new president. It may not be Biden, but he has been right enough long enough about this war that his views deserve to be heard.