Posted: Jan. 4, 2008
GONE WITH A NEW WIND
By Celia Cohen
A man can stay in the U.S. Senate too long to be president. People can look at him and think, "Mr. Chairman," not "Hail to the Chief."
The 2008 contest for the Democratic nomination has a breathlessness about it that comes with the promise of crashing through the marble ceiling of the Federal City with Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, or at least of bashing it with John Edwards.
Joe Biden is as much a part of that marble firmament as the red clay of Tara was part of Scarlett O'Hara. This election is not his moment. His time is gone with the new political wind.
Biden shut down his long-shot run for the presidency after the first votes were cast Thursday evening in the Iowa caucuses, a man of the Senate to the end. When he gave his concession speech, he might as well have been in the chamber as he instinctively cloaked himself in its flowery protocol for saying what was on his mind.
"Excuse me a point of personal privilege," Biden said.
In a field with Clinton, Edwards, Obama, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson, the senior senator from Delaware came in next to last. His state has seen this outcome before. When Pete du Pont, the former Republican governor, ran for president in 1988, he placed next to last in Iowa, next to last in New Hampshire, and went home.
It is the curse of the small state, the burden of the second tier. Just as the political wind is not on Biden's side, neither are the logistics.
"I don't think he ever had a window he could campaign in. Part of it is the media -- because you can only cover so many candidates in depth -- but Joe also lacked money," said Jim Soles, a political scientist retired from the University of Delaware. "He did not have the glitz or glitter of the top three."
John Daniello, the Democratic state chair, put it even more succinctly. "The media and the system worked against him," he said.
Biden exited without bitterness. "There's nothing to be sad about," he said.
Biden got farther than he did the last time. His campaign for the 1988 nomination disintegrated amid plagiarism charges and a tantrum that saw him exaggerate his academic record. This time he at least got to the voting.
Biden, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, came out of this one with the focus on his foreign policy perspective, not on his faux pas. There were those moments of Joe-being-Joe -- like the blundering description of Obama as "articulate" and "clean" or the insinuation that the trucker in the collision fatal to his wife and baby daughter in 1972 was drinking -- but they were not overriding.
Instead, Biden was able to use his grasp of international affairs to shine. His signature political spot was called "Joe is Right," and it quoted other candidates praising him. "Amen to Joe, because he's 100 percent right," Clinton said, and "I think Joe is exactly right," Obama said.
Soles suggested that Biden elevated himself in the model of George Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic majority leader called upon for peacemaking in Ireland and investigating steroids in baseball after he left office, or Lee Hamilton, the retired Democratic congressman who led the Iraq Study Group and the 9/11 Commission after chairing the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Whether he likes it or not, Joe was treated as the elder statesman that he is, even if there was a little embroidery around the edges," Soles said.
"Joe came out ahead in every respect, except his pursuit of the presidency. I think Delawareans have a new appreciation for Joe. Watching Joe talk about issues may have taught Delawareans that they have given the nation a far greater gift in Joe Biden than they previously realized."
Now Biden will do what he has done for the last 35 years when he had to pick himself up, after the accident, after the last presidential race, after the brain aneurysms that nearly killed him.
"I ain't going away," Biden said. "I'll be going back to the Senate."