Saturday, April 08, 2006

Joe Biden for President

Back on 2006-01-26, Cousin Curveball made an unauthorized Third Path endorsement for President of the United States in 2008. You should take with a grain of salt anything that appears under a Curveball byline — a lesson the CIA ought to have learned before 2003. Since it appears unlikely that the American people will approve the necessary Constitutional amendment — allowing housecats to run for President — in time for the next Inaugural, I will give you a somewhat more serious endorsement.

Senator Joseph Biden (D–DE) is my candidate for President in 2008. I'll put it to you this way: Biden is everything the Democrats wish that John McCain were, only he's from our party. Biden is a candidate who is capable of governing from the center without pretending to reach out to the extreme right wing. I have seen him many times on the Sunday talk shows (especially NBC's Meet the Press) and on previous appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher, among others.

Read more... [panel discussion with Bill Maher, Joe Biden, Ben Affleck, and Bill Sammon]

Joe Biden's comments on Friday's Real Time with Bill Maher, though, solidified my positive view of Biden into an outright endorsement. As long as he can stay in the race, he is my candidate.

Bill Maher: [introduces Bill Sammon author of Strategery and Ben Affleck] ... and of course, right over here, a six-term United States Senator from Delaware who I hear may run for President in 2008, Senator Joe Biden. Very exciting. It's true: this may be a historic night. We may be here with a future President of the United States ... No, are you going to run? I read what you said in the newsletter —

Joe Biden: Yes.
A simple, direct question; a simple, direct answer.
Maher: What can't Bush do? Because he can imprison people without a trial, who are United States citizens, we've learned that; he can tap phones of citizens when the law says specifically he can't; he can go to war without a declaration from Congress that says he can really go to war; he signs laws and then attaches these "signing statements," which every President has done, but usually they're like the liner notes on a music album, they're just a shout out to say, "Hey, thanks for all the help with the law!" He uses them to say, "You know this law I just signed? Well, the opposite is true for me." He signed McCain's torture bill but then said, "Yeah, but I reserve the right to torture." I'm just wondering why you guys in Congress bother to show up at all, because apparently it doesn't matter what you say, he's going to do what he wants anyway. There doesn't seem to be anything stopping him from breaking every law that he wants to.

Biden: Well, all those people out there [indicates the audience, including the television audience] are stopping him. What's going to happen is, the public has figured this guy out. This idea about leaking, I've been there for 7 Presidents, I'm 107 years old — I want you to know there are still 44 guys older than me. [... discussion of Biden's service since first being elected just before he turned 30 ...] The idea that the President of the United States leaks information that reveals the name of a CIA agent and blows her cover, meaning that there's no possibility that she could work undercover again, what the heck do you think that says to every other agent in the field? (Maher: But he didn't specifically do that.) If you leak the information — I don't know what the hell he leaked. I don't know what he is doing. I just know that the end result of what the administration did with regard to that incident undermined the credibility and the faith the CIA agents have in their government, and it was a big deal.
Okay, honestly, there is a bit of a "pat answer" quality to that response. "Oh, it's not us in Washington who are powerful, it's you the people who have the real power!" Yeah, well, yes and no. "We the People" really aren't capable of micromanaging our elected officials, and it's a sad state of affairs if we break through every line of defense we have and are left with nothing else but a public outcry to avert disaster.

Still, the point about undermining the relationship between the White House and the CIA is an important one, given the nature of the post-9/11 world. Believing that you can get away with manipulating the CIA for political ends is yet another example of the Bush administration's disastrously pre-9/11 mentality. We need the CIA to be able to go after the real truth, not the evidence to back the administration's position, and we need the CIA to be able to trust that their government will back them up absolutely no matter what — or most certainly at least that their own government won't chop them off at the legs. If you think our soldiers are a brave lot, putting their lives on the line, think for a moment about undercover CIA agents. At least a soldier is more than likely going to be with his unit when he gets attacked — somebody has his back. The CIA agent runs the risk of being beheaded, or worse left to die slowly at the bottom of a ravine. Whether it was Karl Rove or Dick Cheney or George W. Bush or some other player, someone in the Bush White House intentionally placed the lives of several CIA agents and their contacts in serious jeopardy, with purely political motives.

In order to defeat al Qaeda, we are going to need our intelligence agencies running at peak efficiency, unfettered by politicized constraints. We are going to need to be able to trust the facts that they collect, not the intuition of one person. Bush has no intuition about where Osama bin Laden is hiding, so instead he has the intuition that Osama isn't important. Well, it would've been a whole lot more effective to put some faith in the people who actually know a thing or two about a thing or two. Dana Rohrabacher, whose performance on last week's Bill Maher I mostly excoriated, is quite knowledgeable about Afghanistan, having spent a great deal of time "in country" before taking his seat in Congress. When Commander Massoud, the strongest military commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, was executed by al Qaeda suicide bombers on 2001-09-09, Dana Rohrabacher said, "Hey, something big is up!" President Bush, on the other hand, had no instinct telling him that some guy he was only dimly aware of was about to turn the world on its head with just four little airplane crashes.
Bill Maher: Let me ask you about Tom DeLay, since you brought that up. He stepped down this week. I was talking on the show last week about how Brazil is energy independent as of next year. It doesn't look like the United States really has the chops any more to achieve big goals like that, and I think one of the reasons we can't achieve big goals is because nothing ever happens in this country any more without someone getting paid off. You can cry all you want about Tom DeLay leaving, but I really think he is the posterboy for the kind of "getting paid off, sludge fund, influence peddling, crony capitalism" that has turned America into something less than a first-rate power. [...snip...]

Joe Biden: Tom DeLay is going to be around as long as this prosecution is around, and this has a long way to go. Whether it hurts or helps the Democrats, the thing it most does is it allows you to legitimately believe that this is a failed country and everybody is buying everybody off. The problem with this country is, we haven't had any leader with the nerve to challenge the American people to do the things they're ready to do. These people here are ready — no, I mean this sincerely, and it does undermine it; I'm not suggesting it doesn't. Everybody talks about 9/11, I'll tell you what I remember from 9/11: I remember people the age of those people out there [audience] lined up, single file, block after block after block after block after block, waiting to give blood, even after they were told none was needed. It was a silent scream, "Let me help!" What the hell has anybody asked anybody in this country to do in terms of building this country — what would've happened if, right after 9/11, the President had said, "Look, I have an energy policy. It's going to be painful, this is what it's gonna take, and I expect you to do it."? They would've all responded. (Maher: At that moment, they certainly would've.) This is a squandered opportunity. We don't have leadership.

Ben Affleck: It is a good opportunity, just very briefly, Senator, to rally around this issue and say, you know, corruption is systemic largely in some areas — not Senator Biden, of course — but you know, particularly in Congress where you have 535 guys, or whatever, who have to run every two years, who are out there, let's face it, hustling a little bit, because, not just what's illegal, but what's legalized is a level of relationship between lobbyists and legislators that, while not illegal, is deeply unethical and definitely does not represent the needs fairly of their constituents and the American people at large. So let's find a way to use this issue — as you pointed out, 9/11 was a squandered opportunity — as a rallying point to pass legislation to separate ourselves from lobbyists: they can't come over to our house, they can't walk our dog, they can't date our kids, they can't mow our lawns, and create a kind of distance there, and then we won't have these kinds of problems, and the Republican Party should support this because more of their guys are gonna get [inaudible].

Maher: You make a good point, and when the DeLay/Abramoff thing hit the newspapers a few months ago, Congress got all excited about doing exactly what you were saying, making those laws, and then what they found out is that people were not really interested. They weren't really tuning in, it was a little too hard to follow. And so that legislation sort of "went away."
I think Senator Biden makes an excellent point. The only people in this country who are being asked to make a real sacrifice are the soldiers and their families, and our children and grandchildren when they have to pay back the massive debt we're bequeathing to them. If you're a young adult, you're either a G.I. going off to Iraq to be I.E.D. fodder, or you're a Paris Hilton wannabe. There is not enough of an avenue for public service in improving our country at home, and there is not enough engagement of the population as a whole in solving the very real problems that America has spent the last five years trying desperately to ignore. However, I agree with Ben Affleck's point, and I want to hold Senator Biden's feet to the fire a little bit on the issue: the first step in getting leadership that is willing to ask the American people to make a sacrifice, to do the hard thing because it's the right thing, is to have a Congress that is willing to do exactly that themselves. Where is the leadership in the Congress saying we must all step forward and put up some meaningful limits on lobbying — even if that requires a Constitutional amendment, and even if there isn't support in the opinion polls for doing it — in order to have the democracy that we claim to uphold? Do you think the states would have the audacity to refuse to ratify such an amendment if it came out of a bipartisan consensus in the Congress? They'd be tripping over themselves to ratify it and add similar provisions to their own state constitutions.
Maher: My guess is that [Bush] was praying when he should have been learning. I don't say that as a snarky remark, I really mean it.

Biden: Bill, smart people pray. This guy uses it in a way, I think, to avoid having to know the hard things. I mean it. The idea that you would pray whether or not you should go to war or pray after making a difficult decision, I understand that, but Republicans seem to use prayer as a political organizational tool, not a road to redemption. They use it in a different way. I respect the fact that the President prays; that is totally separable from the fact, whether or not the President is informed. When I speak to the President, and I have had plenty of opportunity to be with the President, at least prior to the last election, a lot of hours alone with him, meaning me and his staff, and the President will say things to me, I literally turn to the President and say, "Mr. President, how can you say that, knowing you don't know the facts?" He'll look at me and he'll say, "My instincts. I have good instincts." I said, "Mr. President, your instincts aren't good enough." Now if he conflates prayer with guidance on where to send your missiles — I don't know he does that — if he does that, that's dangerous, that's over the edge. I don't think he does that. I think [Bush] makes his decisions based on his instincts and then prays that he's right.
Precisely! This President doesn't want to hear about any facts or anything from "the reality-based community" that might interfere with his gut check. You know, you might be able to bluff your way through Andover prep school and Yale University and the Harvard MBA program with nothing but your gut instincts, and I can't even begin to pretend that I would have the nerves to face off against President Bush in a (literal) poker game, but that level of reliance on gut instinct is an invitation to catastrophe for a President of the United States. As President, you don't get graded on a curve. You don't get a handicap like in golf, and you don't have Daddy to bail you out when you not only can't find oil in any of your wells, but you can't find your ass with both hands. A whole lot of those things we had thrown at us in school that we defiantly insisted we would never need to know "in the real world" are things that the President really does need to actually know about, not just have faith about. The President needs to have some understanding of the science of economics and the lessons of history, just for starters. He needs to have an understanding and appreciation of the variety of cultures just in this country, and more broadly in this whole wide world. The fundamental problem is that Bush's instincts will never tell him that his instincts are dead wrong. He plainly doesn't actually have faith in God or Jesus, but he does have faith in himself. Tom DeLay has spoken of himself in messianic terms on several recent occasions, but Bush has more than a little messiah complex himself, or at least Don Quixote.

I do have faith, but not in George W. Bush. It is one thing to have faith in the great mystery; it is quite another to have faith in something that can be proven false. Even if you believe in God's ultimate plan, that plan probably doesn't include your hitting a bullseye 20,000 times in a row while drunk and blindfolded, especially when you've only barely even hit the target before.
Maher: Don't you think that being "a person of faith" has become a third rail in American politics? If you want to run for President nowadays, you'd better get out there and say you're a very "faith-based" person. Now, I don't even know what your religion is, and I think that's great. I'm sure you have it, I'm sure you have faith, but I think it's more appropriate — it certainly is the way it was for hundreds of years in this country — that we didn't look into a candidate's faith as much.

Affleck: Well, that's not entirely true. Al Smith was a big deal because he was a Catholic, Kennedy was a big deal because he was a Catholic, and Eisenhower — there were people who started going to church more frequently ... but it wasn't to the same degree.

Biden: They weren't advertising they were Catholic. (Affleck: They were hiding it.) I have my own faith. It matters to me, but I think the problem with the Republicans, as I said, is that they use this as a tool; I think the problem with a lot of élites in the Democratic Party, quite frankly, is that they communicate that they don't respect people's faith. People out there don't want them to believe like they believe, but they want to know that they respect them. [...anecdote...] We have too many élites in our party who look down their nose on people of faith. The people of faith don't want us to share their view, they just want to know we respect them. That's the big problem with my party.
Hallelujah and Amen, brutha! [I couldn't resist.] In all honesty, that's a difficult issue for me, because there are a great many faiths that I do not respect. I do not respect the version of Islam promoted by Osama bin Laden. I do not respect the version of Judaism practiced by the settlers who believe that they must occupy the West Bank because God ordains it. I do not respect the version of Christianity practiced by Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or Reverend Ike. I do not respect Scientology® at all, and I don't respect the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. (The Book of Mormon has been proven factually false. Its claim that the American Indians are descended from a "lost tribe of Israel" is demonstrably not true. The Scientologists® are a bit better off, because at least their nonsense is so outlandish it's impossible to disprove — how exactly would you prove that there are not spirits of dead space aliens causing all of life's problems?) A big part of it is that I do not respect any religious faith that is exclusive. The idea that any human being could possibly understand the totality of whatever there is that some people call "God," is blasphemy. Any sincere faith that speaks to the core of your being must have some kernel of spiritual truth, even if it is only the view out a tiny pinhole of a vast continent. Even atheism has some kernel of spiritual truth to it: the supernatural white-bearded guy who pops down to give you the winning lottery numbers, or to make the traffic light stay green just that extra two seconds, or to make your school win the football game, does not exist. Your school will win the football game if it scores more points than the opposing team, period, the end — and it doesn't matter whether you're talking about football or American football. The traffic light will stay green exactly as long as the timing mechanism tells it to, whether you reach the intersection or not. As for the winning lottery numbers, they don't yet exist when you buy the ticket. If praying could ever bring down those winning numbers, there wouldn't ever be a $48 million jackpot in Saturday's California Super Lotto.
Affleck: ... The notion that [Bush's public display of religious faith] is because he doesn't have anything else to tout, and touting religion absent any thought, is a terrible mistake, and really almost criminal. The history of the world is filled with religious people who were really smart: Shakespeare and Alexander Pope and Newton — science was developed by people of great faith. They're not mutually exclusive.
That particular quote doesn't relate much to my support of Biden for President, but I do also agree with what Ben Affleck said.
Maher: What do you think the President thinks about [this week's discovery of the so-called "missing link" between sea and land animals]? ... What do you think the President thinks about this, and why are [creationists] so insecure about us coming from the apes? We're clearly superior to them.

Sammon: I think this will reignite the whole debate about whether Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution in our schools, and, as you know, President Bush came out some months ago and said that it should be. Very controversial, some people believe only evolution should be taught and Bush believes that both should.

Biden: This is reversible, man. We don't have to go down this road. I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey. There are a lot of people that are frightened now, not coïncidental that there's a rise of fundamentalism in the last 30 years, across the board, in every confessional faith. It's because people are losing control of their lives. They're losing control — they don't think they can affect what happens to them. The more frightened, about 10% of those folks, turn to really fundamental answers. But that doesn't mean that government doesn't have a responsibility, and leaders have a responsibility, to explain a way through this, a way to get out of this. When government plays into this notion that, oh, woe is me, we're down the drain, this is the end, Armageddon is on the way — you just fuel it. We just have to fight this. I refuse to believe that this is what the majority of American people think.

Affleck: I think the Senator is right about that, and I think it's supported by what the author [Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy] said, which is that the vast majority of Americans are religious, but very few of them are slightly lunatic, fundamentalist nutballs who say that the earth is 6,000 years old and there were no dinosaurs. What I can say to those people from experience, about Armageddon ...

Maher: I tell ya, I think there are a lot of people who believe that the world is 6,000 years old, but what the Democrats have to understand is that those people are never going to vote for you. That's why I don't understand why so many Democrats try to fish in that pond — that fish ain't bitin' for you guys.

Biden: The fish that aren't biting are the 52% of the American people who don't vote. (Maher: Right!) They're the fish that aren't biting. (Maher: That's the pond the Democrats gotta fish.) That's the pond we should fish, and that's the pond that is looking for rational, sensible, optimistic requests to do something.
If America is to continue having a democracy, we cannot continue to have 52% of the electorate opting out of the process entirely. I think "rational, sensible, optimistic requests to do something" is easily the best plan I've heard for addressing that crisis.
Maher: [Condi Rice and Jack Straw told the Iraqis to get their stuff together; John Kerry wrote in an op-ed piece that if the Iraqis don't get their stuff together, we should start getting out 2006-05-15.] I know this is going to sound politically incorrect, but look, they're Middle Eastern, they're bargainers. You have to threaten to leave before they make a deal. As soon as you start getting up from the table, that's when they say, "Wait a minute, my friends!" I bought my first house from Israelis; I know.

Sammon: Let's indulge this fantasy of John Kerry's for a moment, and say that President Bush would take his advice and say, okay, by May 15th we're pulling our troops out. One of two things would happen: (1) they'll abide by that and say, okay, we're going to get our government, form a unity government, we're going to get off the dime [begin in earnest on large-scale change], and it will work, but (2) it won't. Then what do we do? We're going to pull our troops out May 15th, the place is gonna descend into what it used to be —

Maher: Civil war, which is what it already is. (Affleck: It's happening now.) That's what I don't get: we keep saying, if we leave, it'll be a civil war, but hasn't that really —

Biden: George Bush is already removing the troops. George Bush has no different plan. I guarantee you George Bush will be down to 100,000 troops by the end of this year, down to 30,000 by the end of next year. George Bush says conditions on the ground will determine whether we keep our troops there. What has happened in the last 100 days to justify pulling out 30,000 of our troops? These guys are moving out. These guys are getting out and trying to figure how to get out. The question is not whether we get out, the question is, how do we do that, and what do we do to keep a regional war from happening? What is the plan? The problem with John [Kerry]'s plan is, it sets a date, but it doesn't tell you what happens when the rest of the world falls apart. When you have the Turks and the Iranians in Iraq and there's a regional war — he doesn't tell you that part. This administration has no plan. They have a plan how not to lose, but not a plan how to win. There's three pieces to this: (1) One, you gotta say to the Sunnis, hey, look, if you're all involved in this and we become the target of everybody, all the king's horses and all the king's men can't help ya, so we gotta pull out and figure out how to stop a regional war. We're not going to be inside. You guys will be killing each other, but we're going to try to figure out how to keep this from moving into Iran, moving into Turkey, moving into the Sunni states. (2) The second piece of this is, you've got to say, when you do this, the deal is gonna have to be, you're going to have to figure out how to share the revenues here. That's what the Sunnis are looking for — the Sunnis want a piece of the action here. The problem is, there is no plan now, Bill. These guys don't know what they're doing.
I don't know what the third piece was. However, aside from that nitpicky detail, Senator Biden has outlined the situation in Iraq in the most clear-eyed terms I have seen yet. We really can't just put all the soldiers on planes home tomorrow, not because we would see a civil war — to the extent we aren't already — but because we would see a regional war. Also, he's very clear on what the Iraqis need to do in order to have a functional state. Just as the United States had to carefully balance the needs and desires of slave and free states and large and small states, Iraq will have to balance the needs and desires of the Shia majority and the Sunnis and the Kurds and the Fill-in-the-blanks, in a way that all factions can live with, and in a way that is better for each faction than all-out civil war.
Biden: 30 seconds, Bill: the United States Defense Department put out a report almost two years ago, saying the single most significant threat we have to our physical security is global warming, and these guys act like — it's like creationism, they act like it's not happening.

Sammon: I'll bet if you did a poll and asked the American people what is the graver threat, global warming or terrorism, my guess would be terrorism would come in higher.

Maher: That doesn't mean they're right. But I agree that terrorism is a horrible threat that still lives with us.
Global warming isn't a sexy sound-bite kind of a problem like the Global War on Terror, but it is very real and could be very catastrophic if we don't prepare for it. There are entire countries that could disappear under the ocean if the sea level rises just a few metres. The competition for resources — not just oil and minerals, but water and arable land — could get very nasty. A rise of not very many metres would leave Florida as an archipelago instead of a peninsula. Then think about all the coastal cities, both here in America and around the world.

Regarding the question of withdrawing American troops from Iraq,
Biden: If it was okay that [the Iraqi factions] just fight it out by themselves, and it wouldn't spill over to regional war, have at it, guys! The question is not when we get out, it's what we leave behind, in terms of U.S. interests. If we traded a dictator for chaos, and you end up with a regional war, you end up with those oil prices going to $125 a barrel, you end up having a full-blown war involving the Iranians again. You find that Iran moves into that Shia crescent, and you watch Israel decide how it's going to react to that. You watch what happens in Saudi Arabia — this is a chaotic circumstance. What do you do? The President, instead of making speeches — I mean this sincerely — should be on a plane, talking to all of those, going to the capitals, making the following point: Nobody in the region benefits from a civil war — nobody, including the Iranians. I'll tell you why: the Iranians — do they want 17 million people learning the art of war, who are Shia Arabs, dealing with and morphing into their population of 60 million Shia who hate their government in Tehran and learning those trades. Tehran doesn't want a full-blown civil war, the Turks don't want it, the French don't want it, the Germans don't want it, so what do we do? We refused to bring any of them into the deal. We refused to talk to them. Our ambassador asked if he could talk to the Iranians directly to work out a deal. The bad guys, the Iranians. Guess who we talked to to get [Afghan President] Karzai? The Iranians. These guys are ideologically driven to the point that they've made an exclusive province for us, we don't want anybody else in on the deal, and therefore we own it all, and it's chaos. The President has to widen this, has to have a regional agreement, has to get the major powers to put total influence on all the parties to come to an agreement. If that can't be done, we've gotta pull out, but we can't pull out of the Middle East.
Gosh, what a startling change from the usual political discourse: a serious look at the context and the nuances of an issue, from someone who actually has some intellectual understanding of it instead of just gut instinct to guide him.

That is the crux of my decision to endorse Joe Biden.

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