Biden is no threat to Obama – but no asset

By Williams Rees-Mogg (THE TIMES, 25/08/08):

Joe Biden has one crucial qualification to be the next vice-president of the United States, at least in the eyes of Barack Obama. He is not Hillary Clinton. Mr Obama has made the opposite decision to the one made by another young and relatively inexperienced Senator in 1960. John F.Kennedy distrusted and detested Lyndon Johnson, but he asked him to become his running- mate in the election because he thought that Johnson would help to deliver the Texas vote. He did, and Texas was one of the key states that took Kennedy into the White House.

Senator Biden is no Hillary Clinton; he presents no threat though little promise to Mr Obama. In the primary elections, Mrs Clinton gained 18 million votes. Among women she had a devoted following – and who still believe she should have been the candidate. If she had been on the ticket, she would have brought a lot of votes with her, as did Johnson. In rejecting her as his running-mate, Mr Obama has taken the risk that his margin of victory might be wiped out.

Mr Biden has himself twice run unsuccessfully for the presidency; in 1987 he had to withdraw before the primaries; in 2008 he failed to generate any interest in the Iowa caucuses or in New Hampshire. He has a strong record for winning votes as a senator in Delaware. There is no evidence he can win votes in a national election.

This was, no doubt, a difficult choice. If Mr Obama had chosen Mrs Clinton, the Clintons might have overshadowed his campaign. Their baggage, particularly Bill Clinton’s past scandals, might have been embarrassing. Like Johnson, Bill Clinton is a big political figure. One can understand that Mr Obama wanted to emphasise that he was his own man. Yet in rejecting Hillary Clinton, Mr Obama may have lost the White House. Many Democrats do believe that.

There are also potential embarrassments about Mr Biden. I am not referring to the scandals that were dug up by the campaign staff of Michael Dukakis in 1987, though for a politician to be defeated by the Dukakis machine must have been quite a humiliation. Mr Biden’s plagiarism of Neil Kinnock did not much matter in 1987 and does not matter at all now.

There is however an important political issue that has already been simmering on the Republican side and could be raised by the Biden nomination. Last Saturday, when Biden was introduced to the public in Springfield, Mr Obama went out of his way to refer to Mr Biden’s Catholic faith. Mr Biden capped that by referring to his upbringing as an Irish Catholic boy. Clearly this is already an important part of the Biden campaign story.

In 1987 Joe Biden was already a senior member of the US Senate. He held the post of chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the Senate committee that has to approve nominations to the Supreme Court. On July 1, President Ronald Reagan announced the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Judge Bork was an exceptionally distinguished jurist and the first Reagan appointee on a very liberal court.

The announcement was greeted by a manic response from another Senator, also Irish-American, Catholic and Democrat, Edward Kennedy. He said that: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizen’s doors in midnight raids, school children could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government and the doors of the Federal Courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.”

None of these allegations was true, or could be justified on any statement or ruling of Judge Bork. However, some of them were repeated again and again long after they had been challenged or disproved. Initially, Mr Biden’s stance as chairman was quite proper. Indeed he said: “I’m not Teddy Kennedy.” But he had a meeting with Senator Kennedy, which was followed by hearings that were far from impartial.

Two months before the hearings even started The New York Times reported Mr Biden as saying that he “would oppose the nomination and would lead the fight in the senate”. He had not yet heard any of the evidence. He subsequently published the Biden Report, which again misrepresented Judge Bork’s legal position; it is a merely partisan document. On October 23 the Senate rejected the nomination. Whoever else got justice, Judge Bork did not.

The underlying issue, which was partly obscured by propaganda, was the law of abortion. In the case of Roe v Wade (1973), the Supreme Court had taken the abortion issue out of the hands of the states or Congress and declared an unqualified constitutional right for a woman to choose an abortion. Because this was taken out of the ordinary democratic procedures it has remained a much more divisive issue than it is in Britain. US Protestants, who are mainly Republicans, and Roman Catholics – the largest religious group in the US – do not accept Roe v Wade, but cannot amend the law by any democratic process.

Catholic doctrine is clear. Abortion is wrong. In practice, Catholic women may disobey the teaching of their church – to which I belong. Yet most Catholics dislike politicians who promote themselves as loyal Catholics but oppose any re-examination of abortion law. Catholics see abortion as a moral issue, but they also resent humbug.

Mr Biden’s nomination as vice- president may or may nor reignite this issue. Yet Mr Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987; he did play a leading part in a grossly unfair campaign against the nomination of Judge Bork; he does exploit his Catholic religion as part of his political appeal. His handling of the Bork nomination was an abuse of office for which he has never apologised.