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A Quick Chat With Joe Biden

The last month or so has been, if not great, then at least encouraging for Joe Biden. He's seen real (if modest) upward movement in various Iowa polls, picked up a few endorsements from local newspapers and politicians there, even started to win some attention from national pundits (see, for example, here). While breaking into the top tier is still a long shot (perhaps more so after this gaffe during a recent conversation with The Washington Post), it's not crazy to think Biden could win a ticket out of Iowa if one of the Big Three falters.

I caught up with Biden this weekend at an NAACP banquet in Greenville, South Carolina. We spoke for 10-15 minutes about how he fits into the race, and I came away impressed. In a nutshell, Biden believes Iowa voters will settle on the candidate they feel is most up to the job, rather than the one who tells them what they want to hear. That may or not benefit Biden, of course, but it's as plausible a reading of recent Iowa caucuses as any other, particularly 2004.

Some highlights from the interview:

What is the profile of the Biden voter in Iowa now?

I think it's people who are, who think the single most important issue is the war in Iraq ... national security and issues relating to terror. They [Iowa voters] are pretty sophisticated. When I ran the first time as a kid I--I got elected [to the Senate] when I was 29--I ran against the war in Vietnam, and literally used to be able to say--this is not a joke--I'd stand up at a coffee, a house party ... and I'd say, you know, "We're gong to end this war in Vietnam. I'm going to help end it. We're going to come home and tend to the nation's problems." Well, if you ever follow me in Iowa, I say, "Assume I'm president and I can wave a wand and end this war in a way we don't have to go back 15 years from now. How many of you would feel secure about our place in the world?" No one raises their hand. I say "Well ... even if we settle Iraq in the best way possible, how many of you think we're okay in the Middle East?" Nobody. Everybody knows ... the next president's going to have to end this war in a way that doesn't mortgage our future in the region, and immediately turn to other hotspots in the world.

And the second [reason] why I expect to do very well in Iowa, is that people people are figuring out that I mean what I say... And one of the things that we don't do as Democrats is--John Edwards tries to do it ... maybe succesfully does it--is [voters] not only want us to be right on policy, they want to get a sense that we know what it's like, how hard it is for middle class America these days. ... My dad used to have an expression. He'd say, "I don't expect the government to solve my problems, but I expect them to understand it." And I think my career and my life and who I am all fits with most of their circumstances. There's nothing put on about it. It's who I am. I don't live in Washington. I've commuted every day for the last 35 years. Unfortunately I'm listed as the second poorest man in the Senate, which I'm not proud of. But I think they know that there are people out there who haven't kind of forgotten them. Who still have to deal with some kind of similar problems. So I hope that goes to their sense that I mean what I say.

So, on the first point, you seem to be suggesting they understand there aren't easy answers in Iraq?

Absolutely. Look at the reaction to my friend Bill Richardson--and he is my friend, for real. Bill said, "I'll get them out immediately." Then, "Well, three months." Then six months, now a year. My point is [voters] know it. Cab drivers know it. One of the themes I've been pounding away on--now if I'm wrong, then I'm dead wrong, okay--I really honest to God believe the American people are so much more sophisticated and smarter and have so much more grit thant either party gives them credit for. ...

What I said tonight talking to a group earlier [was] ... "I think Bush is going to be judged very harshly by history. Not for the mistakes he made, because whoever was president on the 12th of September would have made mistakes. But for the opportunities he squandered." And then I told them to imagine if I had said as president, after 9/11, "I have called a meeting of the world's major powers to meet in Geneva, Switzerland in October..." Who the hell wouldn't have shown up? Imagine if I'd said, "I'm sending an energy bill to Congress that will require some sacrifice, I expect you to support it." Who would not have supported it? And so the generic point is that I think the American people and the people in Iowa who are really active, they know that ... there's got to be some sacrifice.

Your rivals are quick studies on foreign policy, but your advantage seems to be that it's in your bones at this point. Do you think voters are getting that?

I think they are. But that's not a criticism of my colleagues. I mean I really mean it, it's not. ... But the truth of the matter is I've been doing it a long time. ... They kid and say, "Joe'd make a great secretary of state." Well, my response is, "At this moment in history, you're going to vote for a president who's not capable of being his own secretary of state?" ... In order to make a really tough decision--just think of your own personal life--you've got to feel it here [touches me in the stomach]. It's not enough that you know it here [points to his head]. If you're going to make a decision that affects your future in a fundamtental way, it doesn't matter how smart your advisers are. You're not going to make it. You're going to procrastinate unless you feel it. And that's one of the things, when I say the next president, when he or she takes office--this is not hyperbole--they better darn well know exactly what they're going to want to do the moment they take that oath of office. Because there's no margin for error here. I mean, really and truly. ... What I have gained over the last 20 years is--the major recommendations I've made to presidents, to the extent they've mattered, the vast majority of them turned out to be right. So that gives me confidence. That gives me confidence that if I'm smart and mastered the facts, mastered the briefing memos, I have faith in my judgment.

...If tomorrow, if the lord almighty came down right now, stood between us, and said, "Hey Joe, look, Hillary or Barack or Edwards, they'll make a better president than you..." I'd say, "Thank you God, I'm going home." But I honestly believe, I'm better prepared at this moment for what this country needs at this moment in history, than anybody running for president."

--Noam Scheiber