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Biden Time

JOE BIDEN IS THE REASON Barack Obama was smart to run for president. He’s a textbook example of why lengthy service in the U.S. Senate makes it harder to win the White House. Once upon a time, Biden—elected to the Senate at age 29—was a politicalup-and-comer. He was brainy but blue-collar: a Catholic from a state that is more culturally conservative than it seems. And he was eloquent. People forget, but Biden is one of the best speechmakers in the Democratic Party. When he ran for president in 1988, passion was his forte. Sure, he was undisciplined, but so was Bill Clinton. Two decades ago, his national political future looked bright. 

Today, he’s in danger of becoming a laughingstock. He’s become a windbag—indulged for too long in an institution where no one ever makes you stop talking. And the consequences were on disastrous display last week, when he began riffing on his presidential rivalsto the New York Observer and ended up suggesting that, before Obama came along, black presidential candidates were not merely inarticulate but also unclean.

Now half the punditocracy is demanding his head, and the other half is watching the bloodsport with unseemly glee. My colleague and friend Jonathan Chait, in perhaps the oddest column of the entire saga, said Biden would be a "terrific" president and that his Obama quote was "widely misunderstood," but that he should drop out of the presidential race nonetheless, because he’s gaffe-prone and thus can’t win. This strikes me as a strange conflation of the descriptive and the normative. If Biden wants to waste his time in a quixotic bid for the presidency—a job Chait thinks he’d do extremely well—why stop him?

I have my own reasons for hoping Biden stays in the race. Partly, it’s the broader principle: Stupid, insensitive remarks shouldn’t sink political candidacies unless they bespeak some larger animus. George Allen’s "macaca" comment mattered because, as Ryan Lizza has documented ("Pinprick," May 8, 2006), Allen had a long history of racist sympathies. So did Trent Lott, long before he endorsed StromThurmond for president. Biden, by contrast, has another dumb remark on his record (this one about Indian Americans), but his long career in Congress suggests no sympathy for racists. Given that, he doesn’t deserve the political death sentence. Journalists shouldn’t be hypocrites: You can’t ask politicians to be unscripted and then decapitate them any time they misspeak.

There’s another reason I hope Biden stays in the race: the effect he’ll have on his competitors. Biden’s record on Iraq isn’t perfect. But he knows more about the issue than anyone else in the field and, as a result, will be a valuable bullshit detector.Consider something else Biden said in his now-infamous Observer interview. He mocked Hillary Clinton’s recent suggestion that the United States threaten to withdraw funding from Iraqi troops in order to "send a clear message—that we are finished with their empty promises and with this president’s blank check." Biden was incredulous, and he was right to be incredulous. Almost all of his competitors are saying this kind of thing. John Edwards, for instance, recently told Tim Russert that the United States should begin to withdraw its troops because only then will the Iraqis feel "imminent responsibility" to "reach any kind of reconciliation." It’s a politically convenient claim. Democrats want to quickly withdraw U.S. troops, but they don’t want to admit that if theUnited States leaves, things will get worse. So they say things will actually get better, because once Iraq’s leaders realize that we won’t save them from themselves, they’ll finally get serious about overcoming their sectarian divisions. This argument allows Democrats to paint withdrawal not as an admission of defeat, but as a strategy for victory.

But it’s wildly unconvincing. After all, you can’t threaten people with an outcome they already want. Last November, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki explicitly called for U.S. troops to leave Baghdad, before being strong-armed by the Bush administration into accepting a troop surge. He doesn’t fear a U.S. pullout; he welcomes it, because, with U.S. troops out of the way, his Shia allies can more easily cleanse Baghdad of Sunnis. Edwards and Clinton seem to think that, if the United States begins to withdraw its troops or money, Iraqis will peer over the abyss and pull back. But Iraqis don’t need help visualizing the abyss; they’re living it. The problem is that those Iraqi leaders genuinely interested insharing power across sectarian lines are mostly sidelined, exiled, or dead. The ones who remain are less interested in averting a civil war than in winning one.

That’s not to say Clinton and Edwards are wrong about the policy.The United States should begin to withdraw its troops, not so wecan snatch victory from the jaws of defeat but because we’ve already been defeated—because U.S. troops cannot defeat an insurgency that has mass Sunni support and militias that have mass Shia support in a country where a majority of people want our soldiers out—or dead.

Biden just wants his opponents to be honest about what they’re proposing. Because, if they are, they will have to begin a highly unpleasant and urgently needed debate about how to handle the awful consequences of a necessary withdrawal. No one really knows how an all-out Iraqi civil war will affect the Middle East, but, as theBrookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack and Daniel Byman recently argued, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, and even Iran could be destabilized by waves of refugees, weapons, and jihadists. Keeping those countries from buckling may require aggressive diplomatic, financial, and even military intervention (not to mention a generous refugee policy for the Iraqis whose country we have helped destroy). It’s little wonder that top-tier Democratic candidatesavoid discussing this for fear of being labeled defeatist. But, if they do, they’ll be allowing George W. Bush to do further damage. Four years ago, the Bush administration didn’t plan for how to keep the peace in post-Saddam Iraq. Now Democrats must begin a debate about how to keep the peace in the entire Middle East.

If Biden can force his presidential opponents into that discussion, he’ll be doing the country a service. It’s not the role he probably imagined for himself. But it’s crucial and honorable. And it’s why he should stay in the race.

Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article appeared in the February 19-26, 2007 issue of the magazine.