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Loose Lips Sink . . .

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By Richard Cohen
Thursday, January 12, 2006

The only thing standing between Joe Biden and the presidency is his mouth. That, though, is no small matter. It is a Himalayan barrier, a Sahara of a handicap, a summer's day in Death Valley, a winter's night at the pole (either one) -- an endless list of metaphors intended to show you both the immensity of the problem and to illustrate it with the op-ed version of excess. This, alas, is Joe Biden.

The reviews for Biden's first crack at Samuel Alito, the humorless Supreme Court nominee, were murderous. The New York Times had Biden out on Page One -- normally a position to kill for -- only this time it was not a paean to his considerable merits, but an account of how it took him nearly three minutes of throat-clearing to ask his first question and then took the rest of his allocated 30 minutes just to get in four more. He concluded with about half a minute still left to him -- something of a personal best that even he had to acknowledge.

"I want to note that for maybe the first time in history, Biden is 40 seconds under his time," he told Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, no clipped speaker himself.

The Post had a similar account of Biden running off at the mouth. In that piece, Dana Milbank wrote that during Biden's round of questioning, he "spoke about his own Irish American roots, his 'Grandfather Finnegan,' his son's application to Princeton (he attended the University of Pennsylvania instead, Biden said), a speech the senator gave on the Princeton campus, the fact that Biden is 'not a Princeton fan,' and his views on the eyeglasses of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)."

The tragedy is that Biden, who is running for president, is a much better man and senator than these accounts would suggest. But his tendency, his compulsion, his manic-obsessive running of the mouth has become the functional equivalent of womanizing or some other character weakness that disqualifies a man for the presidency. It is his version of corruption, of alcoholism, of a fierce temper or vile views -- all the sorts of things that have crippled candidates in the past. It is, though, an innocent thing, as good-humored as the man and of no real policy consequence. It will merely stunt him politically.

'Tis a pity. Biden occupies the sensible center of the Democratic Party. He supported Bill Clinton's crime bill (more cops, fewer assault rifles) which helped the Democrats fight the talk-show calumny that they were pro-crime and anti-cop. In his maturity, he has emerged, along with some appropriate gray hair, as one of his party's most important -- and knowledgeable -- voices on foreign policy. Even on Iraq, an area where too many Democrats forgot that there was any reason for war, Biden took a decidedly centrist -- and defensible -- position. He voted to authorize the president to go to war but has since characterized that vote as "a mistake."

"It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly," Biden said in November on "Meet the Press" -- adding that if he were allotted a do-over, he'd vote no. Since this approximately reflects my own position, I am inclined to appreciate its wisdom. But even before that vote, Biden was urging President Bush to seek international support for the Iraq effort, not to move precipitously, and to have a postwar plan. Bush, listening to you-know-who, did what the voices told him.

The seniority that makes Biden so knowledgeable on foreign policy -- a conversation with him is always instructive -- is also what cripples. He has been in the Senate since 1973 and suffers, as nearly all senators do sooner or later, from the conviction that he and his colleagues are the center of the world. After all, no one -- with the possible exception of family members -- ever tells a senator to shut up. They are surrounded by fawning staff and generally treated as minor deities. They lose perspective, which is why, now that you've asked, they talk and talk at these hearings. They are convinced the world is watching. Actually, it's only a half a dozen shut-ins on C-SPAN -- and, of course, the nearly catatonic press corps. Everyone else is playing computer solitaire.

Biden ran for president once before -- and then, too, his mouth went off on its own. (In 1988, his stump speech was perilously similar to the one used by Neil Kinnock, Britain's Labor Party leader.) This time seems no different, except the loss is greater. Foreign policy, Biden's specialty, is the number one issue. He has much to say -- and then too much to add. He is an anatomical disaster. His Achilles' heel is his mouth.

cohenr@washpost.com


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