It is not unusual that a presidential incumbent has a campaign advantage in his second election. President Barack Obama’s supporters liked to say, “GM is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.” To beat an incumbent president, a rare historical occurrence, the challenger’s foreign policy bona fides must be solid, especially when troops are deployed around the world.
That is the considerable advantage that former vice president Joe Biden has in the Democratic primary race against contenders with little foreign policy experience or with irresponsible, extreme views that put off a lot of voters. In New York on Tuesday, Biden delivered remarks seeking to capitalize on that advantage.
“Make no mistake: this outcome of strategic setbacks, heightened threats, chants of “Death to America” once more echoing across the Middle East, Iran and its allies vowing revenge — this was avoidable,” he said. “The seeds of these dangers were planted by Donald Trump himself on May 8, 2018 — the day he tore up the Iran nuclear deal, against the advice of his own top national security advisers.” Biden argued that the trouble started “the day [Trump] turned his back on our closest European allies and decided it was more important to him to destroy any progress made by the Obama-Biden administration than build on it to create a better, safer world.”
Biden’s argument is that careful diplomacy and measured use of force had kept Iran at bay. Now, however, “a president who says he wants to end endless war in the Middle East is bringing us dangerously close to starting a new one,” Biden warned. “A president, who says he wants out of the region, sends more than 18,000 additional troops to deal with a crisis of his own making. And an administration that claims its actions have made Americans safer in the same breath urges them to leave Iraq because of increased danger.”
Biden is careful, unlike Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to avoid sounding like a naive peacenik. “I have no illusions about Iran. The regime has long sponsored terrorism and threatened our interests,” he said. “They’ve ruthlessly killed hundreds of protesters, and they should be held accountable for their actions. But there is a smart way to counter them — and a self-defeating way. Trump’s approach is demonstrably the latter.”
He smartly promised that, unlike Trump, he wouldn’t run off to unilaterally start wars. “The American people do not want, and our Constitution will not abide, a president who rules by fiat and demands obedience. I served in the executive branch of our government for eight years, but I served in the legislative branch for 36 prior to that.” He insisted, “We need to restore the balance of powers between the branches of government. We need checks and balances that actually serve to check and balance the worst impulses of our leaders — in any branch.”
In a tell-tale sign, Biden sought to contrast himself with the more progressive candidates. He said, “We need to use our system to bring us together as a nation — not abuse it to rip us apart. That’s not a naive or outdated way of thinking. That’s the genius and timelessness of our democratic system, which has, for more than 240 years, allowed us to remake ourselves, reckon with our shortcomings, and move ever forward.”
If Biden’s aim was to sound like the adult in the room, the one with every ally on speed dial, he largely succeeded. He will benefit in making a clear distinction between himself and candidates who promise to bug out of the Middle East immediately or sound as though they are making excuses for an evil regime. Biden understands that average Americans do not want a war with Iran, but neither do they want to feel as though the terrorists have free reign. Just as in health care — as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently learned from her fumble on Medicare-for-all — Democratic candidates who get themselves too far to the left on matters of war and peace risk viability in the general election. Biden — who boasts the biggest lead over Trump in head-to-head matchups, according to the latest Morning Consult poll — seems to understand this. Whether the others do will determine whether their electability argument collapses.