Joseph Biden, Delaware’s longest-serving senator, was first elected in 1972, at age 29 (he reached the constitutional age of 30 by the time he took office); he has spent most of his life as a senator.
Biden grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington in a middle-class home; his father was a car salesman and one grandfather was a state senator in Pennsylvania. As a teenager he had a stutter, but taught himself to deliver a speech to his whole school. He graduated from the University of Delaware and Syracuse Law School; he married and started a family while still in law school. After school he moved back to the Wilmington suburbs, practiced law, and in 1970, at 27, was elected to the New Castle County Council. In 1972 he ran for the Senate against a popular incumbent who seemed ready to retire, while this young challenger had energy, an attractive extended family and an ability to connect with voters’ emotions. He won 51%-49%. A month later his wife and daughter were killed in an auto accident; his two young sons were injured. He thought about resigning, but was persuaded to serve, and began his practice, kept to this day, of commuting from his home near Wilmington on Amtrak, 80 minutes to and from Washington every day. He remains a familiar figure in, and one familiar with, his constituency (and to Amtrak employees).
In the Senate, Biden has a moderate-to-liberal voting record. For many years he did much of his most visible work on the Judiciary Committee, which he chaired from 1987-95 and served as ranking Democrat on from 1981-87 and 1995-97. The issues that arise here-abortion, flagburning, capital punishment, crime control-cut deeply, and for years the cultural liberals in the Democratic Party differed sharply on most of them from the constituents Biden saw in Delaware every day. As chairman, Biden presided over the most contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings in history. In his 1987 hearings, nominee Robert Bork set a high standard for intellectual seriousness, but some of his opponents used his candor to vote against him, from which Biden’s attempts to construct an honestly based, anti-Bork rationale proved politically indistinguishable; no other nominee since has testified so candidly. The 1991 hearings on Clarence Thomas exploded when someone leaked charges of sexual harassment by Anita Hill against the nominee. Biden was bitterly criticized for covering up this information, but he had shared it with committee members, who agreed that Hill’s initial unwillingness to testify publicly meant that any reference to it would be unfair to Thomas. Once the story was out though, Hill and then Thomas testified to fascinated television audiences; Thomas was confirmed, over Biden’s opposition.
In the middle of the Bork hearings came a climactic moment for Biden, who in 1987 started running for president. He hoped to inspire a new generation as John Kennedy had inspired his. But Biden decided to leave the race when a Michael Dukakis staffer leaked an “attack video” showing similarities between Biden’s stump speech about his background and a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Paraphrasing someone else’s words is not a political crime-most political discourse is conducted in familiar shorthand terms-but Biden in dramatizing his background actually distorted it, for unlike Kinnock he did not rise from working class roots, and unlike in Britain, upward social mobility is a common experience in the United States. In 1988, Biden was stricken by an aneurysm on the night of the New Hampshire primary; he was rushed to the hospital and nearly died, but recovered fully.
After the Thomas hearings, Biden seemed defensive about attacks from the feminist left, then the greatest source of activism in the Democratic Party. He sought out women to serve on Judiciary and worked hard on the 1994 Violence Against Women Act; he helped renew it in 2000, although the Supreme Court declared part of it unconstitutional, and again in 2005. He opposed the nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, and after the hearings on their nominations said, “I have reached a conclusion that we should not even have these hearings, that we should just go right to the floor like they used to do in the old days.”
Biden has been the sponsor in Judiciary of the bankruptcy bill, backed strongly by Delaware’s MBNA and other credit card issuers, which was vetoed by Bill Clinton in 2000. It was brought up again in 2001 with a president ready to sign it, and versions passed both the Senate and the House. But there were two contentious issues blocking final passage. One was the homestead exemption; the Senate voted to limit it to $125,000, but the House version allowed unlimited exemptions once a home had been owned for two years (Florida and Texas have unlimited exemptions, and some bankrupts hold onto $5 million houses). Biden agreed to accept the House version. The other issue was Charles Schumer’s amendment making fines incurred by anti-abortion protesters undischargeable in bankruptcy. On this, Biden would not yield. In November 2002 the bill, with a version of the Schumer provision was defeated in the House when 87 anti-abortion Republicans spurned the leadership’s pleas and defeated the bill. In 2005, Biden again voted for the Schumer amendment, which failed, but also voted for the final bankruptcy bill.
Biden has also used his seat on Judiciary to combat what he considers harmful drugs. In April 2003 he amended an Amber Alert bill with a version of the RAVE Act, with prison terms up to nine years for club owners sponsoring raves at which Ecstasy and other illegal drugs are used. In October 2004 he persuaded the Senate to pass a bill criminalizing steroid precursors like androstenedione, the supplement used by baseball slugger Mark McGwire; it was reconciled with the House version and became law. In December 2004 Biden threatened to sponsor legislation addressing drug use in baseball if Major League Baseball failed to clamp down; he hailed the agreement on the issue between the baseball commissioner and the players’ union in November 2005.
Biden became ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee in 1997 and chairman in June 2001 and again in January 2007. To the surprise of many, he entered into a constructive working relationship with Jesse Helms, chairman from 1995 to 2001. When democracy in the former Yugoslavia was thwarted by state-led terrorism and when multilateral instrumentalities proved ineffective, Biden was among the strongest voices to call for lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia and training Bosnian Muslims, demanding that the United States and NATO investigate war crimes there, and arguing for NATO air strikes. To the incoming Bush administration he was friendly but sometimes critical. Then Biden became chairman of Foreign Relations in June 2001 and America was attacked on September 11. In the weeks following the attack Biden praised Bush for being “patient, resolute and cautious.” In July and August 2002 he held two days of hearings on Iraq, with administration witnesses. In August he said the United States has “no choice but to eliminate” Saddam Hussein and that “probably” it means war with Iraq. He conferred frequently with Secretary of State Colin Powell and pushed for the U.S. to bring the issue to the United Nations; he said a unilateral attack would be the “single worst option.” In late September 2002, he and ranking Republican Richard Lugar were working to bring forward a resolution that would authorize the president to take action to remove weapons of mass destruction, but not Saddam Hussein himself, only after exhausting diplomatic options. Bush opposed this, and forestalled Biden and Lugar by getting agreement on terms of a resolution from Trent Lott, Dennis Hastert and Richard Gephardt. Biden voted for it in October 2002.
As fighting and casualties continued and rose after major military operations were completed, Biden became more critical of the administration. In June 2003 he said Bush should “level with the American people” about the cost and length of the Iraq commitment; he was angry when administration officials refused to put a price tag on the effort. In August 2003 he said he did not regret his vote for the war, but added, “There’s nothing international about this until we get NATO in there and we get Islamic forces in there.” He said the administration was filled with “control freaks who are allowing their ideology to get in the way of common sense,” and mentioned Dick Cheney. In April 2004, looking ahead to the June 30 turnover of power, he said, “Our goal should be to take the ‘American face’ off the occupation so that we are not blamed for everything that doesn’t go right in Iraq.” He said that Bush should call a summit conference of allies and broaden the coalition. In September 2005, he called for a postponement of the constitutional referendum until after the elections for the national assembly, so that Sunnis could participate. In May 2006 he and former Council on Foreign Relations head Leslie Gelb announced a plan for Iraq. The country should be divided into three semi-autonomous regions, they argued, for Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis-much as Bosnia had been. Oil revenues should be shared among the regions; American aid should be conditioned on respect shown for women’s rights; the U.S. military should withdraw by 2008; there should be a United Nations or internationally sanctioned regional conference in which Iraq’s neighbors should agree to work for stability. He continued to call for this approach through the year and in December criticized the Iraq Study Group proposal for not saying more about a political settlement. In December 2006 he came out against George W. Bush’s surge strategy. “We’ve tried the military surge option before and it failed. If we try it again, it will fail again.” He co-sponsored with Carl Levin a nonbinding resolution declaring that “it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq.” It passed in committee by only a 12-9 vote though, as Biden noted, most Republicans at committee hearings expressed reservations about or even (in the case of Chuck Hagel) downright opposition to the surge.
Biden continued to campaign against missile defense and opposed abrogation of the ABM Treaty. But Bush’s withdrawal from the treaty did not prevent the May 2002 nuclear disarmament treaty, which Biden hailed as “an important step forward.” Biden traveled widely as chairman and for a time at least seemed to have been taken into the confidence of the administration: Condoleezza Rice encouraged him to sound out Iranian diplomats at the United Nations when they requested a meeting. As ranking minority member again in 2003, he did not have as much power, but he worked closely with the new chairman, Richard Lugar, and said that he and Lugar are in agreement on a great many issues. Biden has urged caution on Iran and has called for the U.S. to engage in unilateral negotiations with North Korea and in 2005 suggested that we extend economic incentives for an agreement. He co-sponsored a resolution with Mitch McConnell calling for restriction on aid to the Palestinian Authority until the Hamas government renounces violence, recognizes Israel and moves against terrorist groups. He supported the nuclear agreement with India in 2006 and defended it against those who argued that it undermined nonproliferation efforts. Biden remains an everyday figure in Delaware and has tended to its most local needs. Sussex County is America’s number one chicken-producing county, and he held up a bill for favorable trade status for Russia when that country blocked the import of U.S. chickens. He has gotten more than 1,000 acres of federal land in the beach areas turned over to the state. Naturally, he has supported Amtrak funding and has sought, unsuccessfully to get $1.1 billion spent on rail security. On his daily commutes, he has come to know the Amtrak crew members personally and hosts an annual Christmas dinner for the crews.
Being elected a senator at age 29 makes you think about running for president some day, and Biden has done that twice, once in his 40s and now in his 60s. He passed up the 1992 campaign, fresh after his vote against the Gulf war; in 1996 Bill Clinton was renominated without opposition and in 2000 Clinton tried to clear the field for AI Gore. In early 2003 he said he might run, but in August 2003 he announced he would not. In 2004 Biden campaigned for John Kerry, whom he has known since 1972, when they both hired the same political consultant. Biden was frequently mentioned as a possible secretary of state if Kerry had been elected, but said he liked serving in the Senate. After Kerry’s defeat he made little secret that he was interested in running again. “My intention is to seek the nomination,” he said on Face the Nation in June 2005. “I know I’m supposed to tell you, you know, that I’m not sure. But if, in fact, I think that I have a clear shot at winning the nomination by this November or December, then I’m going to seek the nomination.” He made his first trip of the cycle to New Hampshire in May 2006 and to Iowa in August 2006. Some of his off-the-cuff statements caused him some embarrassment. “You cannot go to a 7 -Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise unless you have a slight Indian accent,” he remarked, presumably based on everyday observation; but some in the press suggested this was off bounds. When Fox News’s Chris Wallace suggested he couldn’t draw votes in the South, he said, “You don’t know my state. My state was a slave state. My state is a border state. My state has the eighth-largest black population in the country.” Again, some tut-tutted, but this was a valid historical point. On January 31, 2007, he officially announced his candidacy. Unfortunately, that day the New York Observer released a story in which he called Barack Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Critics pointed out that this overlooked or insulted Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton; by six o’clock, in time for the evening news, Biden said, “I deeply regret any offense my remark in the New York Observer might have caused anyone.” Washington insiders wrote off his candidacy, and he raised only $4 million in the first quarter of2007. But as he pointed out, he has had more experience in office than any other candidate and has served more than 30 years on the Foreign Relations Committee. Indeed, no president has ever had nearly as many years experience in Congress. “If the national Democratic primary and caucus voters conclude this is a really big-ticket election in the sense that what’s at stake is literally our place in the world and the restoration ofthe middle class, then I’m in the game. If it’s about who has the most money, who has the most early endorsements, then I’m not going to be in that game.” And he got credit for the wittiest response in the first Democratic candidates’ debate. When MSNBC’s Brian Williams asked him if he had the self-discipline to refrain from overlong statements, he answered, “Yes.”
Biden’s seat comes up in 2008. Delaware law allows him to run for reelection to the Senate and for president (or vice president) at the same time; the filing deadline is in late July. His electoral record has been strong. He was reelected by wide margins in 1978, 1984, 1990 and 1996. His 1996 opponent Raymond Clatworthy was a Naval Academy graduate, Marine aviator and businessman who walked, rode a bicycle and rollerbladed through the state, raised $1 million and questioned the sale of Biden’s house to an executive of MBNA, the big credit card company whose top executives gave generously to Biden’s campaign. Biden won 60%-38%. In 2002 Clatworthy ran again and raised $1.8 million: Evidently Biden has raised the hackles of many Republicans across the country, and you can raise money by direct mail against him. Clatworthy argued that he would support George W. Bush more fully on defense and foreign policy. This time the result was a little closer: Biden won 58%-41%, the same margin he had in 1978. He actually lost Kent County, which includes Dover, and only narrowly carried Sussex County; together the two counties cast 37% of the state’s votes, up from 33% in 1996. On Return Day, two days after the November 2006 election, he told Delaware reporters, I’ve told the staff to prepare for a regular reelection campaign.” Biden is one of 12 current incumbents who has spent more than half his life as a member of Congress; he can probably go on for many years more. One possible successor: his oldest son Beau Biden, who was elected attorney general of Delaware in 2006.
This profile is provided by The Almanac of American Politics. For more information, visit www.thealmanacofamericanpolitics.com