What Makes Joe Biden Go?

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., speaks while campaigning at a house party in New Ipswich, N.H., Monday, Dec. 17, 2007. AP

This column was written by Michael Crowley.

Thirty-five years in the Senate, and here Joe Biden is: in a room called "The Cheap Seats," in the back of a sports bar called Benchwarmers. It's a cold Sunday night, and around 200 people have packed into a space that's typically reserved for chicken wing gorge-athons and Minnesota Vikings game viewing parties. They have come to see a man languishing in the polls, ignored by the media, and campaigning with all the energy of a front-runner. What's more, they love him.

Biden's megawatt grin illuminates the room like a klieg light, and soon his lyrical rhetoric has the crowd in a reverential hush. Dapper in a dark suit, his body language blazing confidence, Biden rips into George W. Bush's post-9/11 leadership. "We had the world in the palm of our hand. The palm of our hand," he says, sounding genuinely plaintive. "Europe declared that the attack on us was an attack on all of us. There were forty thousand Iranians - Iranians! - who showed up at the boarded-up U.S. embassy with candles and flowers and notes. We had the world in the palm of our hands. And what did this guy do? He and Cheney literally went out there and divided the world. They literally divided it." And when the moment called for national sacrifice, Biden scoffs, "This guy told us to fly, and to go shopping!"

The crowd listens in rapt fascination until - like a moment from a Frank Capra movie - a voice actually rings out: "Tell it like it is, Joe!" On comes the klieg light.

Anyone who's watched the 2008 race via the national media and the televised debates can be forgiven for wondering how Joe Biden carries on. The press ignores him. In debates, he speaks little and doesn't leave much of an impression - except for his occasional, and not-entirely-in-character, bursts of anger. Meanwhile, his campaign is struggling to gain traction: The latest ABC-Washington Post poll has Biden registering an anemic four percent in Iowa.

On the trail, however, Biden is someone else entirely. Leave aside his substantive credentials for now - the 35 years of Washington experience, the grasp of foreign policy - Biden is the 2008 campaign's true rhetorical master. Where his rivals drone mechanically, he rolls out a series of oratorical tricks: the dramatic pause; the hushed, faux-confidential voice; the poetic flourishes. (Who else would denounce "the iron grip of the oligarchs of oil"?) He's funny, too: Asked about the No Child Left Behind bill, Biden notes that his wife, a teacher, hates the law. "Even if I did like No Child Left Behind," he cracks, "I'd be sleeping alone!"

Most people haven't seen this side of Biden because it requires a room like The Cheap Seats. Just as Barack Obama shines brightest before a cheering throng, Biden thrives on intimacy and feedback. When he takes questions from the crowd, he leaves his stage and wades in close to his questioner - something other candidates rarely do.

Podium-bound and time-limited, the debates haven't allowed Biden to be Biden. In part, that's a good thing. Biden's pathological talkaholism is a tragic and very real flaw. But his advisors insist he's learned to tame it, as evidenced by the early debate moment when Biden was asked whether he has the discipline to stop babbling. His perfect one-word answer: "Yes." Unfortunately, Biden's rhetorical flights require a lot of runway before they can soar. (And sometimes they never take off at all.) Forcing Biden to be terse is like trying to make a marathoner into a sprinter.

And so while Biden may dazzle at individual campaign events like this one, he's not bowling over the masses who may only recognize him, if at all, from the debates. Still, his campaign remains optimistic. Aides note that, after Obama and Hillary Clinton, he leads the field in endorsements among Iowa state legislators - community pillars who can sway uncertain votes on caucus night. One senior Iowa-based aide for a first-tier Democrat concedes there are "pockets" of Iowa where "Joe Biden is incredibly strong." And in Ankeny, I'm struck by the devotion of the people who turn out to see Biden. These are not window-shoppers. When I ask Urbandale resident Nancy Vetter what she likes about Biden she replies, "Oh, everything."

As Biden works the crowd after his remarks, Iowa House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, a Biden backer, says "to get a ticket out of Iowa you need to be in the top three. We're a solid fourth." But the ABC-Post poll shows Biden in fifth, four points behind Bill Richardson's eight percent. Biden's last hope may be for a front-running Democrat to collapse after Iowa. If John Edwards should come in third, for instance, in New Hampshire Biden might scoop up some of Edwards's populist, union-oriented voters (people who would be partial to Biden's middle class-focused rhetoric) and find new life.

But that's a long shot, and he knows it. For a man who has chaired two Senate committees, who has endured horrific personal tragedy, who thwarted Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination and has appeared on about 10,000 Sunday talk shows - who has paid his dues - Biden doesn't seem trapped by the grim specter of his poll standing. He seems to be having ... fun. The kind of face-to-face interaction that the trail offers - a chore for many candidates - is what seems to make him feel alive. (In this sense Biden is much like Bill Clinton, and nothing like Hillary.) After his remarks at the Benchwarmer, he schmoozes every voter as though that person alone will decide the caucus outcome. He spends close to five minutes explaining to one man why he dropped out of the 1988 presidential race, what Bork had to do with it, and how the decision may have saved his life (because Biden later discovered he was suffering from brain aneurysms). By the end the voter looks a little stunned by the verbal geyser that has been unleashed.

Earlier in the evening, Biden had offered his crowd an assurance: "I have the same passion and enthusiasm I had for this the day I walked on the Senate floor 35 years ago." As he stands amid a dwindling circle of voters, clearly prepared to chat until nobody's left, in the pursuit of a goal that barely seems attainable, you get the feeling he must really mean it.
By Michael Crowley
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