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Joe Biden Keeps Fighting

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with Delaware Sen. Joe Biden about his candidacy for president, his competitors for the Democratic nomination and the agenda driving his long-shot campaign. Let's start with Iowa. You're spending most of this month there. If you fail to finish in the top three in Iowa, do you think your campaign's over?

Joe Biden: Well, I think it's probably the top four, if it's a close fourth. I think that, as you know better than I do, Iowa and New Hampshire are about expectations. But clearly, if I'm in the top three, I'm in the game. And depending on how the others do, if I'm a close fourth, I'm still in the game, in my view. Whereas others--because of fair or unfair expectations--if they were to finish third or fourth, they're probably gone. You are in the top three in terms of endorsements in Iowa. And one of the things that the people who endorse you keep saying is that you're the most qualified. Do you think that the other candidates--Senator Clinton, Senator Obama--are not qualified to be president?

Joe Biden: No, no, I don't think that at all. But what I do think is that both my Senate record and not just my experience, but my track record, and my life experiences, I think make me the best equipped to deal with the two most important issues facing the country today. One is foreign policy, i.e. the war in Iraq and terrorism. And second is the plight of the middle class which I probably understand better than any of the top people running. Do you think it's legitimate for Senator Clinton to talk about her experience as First Lady as relevant to preparing herself to become president?

Joe Biden: Well, I think it is legitimate, but while Mrs. Clinton was meeting socially with the prime minister of a country, I was sitting down and negotiating with them, or the foreign minister. So I do think the experience is relevant, and that she has a sense of what's going on internationally. And she knows how people react. But I think my experience--I know, I don't think--I know it's considerably deeper and more relevant. One of Governor's Richardson's supporters in South Carolina switched to your campaign recently, because he thinks your position on Iraq is more responsible than Bill Richardson's. Do you think Bill Richardson--by saying, all of the troops out now--is demagoguing the issue?

Joe Biden: Well, I wouldn't say he's demagoguing the issue, but he's clearly changing his position. He initially started off months ago endorsing the Biden plan. He went from there to saying that, you know, we could have all troops out in three months to now acknowledging it'd take a year or two. I mean, so, I don't think Bill has, I'm not sure if Bill has thought it through. I think he should go back and read the statements he's made over the last six months, and they're very, very much at odds with themselves. You were very close to Senator Kerry during his campaign. And you watched that up close. What lessons do you draw from his failure to be elected?

Joe Biden: The single most important test a candidate in the Democratic Party has to pass is the Commander-In-Chief test, not the president test. Who can be the Commander-In-Chief? And by Commander-In-Chief, what I mean by that is that people are looking for--and John unfairly didn't make the test--but people are looking for someone to do two things, in my view.

One is not merely to end the war in Iraq--which is critical--but also then to protect their interests, because unlike when I was a 29 year old kid running for the Senate against the war in Vietnam, everyone knew once we ended the war in Vietnam, there were no more shoes to drop.

But I ask audiences constantly, if I can end the war tomorrow in the best way possible, how many of you feel secure about our place in the Middle East, about what's going on in Iran, about the Korean peninsula, about China? So, they know they're looking for someone, in my view, with the depth and breadth of knowledge in these foreign policy and defense and terrorism issues who they can trust to take them through what they know is going be a pretty difficult decade. Not long ago, the Biden-Brownback idea for a federal system for moving forward in Iraq passed the Senate, 75 to 23. What do you think that says about President Bush's strategy and where it's heading?

Joe Biden: It's a flat, total repudiation of the strategy. The entire thesis was that the President's strategy has been to focus on building a strong central government, getting an agreement among the parties from the center to govern the whole country.

And what this said, flat out, is not only does the Senate not think that's a good idea, but argued that the only way in which we're going to be able to remove our troops without leaving chaos behind is if you implement their Constitution and help them implement a federal system, because there is not going be a day in your lifetime or mine where you're going to have Shia troops controlling Sunni neighborhoods and vice versa.

So, their Constitution calls for a circumstance where any of the 18 political subdivisions can choose to be a region within a whole country that allows them to write their own constitution, including for their own security, as long as it doesn't supersede the federal Constitution--kind of what we had in the Articles of Confederation after we defeated the British in the Revolutionary War. And that's the only way out. The Senate came around to that position overwhelmingly.

You notice most Iraqi leaders have embraced that position now publicly after being told exactly what it is, which is not partition. And that's where the vast majority of the foreign policy scholars in this country are as well. So, it's the end of any support as a practical matter for his overall strategy. The other major issue you mentioned is the plight of the middle class. And as you know, the Republicans just had an economic debate last week. How do you think the Democratic priorities for the middle class, your priorities, differ most from the Republicans'?

Joe Biden: Well, we realize that their entire tax structure is, in fact, tilted against the middle class. The Wall Street Journal front page a few days ago had a big headline about the widening gap, points out the top one percent of the wage earners in America earn I think it's 22.3 percent of all the income in America. And the bottom 50 percent earn less than 14 percent of all of it.

Well, the reason for that is in part because of the fundamental change in the tax code where investment, unearned income now provides less of a total government cost, and earned income, people who pick up a paycheck, is paying more of that.

Secondly, there is a significant tilt against doing anything about health care. What are the three reasons why the middle class is in trouble? Health care costs, energy costs, and education costs. Since Bush has been president, they've gone up, you average them all out, about 70 percent. And it's a killer for people.

When I say middle class, I'm talking about two family wage earners making $75,000, $80,000, $85,000 a year. They're having real difficulty. And so, the Republicans have absolutely zero plan, zero plan for helping on the health care side. Look, Bush just vetoed a bill that brought the middle class into the so-called CHIP program, children's health insurance. The President has--and none of the people running have--any serious plan to significantly take the burden off the cost of education, so middle class families can afford to go.

They have done virtually nothing on the energy front, except reward energy companies. And so, I think that they have virtually no, emphasize no, reasonable prospect of doing anything to alleviate the stress on the middle class. My last question is do you completely rule out serving as Vice President or as Secretary of State?

Joe Biden: Yes.

Joe Biden has served as a United States Senator from Delaware since 1973. He was elected at 29--and turned the Constitutionally required age of 30 before he was sworn in. Biden is the longest serving senator in his state's history. Biden currently serves as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is a former Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, and considered running in 2004. A graduate of the University of Delaware and Syracuse University College of Law, Biden is married with three children--the eldest of whom, Beau, serves as Delaware's Attorney General. His first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after Biden was first elected to the Senate.
By Brian Goldsmith