Biden his time

The new Senate Foreign Relations chairman tries to return the committee to the spotlight as he weighs a White House run.

Published June 29, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

Every January, Joe Biden, the senior Democratic senator from Delaware, sits in his Wilmington home with his staff and asks them, "So, what's the game plan this year?"

"I sort of shorthand it as what I want the headline to read on Dec. 15," Biden explains. "'Biden did this,' 'Biden did that,' ... what do I want?"

With Democrats recapturing the Senate after the defection of Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., Biden was recently forced to reconvene his annual headline wish list.

The new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden -- who harbors hopes of running for president in 2004 -- mulled over a return to chairing the high-profile Judiciary Committee, which he did most notably during the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991.

In the end, he decided to stick with the Foreign Relations Committee, in hopes of returning the panel to Washington powerhouse status. Two years from now, he says, he wants the headlines to read "Foreign Relations Committee back," after years of devolving into a committee of either rubber-stamping or knee-jerk partisan disapproval, most recently under the watch of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.

Back, that is, to "the prominence that it once had" during the chairmanships of Sens. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., in the 1980s, and especially J. William Fulbright in the 1960s and early '70s. "People took it seriously," Biden said in a Thursday briefing for a dozen reporters. During the Vietnam War, when foreign policy was at the forefront of American discourse, former Secretary of State "Henry Kissinger felt obliged to come and make his case to that committee; if he didn't make his case to that committee, he had a problem."

Even before Biden sets about trying to refocus the nation's sights on international affairs at a time of relative peace, he has two other struggles -- he is still trying to figure out where the Bush administration is, exactly, on several foreign policy issues, and he is still clearly trying to balance his roles as a committee chairman and a White House wannabe. For Biden, that comes down to how much he is willing to work with the administration to create good policy and how much of an obstacle he will be if it's good politics.

As of right now, the less partisan side of Biden is winning, though the venom lurks right beneath the surface. Biden clearly sees the Bush administration's foreign policy as incoherent, but he's charitable in his assessment.

"I think it's too early to ... judge this president on foreign policy," he says. "This administration is getting over what every administration has to do," that is, square its foreign policy campaign rhetoric with the realities of governing. Biden says many of Bush's campaign positions on foreign policy were based on "this intensity of dislike for Clinton -- 'If Clinton did it, it's gotta be wrong!'" Bush shouldn't be seen as "backtracking" on positions when he segues from conservative into many of the same actions he criticized Clinton for pursuing. "I don't think of it as backtracking; it's resolving."

Most recently, Bush resolved his position on the Balkans, changing his campaign cry for withdrawal to a possible new commitment of U.S. troops under the NATO flag in Macedonia.

Biden says that Bush is finding his way in all things global, and if his hearings are able to push matters along, so much the better. His hearing last week on Macedonia got the administration to pay some attention to the matter, he believes, a trend he hopes will continue as he attempts to become -- at the very least -- the Fulbright of the millennium. "I will credit that hearing for raising the focus of this issue down at the administration."

"I'm sure there's someone down there [in the Bush administration] saying, 'Hey, you can't just keep walking away from this!' You got [former NATO commander Wesley] Clark up there and [Reagan administration Assistant Secretary of Defense] Richard Perle, and you got Lugar and Biden" and a subsequent story about the hearing "on Page 2 or 3 of every newspaper in America. That's the role I see myself playing."

But just as Bush is finding his way, Biden's role as Foreign Relations Committee chairman is going to take a little bit of time to figure out as well. He obviously wants to fight for the foreign policies in which he believes; the question is how best to do so while also preparing to run for the White House. In his quintessential style -- sometimes candid, at times self-contradictory, often ponderous, clearly well informed, always long-winded -- Biden reveals a bit of this confusion about his plans.

"I'm kind of in limbo here," Biden acknowledges. "I'm not sure where the administration is going, in part not because I think I'm slow to be able to read, but I also think I'm not sure they're certain."

That said, he thinks that Bush's foreign policy mind is up for grabs. Not just between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, but also among world leaders and even himself. Bush is now paying attention, he says. "I really do think we underestimate the president in terms of how bright he is and -- not withstanding his lack of inquisitiveness, which he's famous for -- it's an occupational responsibility now.

"I don't think -- I don't know -- but I don't think they have come to know exactly where they are," Biden says. He wonders, though. In its renewed negotiations with North Korea, the Bush administration is demanding a reduction in conventional forces as part of an overall agreement. "Is it a poison pill to make sure we don't get an agreement on missiles so they have a rationale for the urgency of a national missile defense?" Biden asks. "I don't know. I hope not, I hope not. The president assures me no, that's a separate track."

But it is clear that Biden, like Bush, is negotiating confusing terrain.

Biden says that he doesn't want to be seen as obstructionist or reactive, or as "the shadow foreign minister where every mistake the administration makes you hold a hearing and focus on it, ... demonstrate that they are not in control, they made a mistake or whatever. I don't view that as the appropriate role." But Biden also hopes to hold hearings this summer that are almost tailor-made to enrage the Bush administration by poking holes in the arguments and momentum behind a national missile defense, focusing instead on "significantly greater threats to American security" than a long-range missile attack.

Foreign Relations Committee hearings will not be a stacked deck, loaded with testimony from those with whom he agrees, Biden insists. But "it should be a forum for serious discussion. We don't have much legislative authority." The Senate ratifies treaties and confirms nominees, but otherwise foreign policy is dictated by the White House. Biden will attempt to change that by educating the press, the public and his colleagues on the issues, he says, and alternately working with, agitating, pushing, pulling, criticizing and cooperating with the Bush administration as he sees fit.

His hearing last week on Macedonia got the administration to pay some attention to the matter, he believes. Biden hopes to continue "bringing the best people in the country in to litigate the issue as to 'What should our policy be?'

While his own influence in the White House may be limited, Biden wants to help push Bush away from the worldview of Rumsfeld and toward that of Powell.

"There are two foreign policies in this administration and he hasn't made up his mind on which one yet," Biden says. "In fairness, I've been here since Nixon, and every governor that's come into office -- no matter how they were viewed ahead of time, as being brilliant or slow, whatever the characterization was -- they all did the same thing. They come in not at all sure about foreign policy ... So what do you do? You go out and pick from one of each category that's on your shelf. You're not confident to know where you want to go."

Rumsfeld vs. Powell isn't so odd when you look at the similar tug of war in the Carter administration between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Biden says. Or the Reagan administration face-off between Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

Biden isn't quite sure how to best help Powell, though. He recently told the secretary of state a story about a conversation he had more than 20 years ago with Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Eastland of Mississippi, a fellow Democrat who offered to help Biden in a tough 1978 reelection contest.

"What can Jim Eastland do for you?" the senator asked.

Biden was at the time worried about the issue of school busing, in which he had sided with the civil rights community, and was concerned with how a boost from a Dixiecrat would play in the housing projects of Wilmington. "Mr. Chairman," Biden said, "quite honestly, some places you can help me, but a lot of places you could hurt me."

"I'll just come to Del'ware and campaign for you or agin' you, whichever helps you the most," Eastland drawled.

"Mr. Secretary," Biden told Powell, 23 years later, "I'll be for you or agin' you, whichever helps you the most."

It's a thin line Biden hopes to walk, like the one he trips over again and again when talking about Bush. He insists that he's trying to be "cooperative," trying to defend the president when appropriate, but his opinions, political instincts and candor won't let him. Asked about Bush's trip to Europe, Biden says that he felt it was successful. But he goes on. "I was quoted as saying -- and I should have completed the quote -- that the reason it was so successful was 'he did no harm.'" Reporters and aides in the room laugh.

"I meant more than that," Biden insists. "I meant more than that." He clarifies: European leaders were concerned that Bush was going to pull the country out of commitments to Europe and NATO, and "I think the president was very helpful in making clear" that wasn't the case.

Not quite a ringing endorsement, but not quite a pointed barb, either. Call it the Biden Doctrine. It's where Biden refers to Bush's infamous April 25 gaffe about Taiwan by pointing out that he didn't make as much political hay out of the matter as he certainly could have.

"You never heard me go after the president on his Taiwan statements," Biden says. "That's too dangerous. Great political fodder can be made. But what am I gonna do? I'm gonna play in? I sat down with Powell, I went down and said, 'Let's parse the statement and figure out where we can both say this is what he really meant.'" Biden did this only because he thought it was a legitimate screwup, he says. "If I thought this was an intended thought-out change in policy then I'd be debating him about it, I'd be taking him on, I'd be having as many press conferences as I could, as many hearings as I could. I don't think it was intended."

But in fact, Biden did criticize the president, rebuking him instead by telling the world, "Words matter, nuance matters," and writing a pointed Op-Ed in the May 2 Washington Post, titled "Not So Deft n Taiwan," that charged Bush's "inattention to detail has damaged U.S. credibility with our allies and sown confusion throughout the Pacific Rim."

Biden's point seems to be that he could have certainly gone after Bush for more, but that he held back.

"Now, he makes that same mistake on my COPS bill" -- the Community Oriented Policing Services effort from the 1994 crime bill. "I'll go out and ... try to make hay about it," Biden says, "but this stuff is too serious."

In incident after incident, Biden offers his take on Bush as he "tries to figure this out." There's Tuesday's slap in the face to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wherein Bush referred to having made "progress" in the Middle East peace negotiations, though Israelis, who have ceased fire, continue to see terrorist attacks kill their fellow citizens, and Sharon strongly disagreed with Bush's assessment that any "progress" had been made.

"Any disagreement we have with Israel -- and I have many -- should be dealt with the way we deal with any disagreement we have with Great Britain or any other ally," Biden says. "It should be dealt with privately. I'm sure -- I'm not sure -- I believe the president, day before yesterday, in his photo op ... [could] not be seen as having initiated something that isn't making progress ... Now it's a minicrisis."

Before Bush left for his trip to Europe, he asked Biden for advice. "The president asked me what I thought his purpose should be," Biden says. "I know he was just being polite in asking me what I thought," but Biden shared his thoughts anyway. He told him about the January headline wish list meetings he holds with his staff, and told Bush, "'If I were you, I'd be looking at your trip in those terms.' And he said, 'Well, what would you want it to say?' I said, 'I'd want two headlines. One: America Remains Engaged in European Power. And secondly: Bush Engaged.'"

Bush got one of his headlines, and is still shooting for the second one. Biden's are pending.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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