I was so proud of Sen. Joe Biden for getting off the best line in that first Democratic debate. You remember: When Brian Williams asked if he could reassure voters he'd learned to keep his famous tongue in check, Biden said simply "Yes" and let the silence work for him. Great moment.
Not-so-great moment? Biden defending his vote on last week's war-funding bill with a time-honored Republican talking point, telling the Des Moines Register yesterday that those who voted against the bill harmed the troops. "As long as there are troops who are in a position where, if we don't fund them they are going to be hurt, I'm not going to cut off funding," Biden said in a meeting with Des Moines Register editors and reporters. "That's what the other candidates said, too, but they changed their mind."
Biden, of course, is referring primarily to Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd, who were among only 14 senators, all Democrats, to vote no on the bill. As I wrote at the time, I was disappointed in Democrats who voted for the bill, but I understood that people could disagree on strategy and tactics to end the war. But I don't understand Democrats who pick up Karl Rove's playbook, and insist those who opposed the bill "hurt the troops." If Biden believed a vote to provide the funding but impose timelines would hurt the troops, why did he support that strategy -- along with his Democratic rivals -- the first time around? If he thought that was a good strategy, why didn't he push the Democratic leadership to do it again, instead of stripping timelines from the bill?
Like Rep. Jack Murtha, who said last week he became convinced that delaying funding would deprive the troops of needed equipment, Biden insists he believes attaching timelines to the Iraq supplemental again would have cost the troops protection, specifically armored vehicles to defend them from deadly roadside bombs. But I still have to wonder about Biden and Murtha's judgment: If they truly believed the Pentagon would run out of money to protect troops on the ground by the end of May, why did they push the Democrats down the road of the "funding with timelines" bill that Bush promised to veto in the first place? Murtha, at least, hasn't attacked Democrats who voted against the bill, and I was surprised to see Biden do that, although I shouldn't have been. It's hard to be a second-tier candidate when you're Joe Biden, and you're convinced you're smarter than anyone in the first tier.
As I wrote yesterday, with the funding bill passed, there's little war opponents can do until the end of the summer, when the defense budget and the Iraq supplemental come up again, and the president has promised to report back on Iraq "progress." They have until then to stiffen their spines and figure out the best way to fight charges that cutting funds for the war "hurts the troops." Why don't they start now, by refusing to use terminology that equates restrictions on war funding with "defunding the troops" or "harming the troops?" I made my own small start last night on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," or at least I tried to. Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan were calling Democrats cowards for opposing the war, but voting for the funding bill, and Buchanan said they didn't want to be accused of "defunding the troops." I suggested that Republicans who oppose the war -- like Scarborough now and Buchanan from the beginning -- might do their part politically, and stop referring to restrictions on Iraq war funding with the politically loaded phrase "defunding the troops." Sadly, they didn't like my idea.
But I don't really expect Republicans to help Democrats get out of this political and rhetorical bind. I do expect it of Democrats, especially antiwar Democrats, which Biden purports to be. His blast at his colleagues was beneath him. If he keeps it up, Biden will be headed to the third tier of Democratic '08 contenders, and then to the sidelines.