Biden scores; Richardson whiffs

The best and the worst of last night's debate.

Published November 16, 2007 2:23PM (EST)

The best moment in last night's Democratic presidential debate? For our money, it belonged to Joe Biden, who established himself as the grown-up early on when he brushed away the bickering between Barack Obama, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton.

As the three front-runners went at it, Wolf Blitzer asked Biden, way down at the end of the stage, if he'd like to weigh in. "Oh, no, no, no, no," he joked. "Don't do it! Don't make me speak!"

Blitzer made him, and Biden made the best of it.

"Hey, look, let's get to it, folks," he said. "The American people don't give a darn about any of this stuff that's going on up here. Look, they're sitting -- no, seriously, think about it -- they're sitting down at their tables at night, they put their kids to bed, and they're worried about whether or not their child is going to run into a drug dealer on the way to school. They're worried about whether or not they're going to be able to pay for their mortgage because -- even if they didn't have one of those subprime mortgages -- things are looking bad for them. They're worrying about whether they're going to keep their job. And they're worried about whether their son in the National Guard's going to get killed in Iraq."

There was a lot of applause, and Biden continued.

"Every political campaign gets to this place," he said. "And I'm not criticizing any of the three people who are the ones who always get to talk all the time at these things. I'm not. I'm not. I'm not criticizing. But look, folks, let's get straight to it here. This is not about experience. It's not about change. It's about action.

"Who among us is going to be able to, on Day 1, step in and end the war? Who among us understands what to do about Pakistan? Who among us is going to pick up the phone and immediately interface with Putin and lay off Georgia because Saakashvili is in real trouble? Who among us knows what they're doing? I have 35 years of experience. While everyone's talking about their experience -- and Hillary has great experience and John and the rest of them, I was passing the Violence Against Women Act. I was passing the crime bill. I was passing ..."

Blitzer motioned that Biden's time was up. The candidate smiled and said, "You're right." Point made, round won.

The worse moment of last night's debate? That one belonged to Bill Richardson. We're not sure which office Richardson is seeking these days, but he came pretty close to disqualifying himself from either of them last night when he insisted that human rights are more important than America's national security.

Discussing the situation in Pakistan, Richardson said that the United States "forgot our principles" when we told Gen. Pervez Musharraf that "security is more important than human rights." "If I'm president," Richardson said, "it's the other way around."

There was a little ambiguity in what Richardson said -- maybe Richardson was speaking about the balance between security and human rights in Pakistan specifically -- but that out didn't last long. A slightly incredulous Wolf Blitzer said that he wanted to make sure that he'd heard Richardson correctly. "What you're saying, Governor, is that human rights, at times, are more important than American national security?"

Richardson's answer: "Yes."

There are a lot of ways for a would-be president or vice president to answer that question, and Richardson's competitors showed off some of them. You can say, as Obama did, that national security and human rights are "complementary." You can say, as Clinton did, that national security is paramount but that that protecting human rights helps ensure it. You can say that the Bush administration has put our national security at greater risk by running roughshod over human rights and civil rights -- think Abu Ghraib, rendition, Guantánamo Bay and waterboarding. You can take a spin on Benjamin Franklin and say that those who would give up human rights for national security deserve neither.

What a future commander in chief really can't say is that human rights are more important than America's national security. But then, this comes from the same man who declared, at a gay- and lesbian-focused forum earlier this year, that sexual orientation is "a choice." Richardson's campaign explained away that answer in a statement issued after the forum; we haven't seen such a statement on the human rights vs. national security issue yet, but we do note that Richardson's answer to the question isn't among the debate highlights posted on his Web site this morning.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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