Biden is stuck between Iraq and a hard place. But there is a way out.
With foreign policy on the agenda again, Joe Biden’s Iraq War vote could make the difference in a close race.
There were 2.5 times more questions during the 2008 Democrat primary debates than there were in 2004. While that number fell slightly in 2012, that had more to do with Obama’s incumbency that anything else. Despite a trend of growth therefore, Democrats have generally avoided foreign policy questions so far this cycle.
However, we are now three weeks away from the Iowa Caucuses, which is effectively running at a four-way tie. Trump’s approach to a trade deal with China, his occasional holidays to North Korea, and his handling of the unfolding situation in Iran has forced comment from Democrat candidates.
Not for the first time then, Biden’s experience — so often purported as a strength — is being picked apart and used against him. This time, because of his 2002 vote for the Iraq War when Biden was one of the 77 Senators who voted to give George Bush the authority to use force in Iraq. Even though it only took him two years to admit that this was a mistake, that mistake is one of the most explicit mark a candidate can now have against their name. Especially for someone who wants to extol their judgement, steadiness, and foreign policy experience.
What makes matters more difficult for the former Vice President is that he is on his own in the field. Bernie Sanders did not vote to authorise, and even though Elizabeth Warren wasn’t in the Senate at the time, it is a safe to assume she wouldn’t either. Another Democrat rival, Pete Buttigieg, when on to serve in the military so is somewhat immune from that retrospective questioning.
The good news is, Biden has so far done the right thing — admit it was a mistake. But if this becomes more of an issue, he’ll need a more robust response. Especially as voters are looking for even the smallest infringements to separate the candidates. Central to a rebuttal should be the message that while he regrets his decision, it was the Bush administration — or more specifically, his hawkish staff — that commanded over the policy failure. Many of the traits and mistakes present in that Republican administration, are present in this one too. Traits that a Biden administration would not entertain.
Moreover, Biden would benefit from highlighting his foreign policy success too. For example, not only did Biden push for a bipartisan resolution designed to temper Bush’s powers (albeit unsuccessfully), he voted against the first Gulf War, and the subsequent military surge in Iraq too. He also worked with NATO on peacekeeping missions in Bosnia. Most timely of all, he was part of an administration that secured the Iran Deal which Trump has torn up and made Americans less safe.
The challenge remains, however, that Iraq is one of the most talked-about issues this century, and gets far more policy feedback than other, lesser remembered examples of Biden’s decision making.
Thankfully for Biden, I suspect there isn’t a large enough group of voters campaigning against Biden based purely on their anger towards his vote. There may, however, be a sufficiently large group for whom his vote is indicative of wider problem: His poor judgement. Biden’s mental health has been repeatedly questioned on the trail and committing to one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes this century does nothing to alleviate those concerns, not does a less than robust response.
As is so often the case with Biden, there is an easy path out. But it is the way he handles this that can be problematic. Several times he is on record answering questions in a way more becoming of a Trump associate than a Democrat candidate for President, irrespective of the answer’s content. A nastiness or arrogance, maybe; a frustration at the very least. For Biden then, the man who served eight years as Vice President and over a decade on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he would prefer it if this just blew over, but it’s worth him having a better response just in case it doesn’t.