Monday, April 23, 2007

Joe Biden's Speech at the Polk County Democrats Spring Dinner

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 638

Joe Biden was the last candidate to address the crowd, and took the stage to robust applause. Every election cycle, he said, America puts up a job description for president. The job description changes from cycle to cycle, but this time, according to Biden, the job description is: restore America’s place in the world, restore the middle class, and put an end to the politics of polarization. In today’s America, Biden said, there is not a single problem that lends itself to a solution supported by 51% of the people and opposed by the other 49%. In order to prevail in the general election, Biden said, the Democratic nominee will need to not just win the same tier of 20 or so “blue” states won by Al Gore and John Kerry in the last two cycles, but also be competitive in at least 9 or 10 traditionally “red’ states as well.

Establishing his thesis for the night, Biden said, “I’m not running for the exercise.”

Biden characterized the current political climate as the politics of false choices. Iraq, he said, cannot be passed on to the next president, or abandoned by the United States, without any idea about what comes next. The next president, Biden said, “needs to be smarter than his advisors,” when it comes to solving problems, and the key question to answer on Iraq is “then what?” Withdraw the troops: then what? How will the civil war be extinguished? How will we conduct our diplomacy so as to involve Iraq’s neighbors in a constructive way? Biden declared that his Iraq plan was the best answer to these questions, and went on to describe it in detail. While Biden’s explanation of his plan was lengthy and very specific, it seemed to me that he had much of the crowd hanging on his every word, a rapt silence that said the audience was decidedly in the mood to hear the details, not just the principles, of his proposals. It was a surprising moment, and a very impressive one.

Biden then turned to Darfur, and declared that when a nation engages in genocide, it forfeits its right to sovereignty. Biden then stated that U.S. troops should be dispatched to Sudan, where, he maintained, 2,500 American soldiers would quickly put an end to the genocide in Darfur. This was a bold proposal that I hadn’t heard before, and I’m at a loss as to why the mainstream media didn’t pick up on this. Biden then took a slap at John Edwards’ remarks of a few minutes earlier for decrying the genocide in Darfur and the lack of U.S. response to it, but failing to propose a solution.

Biden then turned from foreign affairs to domestic policy, specifically education. Funding seems to be the root of the problems in education for Biden, and he summed up by stating, “Show me you budget, I’ll show you what you value.”

Arriving at his summation, Joe Biden challenged his fellow candidates, and Democrats generally, to stop being tentative, stop beating around the bush. The American people, Biden went on, want leadership and are not afraid of the challenges confronting the country. The American people have never let this country down, Biden exclaimed, and “I am sick of Democrats being cowards.” Biden appealed to the audience for support as a candidate “who you know where they stand” on issues. In the best line delivered by any speaker on the night, Joe Biden concluded by saying, “It ain’t complicated, folks. It just takes courage. Join me to make hope and history rhyme.” The press was all over him as he left the rostrum, and he worked the hall for another 15 minutes after the speech.

This was not the Joe Biden you read about in the mainstream media, the long-winded, academic, bloodless Joe Biden. That characterization may have been true in the past, but tonight I saw a different candidate, different even from when I met him last month, one who, indeed, is not running just for the exercise. Judging from his speech at this gathering, Joe Biden has stopped playing safe in his campaign, stopped parsing his words, and has started speaking from the heart. It was an extraordinary thing to witness, and if continued, may just be the approach that shakes up his prospects and gets him out of single digits.


John Edwards' Speech at the Polk County Democrats Spring Dinner

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 638

Following Bill Richardson's address came John Edwards. WOW - what a reception he received from the crowd when he entered the hall. And again upon ascending the rostrum and telling the audience “Elizabeth sends her love.” There’s no doubt about it: John Edwards is a beloved figure to a lot of Democrats in Iowa, and that’s something the other campaigns cannot take lightly.

Edwards began his remarks by discussing what he thinks will be the most important qualities in the next president at a time of “historic challenges”: honesty, integrity, being “a good, decent human being” who can reestablish trust between the United States and the rest of the world and between the American people and their President, someone with “clear ideas,” who can “take positions,” who can tell people “what will you do as president,” and who understands that for America in the world as it now is, there is no difference between foreign and domestic policy. Edwards said that the next president must spend his/her first few months in office traveling the world to talk about, as he put it, “the idea of America”: equality, diversity, a force for good. Moreover, Edwards continued, the next president must demonstrate through action that the United States is committed not just to our own interests, but also those of all humanity, by, among other things, “solving Darfur” and addressing AIDS in Africa. “We’re better than this,” Edwards declared. “We need to show the world who we are,” by taking the $500 billion in the current Iraq appropriation bill and using it to fund primary education around the world. “We’re not an example for good,” Edwards said, “we’re an example for bad. You gotta have vision, gotta have strength. Are we going to use high rhetoric about ‘hope’ and ‘affordable health care’, or are we gonna do something about it?” Edwards managed to smack both Obama and Clinton in the same sentence, there - nice rhetorical accomplishment.

Edwards also warned against turning inward and disengaging from the rest of the world after we leave Iraq, saying that the world needs America as a stabilizing force. Reciting the litany of challenges confronting the country into the future, Edwards said, “’There’s nothing we can do’ is the Great Lie in America.”

John Edwards concluded with a prose hymn to organized labor and the question to the audience, “What are you going to do for this country?” emphasizing that the solutions to our problems lie not so much with the next president as with the country as a whole.

At times, Edwards’ address seemed more homily than speech, brimming with conviction and a sense of mission. Indeed, for long stretches in Edwards’ remarks, the crowd was silent, as if in church. Where some other candidates make their claims on experience and leadership, Edwards seems to stress personal qualities - honesty, integrity, etc. That strikes me as trickier ground to walk, since it requires supporters to take quite a bit on faith, and the consequences to the campaign can be severe should the candidate’s halo slip. Like Barack Obama, John Edwards may be more vulnerable to character attacks than more experienced, if lesser known, candidates, and needs to guard against that. This is one of the things that, in my view, keeps John Edwards’ actual prospects for becoming president just this side of longshot territory, regardless of how he does in Iowa.


Bill Richardson's Speech at the Polk County Democrats Spring Dinner

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 638

I should mention that in his introduction of Richardson, Polk County Democratic Chairman Tom Henderson noted that the candidate has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times, no less. I didn't know that.

Richardson started by praising the other candidates, concluding that "any of them would do a great job in the White my vice president!" He then went on to sketch out his plans for what he would do, day by day, in his first week as president.

1st Day: get all troops out of Iraq (and he emphasized all, in counterpoint to Hillary Clinton's position that some troops may have to remain in Iraq after most US forces are redeployed). Convene diplomacy between Iraqi factions and also between Iraq and its neighboring countries.
2nd Day: announce plans for energy independence, a 10-year "Apollo program" to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. One feature of the plan would be a 40 mpg target for automobiles, which Richardson said would in itself completely eliminate the need to import oil from abroad.
3rd Day: address global warming and carbon dioxide emissions, with a target of making 20% of all domestic energy originate from renewable sources.
4th day: tackle education. Better teacher pay, universal preschool, smaller class sizes, college education for all who want it.
5th day: universal health care. Not many details here, other than to find new ways to get care to people.

Richardson's main point to the crowd was "Let's make this election on who's the most qualified" to be president. He touted his foreign policy experience, his ability to bring the country together (as evidenced by his landslide electoral record in traditionally Republican-leaning New Mexico), and what he characterized as not just competence and plans, but leadership for the future. He concluded by pledging, "I'm gonna outwork everybody [to win]. Keep your powder dry." Richardson then left for the Iowa Cubs - Albuquerque Isotopes AAA baseball game at Principal Park; unfortunately for the Governor, his homeboys went down 6-5 on a grand slam by the Cubs' Scott Moore. Holy Cow!

If résumés were everything in presidential politics, Bill Richardson would have it made. But we all know there's more to it than that, and I think Richardson himself understands he's got a tall hill to climb to break out of the pack. We'll see how he does over time.


Polk County Democrats Spring Dinner Wrap Up

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 638

As promised, I was at the Polk County Democrats Spring Dinner Friday night. In a lot of ways, this was the quintessential Iowa caucus campaign event: held at the state fair grounds, in that building past the 4H Hall and right next to the horse corral; where you park your car in the dirt parking lot and trade waves with the guy in the truck who just pullled out to make room for you; where you sit down with about a thousand other people at long tables to eat 2 inch-thick pork chops, boiled vegatables and defrosted Sarah Lee desserts; where the candidates walk in, stroll among the tables like troubadors, and shoot off a couple of jokes with each other while standing off to the side of the stage awaiting their turn at the rostrum. Nothing else quite like it anywhere.

The event actually starts even before you walk into the hall. Lining the sidewalk leading up to the door is a gauntlet of volunteers for the various candidates, all waving signs and chanting slogans in turn for their chosen one, all in the best of humors, and all, seemingly, having the time of their lives.

Once inside, it's grab a paper plate, pile on the food and find a seat as close to the stage as possible (not easy, as the all the closest tables had been reserved by a single person or group for their own people), and start working the room, finishing dinner in between hand shakes and back slaps. I got a chance to talk with Leonard Boswell, member of Congress for my district, about whether he has taken a position on the Common Sense Budget Act of 2007 (H.R. 1702) , which would take some $60 billion allocated to obsolete cold war-era weapons systems and readirect that amount toward education, children's healthcare, etc.; Boswell expressed qualified support, but said he wanted to see some changes, like taking some of the money to replace equipment lost in Iraq.

I also got a chance to chat with Bill Richardson about his recent successful trip to North Korea, which he summarized by saying, "Yeah, that was a good trip. We got things done."

There was also a brief handshake with Joe Biden, but he was so intent on covering the entire crowd that I didn't get a chance to chat with him. Maybe next time.

Then came speech time. Congressman Boswell ascended the rostrum to address the gathering on how exciting the first three months of being in the majority have been, noting, among other things that, "we found out that on our voting consols there were some green buttons [for voting 'Yea']." Chris Dodd, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were represented by surrogates, none of whom, I have to say, did their principals much credit; surrogates can only say, "Here's why I support my candidate," whereas the candidates can speak firsthand about why they should be president and what it is they would do in office. There's really no comparison, and candidates who pass up these types of events (especially Clinton and Obama, who were coming to the state the next day, anyway) really do themselves a disservice.

The candidate speeches were supposed to be limited to 10 minutes, but averaged closer to 17 minutes. In order to keep from turning this post into a Tolstoy-scale epic, I'll present each speech in separate posts:
Bill Richardson
John Edwards
Joe Biden

Finally, here are links to some of the mainstream media's coverage of the event:
Des Moines Register


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