[Updated, with video and a verbatim transcription of the Q&A]
Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 463
While peace on Iraq policy was breaking out in Des Moines Friday between presidential candidates from opposite side of the aisle, a war of words was at the same time erupting between one of those candidates and a rival from his own party.
I'm talking about Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, respectively. Before Biden even walked into the room to appear with Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas on Friday, Bill Richardson issued a statement titled "No Way Forward in Iraq Unless All Troops are Withdrawn," taking aim at the Biden-Brownback-Boxer proposal. Here's an excerpt:
"Senator Biden's plan to leave troops in Iraq means his plan has very little chance to succeed. The parties will not even sit down in a meaningful way until we get all the forces out.
"Senator Biden keeps drawing an analogy to Bosnia, but he has that one backwards: the peacekeepers could only enforce the peace after the deal was made. Using U.S. peacekeepers in Iraq would turn the guarantors into targets, thus plunging any settlement back into war."
Pretty serious stuff, if true, I thought. So in the press conference following the Biden-Brownback joint appearance in Des Moines, I asked Senator Biden about it.
"Senator Biden," I began, "earlier today Governor Richardson issued a statement that I think could be fairly characterized as a point-by-point refutation of your Plan for Iraq. One feature in that release was that you have the Bosnia analogy exactly backwards: that there was peace, and then we brought in U.S. military forces. I would like to have your response to that."
Biden's face momentarily curdled into a grimace. Then he fixed me with an eagle eye and answered, "Very quickly, I wonder what he thought General Clark was doing there."
Ouch! Give that round to Biden.
Afterwards, Biden's communications director, Larry Raske, approached me and said he had seen the Richardson statement, and that the campaign was considering releasing a response later in the day. Sure enough, a couple of hours later came a rocket from the Biden campaign, titled, "Biden Statement on Richardson's Irresponsible Position on Iraq." Here's an excerpt:
“Governor Richardson’s remarks today on my Iraq plan were surprising. First, he was in favor of my plan, now he’s attacking it. First, he said he would take all of our troops out in six months, and now he acknowledges it would take a year. First, he said he would leave residual forces in Iraq, and now he says he wouldn’t. First, he was in favor of diplomacy followed by withdrawal, now he says it’s the other way around. When it comes to the single most important issue facing our country – how to end the war in Iraq responsibly – it is important to be clear and consistent. It is especially important on this issue that there be no gap between what we say as candidates and what we would do as president.
“My plan for Iraq has overwhelming bipartisan support. More and more people acknowledge that while leaving Iraq is necessary, it is not enough. We also have to do everything we can not to leave chaos behind. The only way to do that is through the political solution that I put forward, which has been embraced by the Senate, the Iraqis and the foreign policy community. I suggest that Governor Richardson go back and review his record and statements and reconsider today’s remarks.”
Biden's statement then goes on to exhibit, at some length, what it characterizes as Bill Richardson's inconsistent statements about Iraq in general, and Biden's proposals in particular. Probably the most damning part of the Biden campaign's statement is this quote:
February 2003: Richardson Said he Would Have Voted to Authorize War In Iraq. Richardson said, “My view is that it is critically important that the United States not let Saddam Hussein get away with this. Had I have been in the Congress I would have voted for the military resolution authorizing war.” [CNN, Larry Kind [sic] Live, 2/14/03, emphasis added]
The Richardson campaign's response to this was a further press release about an hour later. Rather than taking up the gauntlet on Iraq, this release was titled, "Poll: Biden not top presidential choice in Delaware." The point seemed to be that although 54% of Delaware Democrats think Joe Biden would make a good president, they think Hillary Clinton will eventually be nominated, and that this should be interpreted as a strike against Biden.
I take all this back and forth to indicate several things. First, in starting this dust up with Biden, a candidate ranked below him in both polling and fundraising, Richardson's campaign is either a) shooting in the wrong direction, when by all accounts they should be focusing on overtaking an increasingly vulnerable John Edwards, or b) they're feeling heat from Joe Biden on the key issue of this campaign, and one Richardson has increasingly come to feel that he should own: Iraq. The "All Troops Out Now" policy Richardson has been espousing was supposed to lock up the anti-war netroots voice of the blogosphere with one simple - or perhaps, merely simplified - idea, and that would in turn resonate out to primary voters in general. But Richardson's policy has gotten little traction in recent polls, and the Senate's recent overwhelming passage of Biden's proposal highlights a vulnerability on Iraq that Richardson would plainly prefer didn't exist.
Second, this shows how Joe Biden has come to dominate the discussion on Iraq. Many observers feel that after the Dartmouth debate, Clinton, Obama and Edwards have all been neutralized on this issue, and the second-tier candidates are battling for advantage in light of that development. But Biden's policy proposals on Iraq have been a matter of public record for more than a year, and it's going to be hard to dislodge him from the driver's seat.
Lastly, I think we're going to start seeing a lot more of these types of sharpened exchanges from now until the nomination is decided. The "get to know me" phase of the race is clearly over now, and the campaigns are beginning to draw sharp distinctions between themselves and their competitors. I'd like to think that this will not, in turn, lead to a spate of negative personal attacks between the candidates, but who wants odds?
The weekend has passed without further skirmishes between Richardson and Biden, so we'll see whether the cease-fire extends into this week, or if things only heat up again. Time, and the in-box, will tell.