Obama's Running Mate Biden Has Rare Political Trait: Decency

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Decency is rare in life, but it seems even rarer in politics where so much often is at stake. As government has grown and more is at stake, the niceties that make life civil have become expendable.

I have always been struck by the decency of Senator Joe Biden, Barack Obama's Vice Presidential nominee. But there is one memory that I particularly recall when I think of him.

Back in late May 2001, when the Senate was evenly divided with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, every vote counted in trying to pass President Bush's tax bill. Senator James Jeffords hadn't yet officially become an independent. Democrats were putting up amendment after amendment to try to defeat the tax bill, and the debate was lasting late into the evening.

Senator Joseph Biden noticed that 98-year-old Republican Senator Strom Thurmond was looking quite ill. But Thurmond couldn't leave because the Republicans needed his vote. Biden, seeing the predicament, offered a solution. He offered to "pair" his votes with Thurmond. Biden promised not to vote while Thurmond left the floor so that the passage of amendments would remain unchanged. It was the decent thing to do.

But Biden’s offer created a scene on the Senate floor where Senators Tom Daschle and Hillary Clinton talked to Biden and convinced him not to go through with his offer. Possibly only those involved in the conversation know what happened, but it seemed like a lively discussion, so I can only assume that Biden did not back down that easily, and I have no idea what arguments were made against his proposal.

Presumably, the other Democrats felt that if the vote simply lasted long enough into the evening Thurmond would collapse or simply be unable to go on, giving the Democrats the majority on the floor. This was an opportunity too good to miss.

Even though they could hardly have been more different politically, Thurmond genuinely liked Biden and requested that Biden give one of the eulogies at his funeral.

But this innate decency and relative lack of partisan rancor in Biden can be seen in other events.

In another case, when John Bolton was battling in April and May 2005 to be confirmed as ambassador to the United Nations, he was accused of everything from abusing employees to altering intelligence to fit his personal biases, attacks that had little justification. When the Senate negotiated over ending the filibuster, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) attempted a compromise: allowing the vote on Bolton in exchange for denying votes on a few Republican circuit court nominees. Again, Biden’s instinct went against his party’s. One Democratic Senate staffer was quoted as saying, “But nothing came of it, and that’s a good thing. There are quite a few people [Democrats] here who want to see Bolton squirm.”

In August, 2005, when asked about potential presidential opponents he might run against in 2008, Biden said that “John McCain is a personal friend, a great friend, and I would be honored to run with or against John McCain, because I think the country would be better off, be well off no matter who....” It wasn’t necessary that he praise an opponent on the other side.

There are other laudatory statements that Biden has made of McCain, indeed probably nicer statements than Biden has made about Obama over the last couple of years. Some are already showing up in campaign ads.

These feelings toward Biden are not universally held. Justice Clarence Thomas felt that Biden had been less than fair to him during his confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court.

Has Biden made mistakes? Sure, the plagiarism and vita padding scandals forced him from the 1988 presidential race (though interested readers can find a partial defense of Biden on the plagiarism count here). Obviously, presidential candidates depend heavily on the words of others (professional speech writers) for their words, but Biden probably was most hurt because the borrowed facts from British Labor Party Leader Neil Kinnock didn’t correspond to Biden’s own history: his father and grandfathers were not coalminers who worked in the mines for 12-hour shifts. Biden was also caught padding his vita.

But whatever these errors in judgment might be, no one would ever think that Biden could give Ted Kennedy’s “Robert Bork’s America" speech that falsely attacked Judge Bork:

"Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, children could not be taught about evolution."

Hopefully, Biden will balance off Barack Obama’s partisan tendencies. The Obama that I knew while we were both at the University of Chicago Law School during the 1990s was someone who disliked talking to people with whom he disagreed. Possibly it was just his extreme dislike of gun ownership, but I had more than one occasion when my attempts to talk to him ended in him turning his back and walking away.

The media’s portrayal of Obama as willing to work with those who disagree with him is not the person that I remember from a decade ago.

Biden may have a strong and consistent liberal voting record, but he is a decent person. Hopefully, Biden’s personality traits and advice will rub off on Obama.

John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.

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