Friday, August 06, 2004

Filling in His Suit

There was a time when I was convinced that Sen. Joe Biden was an empty suit. Part of this was, no doubt, a reflection on the fact that he couldn't distinguish between his own family history and that of Neil Kinnock back in 1988. But every time I hear Biden on television talking about the War on Terror, I start to wonder what happened between 1988 and today. As Peter Beinart points out in the most recent TNR, Biden seems to really understand, in his gut, what this war is really about, in a way that Kerry does not. Kerry seems to think that "multilateralism" is a means unto itself, or a way of getting others to take burdens off of our shoulders--rather than what it should be, which is to add additional firepower to our arsenal. Biden, on the other hand, gets it. Kerry has the fetish for diplomacy that comes from being a diplomat's son, whereas Biden seems to recognize that diplomacy is a matter of getting the most from our ideological, economic and military assets--not substituting for them.

This raises a question that political scientists rarely discuss, but ought to: how do Congressmen grow in office? That is, what explains why some members of Congress develop into statesmen, while others turn into showboats (which is what Biden seemed on his way toward back in 1988) or never get beyond a single-minded focus on re-election and constituency service. It can't be as simple as the absence of competition--it's been a long time since Ted Stevens of Alaska has seen a competitive election, and he's still a hack. Some Senators come into office with statesmanlike qualities already ingrained in their nature, such as Pat Moynihan. But how do we account for those, like Biden, who seem to mature?

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