Up for Promotion
As the Bush-Kerry race closes in a dead heat, Delaware’s Sen. Joe Biden is regarded by many as the closest thing to a “sure thing” in the U.S. Cabinet if Kerry wins.
This story was originally published in the November 2004 issue of Delaware Today.
Illustration by Jacqui Oakley
Sen. Joe Biden wouldn’t mind seeing a second lightning strike in 2004.
A frenzied summer storm early on Sunday, Aug. 1, produced a lightning strike that damaged the Bidens’ Greenville home and displaced them while extensive home repairs were done.
Perhaps a second lightning strike just 90 days later — the election Nov. 2 of Biden’s friend John Kerry as president of the United States — would create a second displacement of the Biden family, this time for Sen. Biden to become the next U.S. secretary of state.
Sometimes Cabinet-level speculation in American politics is so far-fetched that it strains credibility.
This speculation is not, and it has political pundits across the country talking as the Bush-Kerry race closes in a dead heat. Biden is regarded by many as the closest thing to a “sure thing” in the cabinet of a President Kerry.
That is, if Biden wants it.
“I’ve not heard of a serious rival,” says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor who is one of America’s most widely quoted commentators on national politics. “I think he would have a good shot,”
For his own part, Biden demurs, which is unusual for the loquacious senator, knowing that many would regard it as presumptuous if he spoke too openly and candidly about the possibility, and about his interest in it. “I’m really reluctant to speculate on the possibility of John [Kerry] picking me,” Biden says. “So many variables have to come into play. First, John has to be elected. Second, it really depends on the status of the Senate, and who the majority party is. I love the Senate, and I’ve invested a lot of my life and emotion in this seat. It would be a tough choice.
“But becoming the longest-serving U.S. senator is not appealing to me. That’s not what my Senate service is about,” he says. “I would not want that as my epitaph.”
Biden was the youngest person elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, when he was just 29, turning the legal age of 30 to serve before he took his seat. He will turn 62 on Nov. 20.
But Biden is willing to reveal his thoughts on what critical issues the next secretary of state — whoever he may be — must anticipate.
Biden believes American foreign policy under President Bush is in free fall, due largely to a “unilateral and quixotic policy direction that is just not regarded as reliable by our allies.” Biden says that global foreign-policy decision-makers do not trust the current administration.
Challenges to the next secretary of state, Biden argues, are threefold. “First, we must re-establish the trust of our allies in us. Second, we must have a clear enunciation of American foreign policy. And third, we must put back in place a disciplined process for management of our diplomatic interests.
“The key to creating successful foreign policy is to find common interests,” Biden says, sounding as though he has a 100-day transition plan in his top desk drawer should his phone ring from a President-elect Kerry in the week after Nov. 2. “This administration is too me-me-me, ‘Let me tell you my problem,’” he says.
Few elected practitioners at the senior level of American government have ever become students of American foreign policy and diplomacy in the way that Biden has. Few have had the time and the predisposition that Delaware’s senator has enjoyed.
The reality is that Biden has matured on the world stage, after arriving in Washington, D.C., as a presumptuous 30-year-old. But today, 32 years later, with a virtual lifetime of exposure to global foreign affairs, Biden’s experience coupled with his passion for growth and his intellectual curiosity have moved him to the middle of the global foreign-policy stage.
Clearly, Biden is without peer as one of the country’s most knowledgeable inside experts on foreign policy. Virtually every Sunday morning he appears on one or more news shows, offering punditry that wins the praise of many of his colleagues.
And in private, although Biden cannot acknowledge it, he has deployed that knowledge as wisdom, advice and counsel for presidential candidate and longtime U.S. Senate colleague and personal friend Kerry.
In fact, for a man so knowledgeable and so certain of his opinions, Biden recognizes that one of his real challenges — should lightening strike a second time this year — would be relationship management with the White House. He’s acutely aware of the turmoil caused by the differences that exist between incumbent Secretary of State Colin Powell and much of the rest of the Bush administration.
“The problem that we have now is that there is no ‘big picture’ out there, no clear understanding of our policy,” Biden says. “Part of that is we have too many competing interests inside our foreign policy decision-making [among] the White House and Colin Powell and Condi Rice. Everyone walks on eggs! The real purveyor of policy is the man behind the screen — the Wizard of Oz, Dick Cheney.”
“Consensus is important,” Biden says. “Collaboration is more important.”
Biden has a strong sense of the history of the U.S. secretary of state’s Cabinet position, and of Delaware’s unique claim on that history.
“The first Congress created the position of secretary of state in July 1789, as the principal officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs,” according to the Web site U-S-History.com.
Some of America’s greatest political leaders and statesmen have served in the post, including Thomas Jefferson (1790-1793), James Madison (1801-1809), James Monroe (1811-1817), Henry Clay (1825-1829), Daniel Webster (1841-1843 and 1850-1852), Cordell Hull (1933-1944), and Henry Kissinger (1973-1977).
“Sen. Biden has enormous expertise in the area, and national and international experience that would rival anyone in the Senate,” Sabato says. “I think the whole country has a big investment in Biden. My guess is that he’s picked up enough of the nuances to be a very good secretary of state. He would be a very visible secretary of state.”
As unique as it might seem to have a Delawarean in a position of such prestige, in actuality Biden would be the fourth Delawarean to serve in that lofty post, one of the four original Cabinet posts that date to the founding of our country.
“Actually, Delaware had three secretaries of state in about a 50-year period in the mid-1800s,” says Carol Hoffecker, Richards Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Delaware, and one of the state’s top historians.
“All three served in the U.S. Senate, and all three were top people in their political parties,” she says.
Hoffecker says that Louis McLane served from May 1833 through June 1834, under President Andrew Jackson, for whom he really made his name as Gen. Jackson’s secretary of treasury. McLane’s father had been appointed to several important positions by President George Washington.
“Then there was John M. Clayton, who served from March 1849 through July 1850, under President Zachary Taylor, and he inarguably was the most interesting of the three,” she says. “He was responsible in part for the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Great Britain, which anticipated canal rights across the isthmus of Central America. Clayton was a major figure in Delaware, and he had a lot of influence on the Whig Party, which of course failed and faded not long after.
“Finally, there was Thomas F. Bayard, who served March 1885 through March 1889, under President Grover Cleveland, and he later was ambassador to England. He had been talked about as a presidential candidate from time to time — as Sen. Biden has been — and his period of service was important, because it was when America began to flex its muscles in becoming more of a colonial power,” Hoffecker says.
Ironically, Bayard’s great grandson is Richard “Rick” Bayard, state chairman of Delaware’s Democrat party today and one of Biden’s confidantes.
“Regarding Joe, everything would depend on how things went once he became secretary of state,” Hoffecker says. “Certainly he would bring a lot more direct experience than some others who have become secretary of state in recent years.
“I hope he would involve the Congress more than others have done. He has a very agile mind, he’s very likeable, and foreign leaders would find him —and do find him — very engaging and disarming,” she says.
“A President Kerry would depend heavily on a Secretary of State Biden, and vice versa, Biden would depend on Kerry,” Sabato says. “Biden would attempt to sell their foreign policy at home and abroad in a away that some would say the Bush administration has failed to do.”
Sam Waltz, a former State Capitol Bureau Chief for the News Journal, has a consulting firm in Wilmington.
What Would Happen Next?
With the prospect of a U.S. Secretary of State Joseph R. Biden Jr., should John Kerry win the presidency on Nov. 2, Biden’s seat would change hands for the first time in a generation. As a 29-year-old political upstart in 1972, Biden unseated Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, who had served since 1960.
Governor Ruth Ann Minner, as a re-election winner or even if unseated by Republican challenger Bill Lee, will
have the privilege of naming Biden’s
Minner’s appointee would serve until the next general election in 2006, when Delaware voters would choose a candidate to serve the last two years of Biden’s six-year term.
The prospect of any Republican earning Minner’s blessing is so remote it’s laughable. In fact, forget sending in an application. In all likelihood, this would be a very quick and not-very-public selection process.
The Democrat appointee would almost certainly face a 2006 general-election challenge from Rep. Michael Castle, a Republican with a 70 percent plurality among Delaware voters. That puts a burden on the governor not to pick a place-holder, but to pick a very electable Democrat who could make a real contest of challenging Castle in 2006.
The list of Delaware Democrats whose resumes the governor would review is startlingly short, with only two who could be considered front-runners and perhaps two dark horses. Of course, it’s inevitable that political speculation will result in some exotic candidates’ names being floated.
If Minner asks Sen. Biden, she’ll get a clear-cut choice: his 35-year-old son and protégé Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden III, an attorney with Bifferato, Gentilotti & Biden, a boutique Wilmington practice of politically connected attorneys.
At his age, Beau is more qualified to serve in the U.S. Senate than I was when I was elected, Biden would likely tell Minner.
His entire life has been spent in substantial public service, and he has experience in Washington. He served in Kosovo for the Justice Department, setting up its legal system. He’s been a street prosecutor, a clerk for a federal judge, and he serves in the National Guard.
Biden would probably conclude his pitch with: He’s an experienced campaigner and he’s managed my last two campaigns, which is important, when you consider whoever is appointed will face a tough election fight in 2006.
On his own behalf, Beau Biden is modest, deferring to the governor.
The other finalist would be Greenville Democrat Jack Markell, 44, who was first elected state treasurer in 1998 after a successful career in business with Nextel and Comcast. “Jack’s a solid guy,” Sen. Biden says.
Of his own interest, Markell also declines comment, saying that he is focused on his job as state treasurer.
New Castle County Council President Christopher Coons, currently a candidate for election Nov. 2 as New Castle County Executive, is a solid policy wonk, a bright, thoughtful and astute politician.
Besides Coons, another dark horse would be Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., 48, who has served loyally and effectively as Minner’s right-hand person since 2001. Before serving with Minner, Carney was in the cabinet of her predecessor, Sen. Tom Carper, when he was governor from 1992 to 2000.
Conventional political wisdom of the past half dozen years positioned Carney, Coons and Markell as the three rising Democrat stars. Some predict that their interests will converge around the 2008 governor’s race, when Democrats expect Minner to complete her service.
Democrats now contemplate a win-win-win situation, with the prospect of Carney staying home unchallenged to succeed Minner, with Coons content in New Castle County should he win Nov. 2, and either Markell or Beau Biden positioned to succeed Sen. Biden, should he become secretary of state.
Between Markell and Biden, intuitively the bridesmaid of the two would then run as the Democratic nominee for Congress in 2006 when Castle vacates the seat to run for the U.S. Senate. And Coons might have sufficiently completed the healing process from 2000’s bruising primary for a mid-term run (if he is successful Nov. 2) or his next political rung (if he’s not) to test himself statewide.