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Can Joe Biden Catch Fire?

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The Charcoal Pit President

The Charcoal Pit in Wilmington, Delaware is the kind of place where you can get a cheesesteak and fries and something cold to drink.  It’s nothing fancy, but it’s dependable. For more than thirty years its been a spot where parents take their kids, where cheerleaders giggle over cokes, where truck drivers grab a sandwich, or a salesmen stops in for lunch. My wife used to hang out there when she was a cheerleader at Concord High School. It’s kind of an institution in Wilmington.  Sure, people get excited about going out to fancier restaurants, but they always come back to the Charcoal Pit.

Every now and then, one of the Charcoal Pit’s customers is another Delaware institution, Senator Joe Biden, who has been known to stop in for a steak sandwich on his weekend trips back to his home state.  Like the Charcoal Pit, Biden isn’t exactly flashy, but he has been a dependable senator for Delaware and the nation since he was elected in 1972 at the ripe old age of 29. 

Now, some thirty-five years later, Senator Biden has launched what would seem to be an underdog bid to be the nation’s next president.  The question is can he show enough sizzle to catch fire?

At first glance the answer would appear to be no.  The nation’s pundits have anointed Hillary, Obama and Edwards as the frontrunners, and the smart money is on that triumvirate, with Biden trailing badly in fundraising.  But maybe voters, like diners who have tired of the fancy stuff, are ready to take another look at Biden.  Maybe Biden is like a charcoal pit, the coals have been smoldering for a while and they are about ready to burst into flames.  And who knows, maybe the voters are ready for some steak.

There are some signs that Biden may be ready to get hot.  Earlier this week he gave a terrific, emotional speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, angrily calling on his colleagues to challenge the President on his policies on Iraq saying “every person in Congress should be saying right now: Mr. President, you're leading us off a cliff. Stop!" (watch the speech at (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ehzEgU-oVI.) This week, the Senate also voted to begin debate on the war and will consider legislation by Biden and Senator Carl Levin (D. Michigan) that would narrow the mission of U.S. forces in Iraq, begin to withdraw troops and pursue a political settlement.  Biden has also launched a new website, www.EndingTheWar.com, an online petition to support the binding resolution. And Biden has offered what is the most specific plan to date of any Democrat detailing a way out of the war. (See the Biden-Gelb plan at http://planforiraq.com)

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The mantra of this presidential campaign is going to be “its Iraq, stupid,” and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is well positioned to take advantage of that fact.  As he said earlier this week, “I will continue pounding away at this everyday to get the President to change his course in Iraq.”  As the debate on Iraq intensifies, Biden’s visibility will only increase.

And beyond Iraq, as the Democratic primary season begins, voters will also begin to ask themselves an important question.  Who do they think can win?  Many Democrats have concerns that Hillary is too polarizing, that she may have a very difficult time attracting independent or cross over voters. Personally, I would vote for her in a heartbeat,  but a lot of people won’t. And unfortunately, an Obama candidacy raises concerns among some that America may not yet be ready to elect a Black man to the nation’s highest office.  That leaves John Edwards and a few other guys, and our Charcoal Pit candidate, Joe Biden.

Biden might have the advantage.  Not only do his years in the Senate lend him a gravitas on foreign policy matters that the election may turn on, he may have already made some tactical steps that will serve him well in the general election.  To win the presidency, any Democrat will have to win all of the states that John Kerry won in 2004.  That’s the easy part.  The hard part comes in figuring out how to win Florida or Ohio, or some combination of western states like Arizona and Nevada.  Biden is apparently thinking ahead.  While Hillary was locking up all the high priced talent, Old Charcoal Pit went and hired Luis Navarro, who has served as the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party since August 2005. Navarro also worked as the as Western states director for America Coming Together and was the national political director for the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  Those connections will not only help Biden in the primaries, should he prevail, Navarro’s contacts in Florida will help Biden to hit the ground running in that crucial state.  And no Democratic candidate will prevail in Nevada without the crucial support of SEIU, a support Navarro can help to deliver.

I’m not ready to say that Biden will be the candidate.  But I will say that I’m not ready to declare Hillary, Obama or Edwards the winner yet either.  Right now, Democratic voters may be excited about the fancy stuff.  But after awhile, they may decide that they are in the mood for a cheesesteak.  And Old Charcoal Pit may look pretty good.

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John McDonald is a writer and consultant in Los Angeles.

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