For Republicans, Joe Biden is perceived either as a ruthless partisan or a hilarious punch line. Syndicated radio talker Mark Levin calls him “Plugs” because he appears to have had hair transplants. After Biden implied last month to a largely African-American audience that the GOP wanted to bring back slavery, many Republicans demanded the kind of media scrutiny usually reserved for the gaffes of Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin.
Last night in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Biden remained in attack mode. He said Republican nominee Mitt Romney didn’t understand “what saving the automobile industry meant to all of America.” He also contrasted Obama’s decision to order the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden with a 2007 quote from Mitt Romney saying he would not “move heaven and earth” to track down one man.
But Joe Biden's belligerent and at times clumsy partisanship disguises an effective personal charm that privately impresses many Republican leaders, according to Bob Woodward’s new book, The Price of Politics. Woodward discloses how Biden became the most important deal broker after Republicans won huge gains in the 2010 midterms. Through a combination of patience, a knack for telling long personal stories, and the occasional private aside, Biden helped forge major compromises on the debt limit and laid the groundwork for two of Obama's most important legislative victories: the repeal of the ban on gays in the military and the ratification of an arms control agreement with Russia.
After Republicans won back the House and picked up five seats in the Senate, President Obama authorized a back channel between Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. According to Woodward’s account, Biden and his chief of staff, Ron Klain, hammered out a deal during the remaining days of the Congressional session whereby Republicans would get a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts in exchange for a vote on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia and a vote to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the policy Bill Clinton settled on after he backed away from his campaign pledge to allow gays to serve openly in the military.
The deal, which would cost $60 billion in deprived tax revenues on high-income earners, did not go over well with many other Democrats. Sen. Chuck Schumer, for example, forced a vote on an amendment that would extend the tax cuts for everyone except those earning more than $1 million a year. The intention was to embarrass Republicans by getting them to vote to protect the wealthy. Schumer, according to Woodward, wanted to keep introducing the amendment to force multiple votes on the same measure.
Woodward quotes Biden as saying, “Chuck, you had your vote. … You got your press release. You’ve got whatever political gain we’re going to get out of this.” Biden then said if the Senate could wrap up the tax vote, “We can also get START done. We can also get Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell done.”
Biden didn’t just play a role in that deal. In 2011, new Republican House members forced a series of contentious votes on extending what is known as the debt ceiling, or the legal limit of how much money the U.S. government can borrow. Republicans threatened to vote against raising the debt limit unless they received commitments for steep spending cuts. Biden helped find many of those cuts with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Both politicians bonded over the fact that neither one was in charge.
“‘You know, if I were doing this, I’d do it totally different,’ Biden told Cantor during one of the private asides they frequently had after the meetings,” Woodward writes. “‘Well, if I were running the Republican conference, I’d do it totally different,’ Cantor replied. They agreed that if they were in charge, they could come to a deal.
Woodward’s reporting method for his books has been to record hours and hours of interviews with top government sources. A Woodward book presents public officials with a kind of choice. They have a chance to burnish their reputation by dishing on others, or face the prospects of their own reputation being damaged if they blow Woodward off.
Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, however, said Woodward succeeds in getting the inside scoop because he is careful and accurate. “Woodward has the dual advantage that people know he will not distort what you say, and he has this magical ability to get people to talk,” Ornstein said. But Ornstein added, “If you don’t talk, you won’t get your side of the story out there, and others who might have a different side of the story will.”
In his latest book, Woodward tackles how Obama sought to stimulate the economy in his first year in office through spending, and fought with Republicans on how to cut spending in the last two and a half years. Eventually, Woodward reports, the White House economic team settled on a maneuver known as sequestration—a hard trigger in law that would force steep cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare, as well as defense spending. The political power of the deal is that Republicans traditionally protect military programs and Democrats traditionally protect social-welfare programs. These cuts, unattractive to both parties, are set to take effect in the next fiscal year if a deficit and debt reduction plan is not signed into law.
Last summer, it was Biden, once again, who was tasked with selling the sequestration plan—to McConnell, according to Woodward. In those negotiations, Biden got McConnell to agree to an 18-month extension to the debt limit. (Republicans till last summer only agreed to debt-limit extensions lasting up to six months). But McConnell got from Biden an agreement that no sequestration would trigger automatic tax increases.
“Biden and McConnell, both suffering from severe cases of dealmaker’s fatigue, finally agreed,” Woodward writes.