Michael Tomasky: With Joe Biden’s Speech, The Democrats Finally Man Up

After years spent cowering as the GOP called them wimps, Democrats are finally sounding confident on foreign policy—thanks to Joe Biden’s muscular speech.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters-Landov

Remember (and go ahead, start cringing now) John Kerry’s approach to the podium at the Democratic convention in 2004? Sure you do. “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” he said, complete with salute. The attempt was to emphasize Kerry’s war heroism and beat back the noxious swift-boaters. But it was just too much—one more Democrat trying too hard to prove he’s a tough guy. I raise this because it’s the perfect counterpoint to Joe Biden’s speech on Thursday in New York, which might well have been the first authentically tough and entirely credible foreign-policy speech by a Democrat in my adult lifetime. I would not have guessed three-plus years ago that the Obama presidency would lead to this improbable end, but it has: For really the first time in the post-Vietnam era, the Democratic foreign-policy posture has nothing to fear politically from the other side, no reason at all to whimper and respond meekly, “But really, we’re tough too!”

What gave this speech its muscle was the fact that it wasn’t the usual bouquet of bromides and promises about a rosier and more multilateral future. It was constructed around the administration’s actual record. It was also a plus that Biden largely eschewed high-flown, “grand strategy” rhetoric in favor of practical language about concrete results. He acknowledged where the desired result hasn’t yet been achieved. But the full effect of the speech was to say: “We have a different way of doing things from Republicans, and we’ve gotten more and better results.” It. Will. Drive. Conservatives. Crazy.

Substantively, Biden refuted all the right-wing criticisms (except one, which I’ll get to) of the administration on Iran, the Middle East, Russia, Poland, Libya. He took them on directly and pointedly and said: They are either lying or . . . well, there is no “or”; they’re lying. He gave evidence—of mutual security arrangements with Israel, for example, and the quiet strides that have been made in the Russian “reset.” The kinds of things that never make the papers or the shout-fests but that are real and meaningful. On each point, he quoted Mitt Romney, who said for example that getting bin Laden wasn’t that important, and who (shocker here) has flip-flopped on other matters, like Afghanistan.

But what will drive the right really crazy is that Biden spent so much time describing the accomplishments as a function of Obama’s will—probably a stretch in reality, but rhetorically powerful: “Just a few months into office, sitting in the Oval Office . . . and he turns to Leon [Panetta, then the Director of Central Intelligence], and he made it clear what his priority was. And on June 2, 2009, he ordered Leon Panetta, gave the following written order, and I quote, ‘in order to ensure that we have expended every effort, I direct you to provide me within 30 days a detailed operational plan for locating and bringing to justice Osama bin Laden.’ It was the president’s highest priority for the CIA. Then, he made one of the most courageous decisions I’ve seen a president make and I would argue in a long time.” That, of course, was the raid itself. Biden again: “And I might add parenthetically, does anybody doubt had the mission failed, it would have written the beginning of the end of the president’s term in office? This guy has got a backbone like a ramrod.”

And then there was the now-famous line about Obama’s “big stick”. My God. How did that survive the vetting at this often timid and antiseptic White House? Permitting the nation to imagine the president’s penis—because let’s face it, that’s what that line came down to. And the racial undertones—again, in a White House that works overtime to avoid anything that might remind the voting public that its occupants are African American. Amazing. I hope Biden’s “big stick” comment doesn’t establish the new benchmark for future tests of vice-presidential loyalty. But it certainly proves this one’s.

Biden’s more serious sound-bite—that the bumper sticker for this administration is “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive”—is also about as good a campaign slogan I’ve heard from any Democrat in a long time, too. It avoids that treacly, touchy-feely ground on which Democrats so love to walk. It’s just simple and true. It may or may not be enough, and Obama will surely walk that familiar Democratic ground before this campaign is all over. But it’s refreshing to hear a slogan that doesn’t resort to the usual emotional blackmail in which both sides, in their very different ways, engage.

The speech deserves better than to be remembered for its zingers, though. I think back over a long and wearying history: of conservatives losing Vietnam (by insisting that we fight it in the first place when the real experts knew it would be a quagmire) and then pinning the blame for the loss on the liberals; of liberals (or at least Democratic candidates for high office) all but accepting that blame; of ahistorical claims that Ronald Reagan “won” the Cold War, and won it by being the tough guy; and of course of the Dubya era, when Republicans disgustingly smeared a Democratic senator who left three limbs in Vietnam and most Democrats (bless you, Bobby Byrd!) responded by quavering in fear of similar attacks. Bill Clinton pushed back on the general narrative pretty well for a time, in his second term especially, for example in Kosovo. But then came 9/11 and the default pattern reestablished itself with a vengeance.

Well, that’s all finally changing. It will be a great day indeed in this country when strident but infantile rhetoric, and the self-defeating and America-weakening policy positions that accompany them, are tossed in history’s dustbin. The administration’s successes (so far) may hasten the arrival of the day when Republicans can no longer invoke foreign policy when all else fails. And Joe Biden, it seems, is just the man to, uh, stick it to them.