It was supposed to be an hour-long chat with Sen. Joseph Biden, Democratic candidate for president and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But there were last minute changes in the Senate's voting schedule. So Senator Biden came striding up 15th Street, several aides in tow, 10 minutes late for a Monitor-sponsored lunch with newspaper and magazine reporters.
Biden, who in the past has been brevity impaired, on Thursday delivered rapid-fire, detailed, and impassioned responses.
The questions centered on foreign policy rather than his lagging presidential candidacy. A new Cook Political Report/RT Strategies Poll (no relation to the author) may help explain why. Those who vote in Democratic primaries were asked for their first choice among current Democratic presidential contenders. Hillary Clinton was first with 30 percent of the respondents, Barack Obama was second with 20 percent, with John Edwards and Al Gore being the other front runners. In this poll Senator Biden earned an asterisk.
Perhaps because of his standing in the polls, Biden apparently feels free to speak with some degree of candor. "He is in his comfort zone," one journalistic colleague said. For example, Biden ducked out of the lunch after half an hour to make another Senate vote. Earlier, he told reporters that his presence would not make a difference in the outcome. He was going to vote "because of the importance of it ... to labor."
Biden also was blunt speaking about his own party's message on the war in Iraq. "I think it is time the Democrats start to level with the American people about the situation in Iraq and that nothing is going to change until we get 67 votes or the president has an epiphany," he said. "And I think it more likely [that we] get 67 votes than him having an epiphany."
Republicans in the Senate face a tougher issue with the Iraq war, Biden noted. "What you are going to see is my Republican colleagues making the following political calculation. That is, they know they can't stay with the [president's] policy but they want to avoid offending the right as long as they can. And their future is going to depend upon when they pick the time to cut" their link to the policy.
The Delaware senator added: "Let's be realistic. You are a Republican senator. You are going to go into this time next year having supported this war with no discernible change in the circumstances. I predict to you there will be no discernible change. This surge is a loser from day one."
Pessimistic about the odds of the military surge in Iraq succeeding, Biden argues that "the best we can hope for under any circumstances ... is that we would be able to have a loosely federated Iraq, not a threat to its neighbors, not a haven for terror, and secure within its own borders. That is as good as it will ever get."
That positive outcome can still take place, Biden says, "but only if the international community – because we have no credibility any longer – puts its imprimatur on a political solution." The warring factions in Iraq "will not get together on their own," Biden says.
Failing that, "when this place [Iraq] splinters, it is not going to splinter along Shia-Sunni lines and Kurdish lines. It is going to splinter intra-Sunni, intra-Shia, intra-Kurdish in all probability," Biden said.
Biden offered a tepid response when asked about the Bush administration's proposal that outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair become a special envoy to the Middle East to help President Mahmoud Abbas build a viable Palestinian state. Under this scenario, Blair would represent the so-called quartet – the US, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.
"It is only as effective as the president is willing to engage. The quartet is important. We are the 800-pound gorilla in the quartet. We have to renounce our policy of benign neglect. We have to get engaged," Biden said.