Talkin’ Joe Biden, the Judiciary Committee years

Few would argue that Joe Biden is among our brightest Senators, but that hasn’t prevented him from obtaining a prominent role on two of the most high-profile Senate Committees – the Judiciary Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. Now that that the front-runner in the presidential campaign has tapped Biden to be his running mate, it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on Biden’s performance on these two committees. We’ll start with the Judiciary Committee.

Biden’s performance there has been disgraceful. He was part of the mob that, during the Bork confirmation process, defeated a highly qualified nominee on no other grounds than disagreement with his views. This step, unprecedented as it was, transformed the rules for judicial confirmation. And it transformed them for the worse, since the long-term effect of the new approach, once the Republicans fully embrace it as they must, will be to create a bias in favor of moderate non-entities, thereby quite possibly depriving the Court of some of its best potential Justices.

Reasonable people can disagree with this assessment, but a reasonable person would be hard-pressed to defend what the Judiciary Committee, under Biden’s leadership, did to Clarence Thomas. Well past the eleventh hour, with Thomas about to sail through to confirmation, Biden decided to hold a “trial” to determine whether, almost a decade earlier, Thomas had committed such outrages as remarking to Anita Hill that dirt on a can of soda looked like pubic hair. Suddenly, it became acceptable to vote against confirming a Supreme Court Justice not just because one disagreed with his views, but also because (according to one witness who had not come forward for years) he had a “potty mouth.”

Over the next dozen or so years, Biden helped extend this new regime to nominees for the U.S. Court of Appeals. Biden’s legacy, then, is a fully politicized system of confirming federal judges – one that will continue to produce ugly spectacles like the Bork and Thomas hearings, undermine respect for the judiciary (a mixed consequence, in my view), and promote mediocrity on the bench.

Blessed with staffers who (unlike Biden himself) did well in law school, and seemingly immune from any sense of embarrassment, Talkin’ Joe has participated with gusto over the years in questioning nominees during high profile confirmation battles. These staffers could write Biden’s questions, but they could not ask them. Neither, it turned out, could Biden. Instead, departing from his script, he would indulge in lengthy and sometimes incoherent monologues, which usually alternated between cloying and insulting. It’s almost impossible to describe how irritating Biden could be. Suffice it to say that Biden (not Schumer, Durbin, Leahy, or Kennedy) was the only Senator who seemed visibly to annoy John Roberts during his hearing. In fairness, though, Biden’s fellow cheap-shot artists were probably much quicker to figure out what they were up against.

I’m hardly a neutral in these matters, of course, but was more or less politically neutral when I began observing Biden’s appalling performances on the Judiciary Committee. Those performances recommend him more highly for a spot on reality television than for the number two political job in the United States.

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