War, rhetoric and ‘Fluffernutter’


Until Joe Biden burst into the presidential race with mouth blazing, my favorite quote of the month was from Chuck Hagel.

Hagel, a Republican senator from Nebraska, made an emotional appeal to his colleagues to support a non-binding resolution against President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq.

All 100 senators ought to be on the record about the president’s plan, he said.

“What do you believe? What are you willing to support? What do you think? Why were you elected?” he demanded Jan. 24 in a Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Then, said Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, “If you want a safe job, go sell shoes. This is a tough business.”

Hagel, you may have heard, is considering a run for president. While he may not win many votes in Famous Footwear stores, he did demonstrate a gift for the dramatic.

We likely will see more theatrical moments this week when the Senate takes up the troop surge, debating a different resolution than one Hagel had cosponsored with Democratic Sens. Biden of Delaware and Carl Levin of Michigan.

With at least six senators running for president, the temptation for them to speak out and perhaps create a sound-bite moment will be nearly irresistible. Hagel’s outburst is on YouTube.

This is not to say that emotions don’t genuinely run high on the war. But with the 2008 campaign already upon us, presidential jockeying makes the work of senators like John Warner more difficult.

The Virginia Republican is not running for president, as far as anyone knows. One sign that he’s not a candidate: While others pontificate, Warner actually stepped up to lead. He crafted a bipartisan, compromise resolution that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid plans to use as a starting point for the debate.

Warner said it was hard work finding the right words for a measure that could get substantial bipartisan support. Some Republicans thought an earlier version Warner offered was too stringent, while some Democrats thought it too tepid.

This is why we — taxpayers — pay senators the big bucks. Hagel was right. Senators should take a stand on the biggest issue of our time. They should do it even if they’re not running for president and even though the president doesn’t have to listen to a non-binding resolution.

Words matter.

Warner’s resolution “disagrees” with the president’s plan to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq. It opposes cuts in funding for U.S. troops but does not say, as the Biden-Levin-Hagel version did, that the troop buildup is against the national interest.

Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, is running for president on his international experience and expertise. His own controversial plan includes splitting up Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions, an American troop withdrawal and help from Iraq’s neighbors to stabilize the country.

But he got into hot water the day he entered the crowded Democratic presidential field over an interview in the New York Observer.

The news focused on Biden’s comment that Barack Obama is “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” to run for president. It didn’t take long for Jesse Jackson to note that he lasted longer in the 1988 presidential campaign than Biden did — and got more votes. Al Sharpton piped up that he bathes daily.

Biden apologized all over the place, including “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

He should have said fresh, he said, not clean.

The Obama remark overshadowed Biden’s critique of the war stances of his Democratic rivals. In the Observer interview, he blasted Hillary Clinton’s plan to cap troop strength and withdraw from Iraq as “nothing but disaster.”

About a former Senate colleague’s plan to pull 40,000 troops out of Iraq immediately, Biden said, “I don’t think John Edwards knows what the heck he’s talking about.”

Biden says he himself has a strategic plan, one that takes the history of Iraq into account. Edwards and the others haven’t talked about the consequences of their proposals.

“So all this stuff is like so much Fluffernutter out there,” he said.

So much Fluffernutter. That’s my new favorite quote.

(Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief for Media General News Service.)