Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Debate Question for Joe Biden

By William Fisher

Tonight, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden will engage in the first and only debate for vice presidential candidates in the 2008 election.

Who will “win” this debate should be a no-brainer. Joe Biden has lots of style, but he also has lots of substance. Sarah Palin will attempt to use style over substance, as there is no substance there.

Biden will make no attempt to destroy Palin. He will let her do that for herself in her responses to Gwen Ifill’s questions. And, as everyone except the moose-dresser’s dwindling cadre of loonytunes supporters have painfully come to know, she is quite capable of demonstrating her preference for Joe Six-Pack over actual facts and real information and anything remotely associated with thoughtfulness.

But the history of campaign debates is littered with proof that Joe Six-Pack often emerges victorious from these encounters. Just recall the Reagan-Carter debate of 1979. As NPR reported, the Carter campaign was eager to debate Reagan “because they thought it would give the president a chance to display his great command of complex issues, and that Reagan might stumble or look confused.”

The Reagan camp only agreed to that debate when they saw how tight the race was. “They were glad they did. Rather than sounding dangerous or overwhelmed, Reagan calmly brushed aside Carter's attacks, shaking his head” and delivering his instantly-famous one-liner: ‘There you go again’.”

Our best hope that this doesn’t happen again is that the American voter may finally be starting to understand that, in this election, the stakes are just too high to roll the dice in favor of someone they’d like to have a beer with.

That’s what gave us George W. Bush.

Joe Biden arguably knows more about world affairs and American foreign policy than anyone in the U.S. Senate. Like his running mate, he is also an expert on the Constitution and teaches Constitutional Law at American University. That should reassure us that an Obama-Biden win in November might return our country to such quaint niceties as checks and balances, limits on Presidential power, secret government and the rule of law.

Joe Biden is nobody’s fool on domestic policy either. His name appears on some of the most consequential legislation in recent history: To cite just one of many examples, the Violence Against Women Act.

But Biden is not without his vulnerabilities. Among the most glaring of these was his support for the so-called “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005". This bill, which President Bush signed into law in 2006, neither prevented bankruptcy abuse nor protected consumers.

So what did this law do? As reported in 2005 by Arianna Huffington, when she was writing for Slate, it made it harder for average people to file for bankruptcy protection; it made it easier for landlords to evict a bankrupt tenant; it endangered child-support payments by giving a wider array of creditors a shot at post-bankruptcy income; it allowed millionaires to shield an unlimited amount of equity in homes and asset-protection trusts; it made it more difficult for small businesses to reorganize while opening new loopholes for the Enrons of the world; it allowed creditors to provide misleading information; and it did nothing to rein in lending abuses....

This law was a gift to the many of the nation’s biggest credit card companies, which spent years and millions lobbying the government for its adoption (and wouldn’t give up despite two earlier vetoes by Bill Clinton).

And guess what? Many of those credit card companies are incorporated in Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware. Biden has been particularly cozy with MBNA, a Delaware-based financial services company that is now a subsidiary of Bank of America. Over the past 20 years, MBNA has been Biden's single largest contributor.

This is an issue Gwen Ifill needs to raise with Joe Biden. It should be instructive to hear his response – and he will certainly have one, as he will certainly have anticipated the question and rarely comes up short of several thousand words in response to almost any question.

Aside from Biden’s craven support of this home-state-supporting law, he’s got another problem Gwen Ifill ought to raise tonight: Barack Obama doesn’t agree with Biden’s positions on this issue. In numerous stump speeches, he has vowed to reexamine our bankruptcy regulations.

In the 2005 bankruptcy bill debate in the Senate, Biden was one of only five Democrats who voted against a proposal to require credit card companies to provide more effective warnings to consumers about the consequences of paying only the minimum amount due each month.

Obama voted for it.

Likewise, amendments to the bill aimed at strengthening protections for people forced into bankruptcy by medical debts or who were members of the military.

Biden voted to defeat these amendments. Obama voted for them.

Likewise, an amendment that would have transferred responsibility in certain cases from debtors to the predatory lenders who helped push them into bankruptcy.

Biden voted against it. Obama voted for it.

Gwen Ifill should ask Joe Biden to explain these conflicts with the head of his own party’s ticket.

Over the past eight years – and particularly since the housing bubble starting bursting – bankruptcy filings have skyrocketed. While there have certainly been abuses by millionaires using clever legal provisions to game the system, most bankruptcies are filed by people earning less than $30,000 a year. They have been caused by mortgage defaults, by loss of jobs, by the rising costs of everything, and by runaway medical bills triggered by the absence of health insurance or by health insurance companies whose primary mission appears to denial of benefits.

I want Joe Biden to “win” this debate. He deserves to win it. He will be the anti-Cheney. He will be a credit to his office. He will be a comfort to those who envision the possibility that, someday, another vice-president may be called upon to move into the Oval Office.

More important still, Joe Biden can play a huge role in bringing sanity to American foreign policy and in helping to restore our country’s reputation in the eyes of the world.

But he is not without his warts. And these should be explored tonight. Not just because sunlight is the best disinfectant; it’s also because transparency can signal the beginning of the process that forces our elected officials to make long-overdue changes.

Real bankruptcy reform should be high on the list of such changes.