Viewpoint -- Steelworkers Convention Hosts Presidential Candidates -- Part One: Joe Biden

One reporter's somewhat cynical take on the recent Democratic campaign stop at the USW leadership convention and candidate forum in Cleveland, Ohio.

The United Steelworkers (USW) recently extended invitations to the full field of presidential candidates to come speak to the USW faithful at its July convention. Four Democrats (and no Republicans) showed up, which is about what you'd expect seeing as the big unions have been losing members and influence steadily over the past few decades as their influence, and American manufacturing in general, has waned. (Interesting statistic: in 1972, one out of every four American workers was represented by a union -- in 2000 the number dropped to one in 10).

The Democratic candidates who did show up to speak to the steelworkers -- Biden, Edwards, Kucinich and Clinton -- said mostly what you would expect in this context, but there were a couple of ventures off-script that kept me awake at least, and also some interesting (if intentionally vague) new policy proposals. In the interests of providing as much information as possible, I've foregone the usual news style and am just throwing it all out there for you to digest. If I sound a little cynical, it's not my fault -- I blame the politicians.

"Blunt" Biden Bats At Bush

The senior Senator from Delaware Joe Biden was first up on Day One, July 5, and definitely benefited from the opening slot. Everyone was lively and receptive, all coffee'd up and ready to clap, and hadn't yet heard the "2008 Democratic Electoral Gospel" (Bush = dumb, war = bad, alternative energy = national security, no more unenforceable trade agreements, and "union" is not a dirty word) yet. In short, Biden didn't have to be all too creative, which isn't his strong suit anyway.

During the course of his nearly hour-long speech, Biden remarked that he suffers from "a bad habit of being too blunt," and he didn't disappoint, making a couple of his typical trainwreck-waiting-to-happen digressions as he ventured into controversial, if well-traveled, territory.

The first issue Biden chose to address was the overarching issue of the 2006 campaign -- the war in Iraq. Unfortunately for everyone but the politicians who get to hammer away at it, Iraq will probably be the dominant issue for 2008 (and possibly many more elections to come, if we don't wise up and get out soon).

The anti-war issue is so obviously a home run (hence the title of this section) and Biden swung for the fences, saying that "the only Iraq policy this administration has isn't how to fix it -- it's how to hand it off." Big applause line, but still a pretty obvious point, seeing as Bush already said that he was keeping troops in Iraq until the end of his term (watch the video here).

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John Edwards

Dennis Kucinich

Hillary Clinton

Biden advocates a federalist, multi-state solution in Iraq, and holds the opinion that there is absolutely no chance for the present Iraq policy to work -- surge or no surge -- saying: "Not in my lifetime, or the lifetime of anyone in this room, will there be a unity government in Iraq." Ouch.

The Senator from Delaware next took issue with the recent Supreme Court decision concerning manufacturer pricing power, saying that it will hurt middle class families and increase the average cost of everything from clothes to cars by more than $1000 per year. While I'll admit it is likely that prices for consumers will initially rise due to a shift in the balance of power away from discount retailers, I always wonder where politicians get these ballpark figures? Out in left field?

Next, Biden asked the union crowd to imagine the impact on the American manufacturing base if the government were being steered by someone who devoted as many resources into building up our own national infrastructure, instead of spending tax dollars nation-building in the Middle East. One concrete example (pun intended) given was the shoring up of bridges and tunnels to meet the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission (many of which have still not been implemented almost six years later) which would act as a shot in the arm for U.S. manufacturers -- and by extension, their union employees.

Biden pledged aggressive investment in R&D for alternative energy products and services, noting that "millions of new jobs depend on it." Everything from building wind turbines to making more fuel-efficient cars (resulting in more domestic manufacturing) to building the infrastructure and pipelines for ethanol and hydrogen to plants manufacturing solar panels are part of his plan.

The fact that developments like these are already happening anyway without government assistance doesn't seem to occur to politicians, but even in the absence of a coherent plan, there's a lot of potential for economic growth just waiting for a fundamental change in the direction of U.S. energy policy towards the post-petroleum economy (something that's bound to happen no matter who wins the White House in '08).

Regardless, this new growth sector represents the way the world is going, and unless we want to get run over by a hybrid steamroller built by a Japanese company in China (running on Brazilian ethanol), we had best get all the resources we can headed in this direction, and quickly. (If you're interested in learning more about the clean tech sector, visit our Making Green page and watch for a feature story on this topic in the December issue of IndustryWeek).

One thing about Biden is that he seems to relish his (to put it delicately) lack of delicacy/basic tact etc. He's been known to slip up in public, for example calling Obama "clean" and Bush "braindead". However, Biden knows all too well that his penchant for verbal gaffes is sometimes actually a benefit, especially in front of a crowd with some rough edges like the USW. After all, the last seven years have desensitized us to verbal blunders, and at least Biden makes his in the midst of otherwise coherent speech. However, after the third "nearly" off-color remark "almost" slipped off the cuff, it all began to seem forced. Still enjoyable, though, and the steelworkers I spoke with afterwards liked Biden's unapologetic approach to being "kind of" a jerk.

So Biden's got some edge up his sleeve, and he says he's looking forward to debating this crop of Republicans on their traditional turf of law and order and family values (issues on which the he says the Republican field is a much easier target than usual these days). "I can't wait," he said, rubbing his hands together and grinning, but who knows if he'll get the chance?


Brad Kenney is an equal-opportunity cynic and an associate editor at IndustryWeek, based out of Cleveland. The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. Feel free to register your agreement or displeasure at our Reader Talk-Back forum.
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