Joe Biden first got into politics when he ran for the New Castle County Council as a Democrat. He promised in this first election to support a public housing initiative, and he won the seat. Biden served as a New Castle County Councilman from 1970 to 1972, at which time he decided to run for the US Senate. Biden was interested in the seat held by Republican J. Caleb Boggs. Boggs wanted to retire, but his retirement would mean a vicious primary fight for the Republican party. In order to avoid this, President Nixon asked Boggs to run again for the good of the Republican party and Boggs agreed to do so. Because he was a popular incumbent, no Democrats wanted to run against him—except the young and tenacious Joe Biden.
Joe Biden’s first senate campaign had very little money and was managed by his sister, Valerie Biden Owens. Most of Biden’s staffers were members of his own family, and he went out and met voters face to face. The local media thought that the Biden campaign had very little chance of winning. Biden ran on an anti-Vietnam platform and also expressed support for the environment, civil rights, mass transit, a more equitable tax system, and health care. The summer before the election Boggs led Biden by thirty percent in the polls, but Biden continued to work hard to connect with voters. The people of Delaware embraced Biden’s youth and energy and on November 7, 1972 Joe Biden became a US Senator, winning the election by just 3,162 votes.
When Joe Biden took office on January 3, 1973, he was only thirty years old, the minimum age at which one can be a US Senator. In 1974, Time magazine named the fresh-faced Senator as one of the two hundred Faces for the Future. Ultimately, Biden would become the longest-serving senator in Delaware history, casting ten thousand votes in the Senate by 1999. Biden was elected to six additional terms as a Delaware Senator in 1978, 1984, 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008.
As a long-standing member of the powerful U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Joe Biden dealt with many high profile issues. From 1987 until 1995 Biden chaired the committee and oversaw two of the most controversial hearings, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. As soon as President Reagan nominated Robert Bork, Biden publicly stated his opposition to the nomination. Initially, conservatives argued that Biden could not conduct a fair hearing, but his conduct during the hearing was impeccable. Biden objected to the Bork nomination on the principle that the U.S. Constitution provides the rights to liberty and privacy beyond the literal interpretation. Bork’s nomination was rejected and Joe Biden earned a measure of respect among his Senate colleagues.
The Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 were extremely contentious, and Joe Biden was thrust into the spotlight again. When Anita Hill accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment, the hearings were broadcast on network television and the public watched as Biden questioned the witnesses. Biden was criticized by many of his supporters for his handling of the hearing. According to theNew York Times, “Mr. Biden at the time was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And while the Delaware Democrat ultimately voted against confirming Mr. Thomas, he was widely criticized by liberal legal advocates and women’s groups as having mismanaged the allegations of sexual harassment made by Ms. Hill against her former employer, Mr. Thomas, at the Department of Education and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, at those hearings.”
During his Senate career, Joe Biden also served as a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Biden could generally be described as a liberal internationalist in matters of foreign policy. Initially, he focused on the issue of arms control, and clashed with the Reagan administration over the Strategic Defense Initiative. He voted against the Gulf War in 1991, and for armed engagement in Afghanistan in 2001. In 2002, Biden voted in favor of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq under President George W. Bush, but soon changed his position on the war. Biden said publicly that his vote was a “mistake” based on false information.
Joe Biden ran as a Democratic presidential candidate twice, once in 1987 and once in 2007. During his first run for the nomination, Biden started out strong, raising more money than eventual Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. However, Biden’s problem with plagiarism in college came back to haunt his campaign when he was accused of plagiarism once again. In a speech given in September of 1987, Biden asked, “why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?”, then pointed to his wife in the audience and asked the same question about her education. The press quickly revealed that this tactic had been used before by a British politician named Neil Kinnock. Although Biden had credited the speech to Neil Kinnock on previous occasions, he did not mention the Englishman during that rendition of the speech. Soon, the plagiarism event in college was resurrected by the national media and the doubt cast on the candidate’s honesty derailed Joe Biden’s campaign.
When he again attempted Democratic nomination in 2007, Joe Biden made several verbal mistakes that undermined the fundraising capabilities of his campaign. His biggest gaffe was a comment about one of his rivals in the nomination battle, Barack Obama. However, the young Senator from Illinois did not take offense to Biden’s awkward praise, and when Obama won the nomination, he chose Joe Biden as his Presidential running mate. CNN quoted Obama as saying, “‘That’s the kind of fighter I want by my side in the months and years to come’”. [“Known for his plain-spoken approach and penchant for speaking from the cuff, Biden wasted little time taking to the traditional vice presidential candidate’s role of political attack dog.”]