Joe Biden is running for president. After a contrived, months-long will-he-won’t-he, the former vice president finally announced today, officially entering the 2020 Democratic contest as its front-runner after a rocky lead-up.
Despite the goodwill and name recognition among Democrats won through eight loyal years at Obama’s side, Biden — whose last two presidential campaigns spectacularly crashed and burned and unspectacularly petered out, respectively — will find this time around much harder going. The reasons for that are also the reasons why Biden is uniquely ill-suited as a leader in the current moment.
If Biden has an ethos, it’s an antiquated, anachronistic centrism, not even focused on finding a pragmatic middle that most of the public can get behind, but on “reaching across the aisle.” In other words, somewhere between centrist Democrats and an increasingly far-right GOP lies the sensible, moderate, center-right voter that he believes populates the country.
Nothing epitomizes Biden’s politics better than the speech he gave in 2011 at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, named after the Republican Senate Minority Leader who had at that point just finished up historically routing Biden and the administration he served. McConnell, who had candidly admitted his top goal was making sure Obama was “a one-term president” unless he did the GOP’s bidding, had turned a sixty-vote Democratic supermajority into an unavoidable necessity, stifling Obama’s legislative agenda and even slowing economic recovery to produce the Democrats’ “shellacking” in 2010. He then used this as leverage to get one of the most lopsided legislative “deals” in memory, trading the extension of unemployment insurance for the continuation of tax cuts for the rich, a markedly lower estate tax, and other giveaways that infuriated Democrats.
Three months later, Biden warmly celebrated McConnell and his success at having crushed the Democrats at their moment of historically rare political power. He painted the tax giveaway, which House Democrats angrily rebelled against and even Obama compared to negotiating with hostage-takers, as a textbook example of effective bipartisan compromise. And he reminded the audience about the essential unity of those who ran the government: whether they were liberal or conservative, Tea Party or Blue Dog, “they all ran for office because they love their country” and “because we basically all agree on the nature of the problems we face.” McConnell had bulldozed Biden’s house, and Biden sent him a gift hamper.
But Biden’s delusions about how the institution he had spent most of his adult life serving in functions is just one part of the story. Biden is a Third Way Democrat with a seemingly congenital aversion to anything that smacks of populism, at least of the left-wing variety. With a career in politics forged mainly in the “long Reagan era,” Biden has built up an image based on loudly shunning and bucking “liberal special interests” — that era’s code word for civil rights activists, unions, women’s groups, and the poor. As he told the National Journal in 2001, the Clintonite Third Way is both “where the American people are” and “where the Democratic Party should have been.” Resorting to “class warfare and populism” will only hand power to Republicans.
Of course, now that Biden is preparing to run on Obama’s legacy, he will tell you that he’s always been the darling of liberal groups. “The traditional judgements of whether or not you were, quote, a ‘liberal,’” he recently said, was “what your positions on race were, on women, what’s your position on LGBT community, what’s your positions on civil liberties. You know, I’ll stack my record on those things against anybody who’s ever run, who is running now, or who will run.”
The trouble for Biden is, his record on all of these matters and others isn’t particularly great.
Biden catapulted to prominence in the 1970s by rebelling against school integration through busing. Biden reached across the aisle to his friend Jesse Helms — one of the most virulent racists in modern politics — to launch relentless verbal and legislative attacks on school busing that, if taken literally, would have scaled back the government’s power to desegregate more broadly, and he bragged that he’d made it okay for other liberals to do so. This was all OK because, as Biden frequently claimed, he had been a civil rights activist. Later he was forced to admit he had simply worked at an all-black swimming pool during the Civil Rights Movement.
The next couple of decades saw Biden turn his attention to another issue: waging “war” against drugs and crime. Eliminating parole, civil asset forfeiture, harsh mandatory minimums for drug possession, the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity, dozens of new death penalties, and unprecedented resources poured into building new prisons and arresting people to fill them with: Biden was not a marginal player in enacting all this and more. He was one of the driving forces, constantly bragging about his role in policies that devastated black communities, policies adopted for nakedly electoral purposes. “I would like to see the conservative wing of the Democratic Party,” he once quipped.
It’s no coincidence that the two issues Biden leaned on most heavily in the first half of his career to show off his centrist credentials were also ones that made life markedly worse for African Americans: political “moderation” after the 1960s usually meant how far you were willing to go to thumb your nose at the cause of civil rights. So Biden’s close relationship with another of Congress’s most storied racists — Strom Thurmond, whom he later warmly eulogized as a “brave man” who “truly wanted to help” — is no surprise either.
The 1990s-era crackdown on immigrants — the period when the vast deportation apparatus now in the hands of Trump was largely built — was another Biden cause. He was a loyal soldier in this crusade, supporting a special ban on accepting immigrants if they were HIV positive; easing rules for deportation, even for legal residents with families; restricting immigrants’ access to welfare; and even at one point suggesting deploying troops to deal with undocumented immigrants. A plan later devised by Biden to slow migration from Latin America only further fueled the violence and misery that migrants were fleeing in the first place, paving the way for future migration crises, for which, as vice president, he would prescribe the same self-defeating solutions.
The 1990s also saw Biden take aim at civil liberties, authoring anti-terror bills that, among other things, “gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus,” as one legal scholar later reflected. It was this earlier legislation that led Biden to brag to anyone listening that he was effectively the author of the Bush-era Patriot Act, which, in his view, didn’t go far enough. He inserted a provision into the bill that allowed for the militarization of local law enforcement and again suggested deploying the military within US borders, before transforming into a civil liberties defender in the latter part of the Bush presidency, once the political winds had shifted.
Biden also spent the 1990s voting for a string of neoliberal policies: NAFTA, one of the most devastating political defeats for unions in recent memory, and one where Biden was a crucial vote that switched to help it pass; the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, which he had earlier decried as “mak[ing] Herbert Hoover’s economic policy a constitutional mandate,” a claim that if anything understates the case; Clinton’s appalling welfare reform; and the repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall prohibition on banks engaging in risky securities dealings. He did this all while moaning endlessly about excessive government spending.
Not long after the turn of the twentieth century, Biden enthusiastically voted for the greatest foreign policy disaster of the twenty-first: the Iraq War (“I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again”). It was the worst of a pattern for Biden, who backed Margaret Thatcher’s war in the Falklands and was one of the key figures pushing for NATO’s eastward expansion in the 1990s, a needless provocation of Russia that the famed Cold War diplomat George Kennan, speaking more than a year before Vladimir Putin took office, presciently denounced as “the beginning of a new cold war.” Biden’s strategy for Afghanistan is indistinguishable from the one the Trump administration is now pursuing, and his “counterterrorism plus” approach — the use of drone strikes and special forces anywhere in the world — became Obama’s anti-terror policy, one that visited death and carnage to a long series of countries and fueled the very threat it was supposed to extinguish.
Needless to say, Biden isn’t just pro-Israel — he’s one of the most Israel-friendly politicians of his generation. Through speaking fees and campaign donations, Israel has been good to Biden his whole career, and Biden’s been good right back, from pushing for more US aid to voting to move the embassy to Jerusalem — another extremist policy Trump cribbed from Biden and his friends — and even chiding the Bush administration for its criticism of Israel’s assassination program. But being “the best friend of Israel” in the Obama administration didn’t get him far with Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly rebelled against the US under Obama, and humiliatingly announced new illegal settlements in the middle of an official visit from Biden.
Finally, the Biden family’s propensity for engaging in money-making ventures that — gee whiz, just somehow seem to constantly overlap with Biden’s political career — will make him a perfect foil to Trump. Whether it’s Biden’s son, Hunter, being hired as a lobbyist for a Delaware credit card company whose favored legislation Biden was voting for; Biden’s brother mysteriously getting hired by a mid-size construction firm shortly before it received a $1.5 billion government contract; or Hunter, again, joining the board of a corruption-tainted Ukrainian gas producer while Biden spearheaded US policy on Ukraine. That last issue is likely a ticking time bomb, with Ukrainian officials recently disclosing to the Hill that Biden leaned on the country’s government to fire its top prosecutor just as he was set to investigate the gas company, including interviewing Biden’s son.
The most damning thing is that Biden hasn’t changed. While other candidates with similarly troubling records at least understand the need to pay lip service to progressive ideas, there’s little indication Biden has moved an inch in his thinking. He doesn’t think “five hundred billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble,” and has “no empathy” for millennials. He still supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He still thinks adding to the conditions that fuel migration is the best way to stop it. He still wants to cut Medicare and Social Security.
In short, a Joe Biden nomination would likely be a disaster, alienating the same voters who deserted Hillary Clinton in 2016, while running on a similarly lackluster platform. The only thing that could be more harmful is a Joe Biden presidency, which, to take him at his word, would see the former vice president collaborate with an increasingly extreme GOP in an effort to achieve some of the Right’s most long-cherished goals, including paring back the last remnants of the New Deal. Even scarier is the likelihood that such a disillusioning presidency could subsequently pave the way for a far-right populist even more virulent — and competent — than Trump.
The good news is, a Biden nomination is far from inevitable, and his choice to run on a continuation of Obama’s legacy will provide the broad left an opportunity to relitigate that administration’s shortcomings without taking aim at the preternaturally popular ex-president himself. In the meantime, if someone you know is unfamiliar with Biden’s record on busing, mass incarceration, neoliberal economics, war and civil liberties, abortion, or immigration, there’s an easy way to acquaint them.