Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

Joe Biden Is the Forrest Gump of the Democratic Party’s Rightward Turn

From crime to privatization to Wall Street, the story of Joe Biden’s career has been the story of the Democratic Party’s forty-year-long right turn. Every step of the way, he was there urging the party to push the rightward shift even further.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at St James Santee Family Health Center during a town hall meeting in McClellanville, South Carolina, on February 27, 2020. Jim Watson / AFP via Getty

They are not dealing with George McGovern. They are dealing with Joe Biden and Bill Clinton.

—Joe Biden on the GOP and the issue of crime, 1994.

By 1993, for all intents and purposes, Joe Biden had won. Sure, his 1987 exit from the presidential campaign trail had been humiliating. But he had survived a near-death experience, returned to the Senate with renewed purpose, been sent back to Congress for another six years by the people of Delaware, and, with three terms and a prestigious committee chairmanship under his belt, was now one of the Democratic Party’s most influential and powerful lawmakers.

What’s more, the party had moved exactly where he had been urging it to go. In 1992, Democrats nominated Arkansas governor Bill Clinton to be their presidential nominee, a business-friendly Southern Democrat who antagonized the party’s left wing, held conservative stances on criminal justice and the role of the government, and connected with those same conservative, white, Reagan-backing voters who Biden was convinced needed to be the beating heart of the party.

Since 1989, Clinton had been the chairman of the DLC, the conservative, Southern-dominated group determined to push the party rightward for which Biden had spent 1986 touring the country. Clinton had taken away many of the same lessons from his political career that Biden had from his. After becoming the country’s youngest governor in 1978 and challenging the state’s major industries, he had been unceremoniously tossed out of office two years later. He roared back in 1982, winning reelection and governing as a very different kind of politician — one far more accommodating to business interests and conservative views. He won the 1992 election not just by tapping into his preternatural charisma and empathy but by showing he could be just as ruthless and right wing as any Republican: he publicly scolded Jesse Jackson by misconstruing the words of an African American rapper attending his Rainbow Coalition convention as racist, and he flew home from the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a lobotomized inmate.

Clinton’s guiding light was the philosophy of “triangulation,” otherwise known as the “Third Way.” Instead of going left or right, the theory went, Clinton would tread a path somewhere down the middle, much as Biden had spent his years in the Senate doing, voting largely as a Democrat but abandoning the party or taking conservative stances on key, consequential issues. In practice, this meant that Clinton and Biden, together with a cowed Democratic Party reeling after three consecutive presidential election losses, would spent the next eight years working with newly energized congressional Republicans to continue what Reagan had started: shrinking the size of government, rolling back protections for civil rights and liberties, cutting social programs and key regulations, and generally undoing the progress made under the New Deal and Great Society. “He made clear he represents a new generation of leadership and government alone can’t do it, and that is a new message from a Democrat,” Biden said of Clinton as he prepared to take the oath.

The result was devastating for the US working class, as hundreds of thousands of Americans saw their jobs disappear, with only an increasingly frayed social safety net to fall back on. The march toward a repressive prison state sped up, while the gap between the rich and poor inflated. As these trends became more extreme, an ever-larger share of the voting public would conclude there was little point in taking part in the political system anymore.

Bill and Joe

The Reagan years may have been over, but their politics lived on. Biden, who like Reagan had spent the 1980s obsessed with federal deficits and cutting spending, would spend the next decade going even further in this direction.

Biden emerged from his 1990 reelection slightly bruised by a scandal that showed yet again the peril of his and the rest of the party’s increasing reliance on big-money donors. During his earlier presidential run, Biden had forged a friendship with David L. Paul, a Florida-based savings-and-loan executive and major Democratic fundraiser known to lend his private jet to politicians. Paul, his family, and his company’s foundation had given generously to Biden, a fact seized on by his Republican opponent in the wake of the ongoing savings-and-loan crisis and after CenTrust, the bank Paul founded, which regulators charged he had used as “his own piggy bank,” collapsed, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion. It would later come out that, after being personally lobbied by Paul, Biden had successfully weakened the criminal penalties for bank fraud proposed in a pending bill to reform the sector; he had tried and failed to recruit Strom Thurmond for the effort.

Whether it really was corruption wasn’t clear: Paul had lobbied Biden to weaken a different part of the bill, Biden’s chief of staff said, and the penalty reductions had actually been requested by smaller thrifts and banks. But Biden’s financial and personal connections to a man of, in one regulator’s words, “insatiable vanity and greed” who worked in an industry Biden was meant to be keeping in check wasn’t a good look. It was a taste of what was to come.

Having locked down reelection, Biden, together with the DLC and other centrists, served as something of an ideological police force to keep an eye on Clinton, who they feared would govern as a New Deal Democrat. Though he had built a career kowtowing to right-wing forces, Clinton at heart still fancied himself one of Roosevelt’s heirs, bitterly complaining to Democrats in 1993 that “we’re Eisenhower Republicans” standing “for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”

After the election, Biden warned Clinton not to let his administration fall under the sway of liberals, singling out Bernard Nussbaum, the man who would become Clinton’s general counsel, for particular attention — never mind that Nussbaum was a wealthy corporate lawyer. When a right-wing firestorm erupted over Clinton’s nomination of civil rights lawyer Lani Guinier to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, partly as payback for the Thomas hearings, Biden joined the pile-on about her past academic writings, leading Clinton to cut her loose. His patience with liberal activists worn out by the previous decade’s judicial battles, Biden lashed out at the “idiotic groups out there,” like the “‘XYZ Group for American Values,’ or the ‘QSY Group to Save All the Women in the World.’”

Biden wasn’t responsible for Clinton’s failure to reform US health care, but his lack of enthusiasm for the task didn’t help. While behind the scenes, independent Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders — who had parlayed his success in Burlington into a successful congressional campaign — tried pushing Clinton to pursue a single-payer health care system, White House officials and party leaders privately viewed Biden as “noncommittal” and “someone who would ‘take extra effort’” to be won over to even Clinton’s piecemeal reforms.

Internal documents noted Biden’s reservations about Clinton’s plan, his private warnings not to load up any health care bill “with too many bells and whistles,” and his concerns “that the benefit package may be too generous” and would negatively impact small businesses. “He has been one of the few Democratic members who have declined to sign Senator Wofford’s universal coverage letter,” read one memo written for First Lady Hillary Clinton, then leading the health care effort, adding that Biden had previously said he opposed single-payer. Biden himself later boasted that he had refused to sign on to Clinton’s plan even after being beckoned to the White House.

As in the case of the CenTrust scandal during his 1990 reelection campaign, Biden’s position may have been driven by powerful interests back home. One White House memo noted that DuPont, which Biden privately said controlled the Delaware Chamber of Commerce, would be “key” in his decision. Yet the company was advocating for national health insurance at the time. Maybe more key was the over $150,000 that Biden had got from health insurers over fifteen years. In any case, the reform failed, sunk by the White House’s own mismanagement.

While running full tilt away from anything hinting at liberalism, Biden gave Clinton full-throated backing as he continued Reagan’s legacy. He proposed early on to have business experts advise Congress on how to streamline government agencies and endorsed Clinton’s plan to lay off 252,000 federal workers. “Putting the customer first will ensure that taxpayers get the service they deserve,” he said, echoing the language of the era that cast government as a business and the public as its patrons.

Ultimately, in Clinton, Biden finally found a Democratic standard-bearer as passionate about attacking the deficit as he was. Despite polling showing the public was vastly more interested in job creation, Clinton upset his political advisers by kicking off his presidency with a deficit-cutting budget that slightly raised taxes on the very wealthiest while taking a big chunk out of government spending through federal layoffs and entitlement cuts. Clinton was fully conscious that this would block the ambitious social agenda he had actually campaigned on. The measure, which passed with only Democratic votes in the Senate, began a years-long campaign of deficit-cutting that culminated in the first balanced budget in decades. While universally lauded in media and political circles, the true significance of the balanced budget lay in further rolling back the New Deal. By the end of Clinton’s two terms, federal spending fell to its lowest level since 1966, and the federal workforce accounted for the smallest percentage of overall employment since before Roosevelt took office.

Biden cheered him on all the way. He told a constituent that Clinton’s first budget was “our best chance for deficit reduction” and introduced his own six-year plan for balancing the budget. Even as Clinton accepted painful spending cuts dictated by the GOP, Biden proclaimed that “we are approaching an historic moment” and that Americans would “enjoy real benefits from a balanced budget.”

Which Americans though? Back home in Delaware, where federal money made up a large chunk of the state budget, Biden’s constituents felt the sting. The state’s Democratic governor Tom Carper warned in 1996 that his government would have to “tighten its belt” as a result, with a variety of programs, including scholarships, services for the elderly and disabled, drug and alcohol prevention, and emergency relief shelters, drastically cut back or wiped out, even as the number of homeless kids in Delaware had tripled over the previous decade. Delawareans pled with the state’s finance committee to save vital programs on which they relied. While Biden continued earning top ratings from environmental groups, the cuts he supported imperiled Delaware’s rivers and beaches and weakened the state’s environmental programs and federal Environmental Protection Agency enforcement.

Biden’s zeal for cutting government brought previously untouchable targets into his crosshairs. He had cruised to reelection in 1990 through his tried-and-true playbook of outraising and out-Republicaning a mediocre opponent. His proposals included a “freeze [on] all government spending until we get it in order,” which would require the “straight-up courage” to cut everything — even Medicare and Social Security.

This is largely how it was for the rest of the decade. Biden repeatedly spoke out against GOP attempts to cut the big three — Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security — and commended Clinton by the end of his presidency for “making the protection of Social Security and Medicare our highest domestic priority.” Yet he also insisted that something had to be done about Medicare, pushing fraud prevention as a way to soften any future cuts, and he gave a tacit endorsement to a Medicaid “reform” plan put out by the National Governors Association in 1996 that would have given states “discretion” to deny benefits. On Social Security, he suggested raising the retirement age by one year and voted to repeal an earlier increase in benefits. This was in sharp contrast to his treatment of business: Biden had been first out of the gate to pressure Clinton to sign a bill in 1993 creating an antitrust exclusion protecting certain ventures from high damage awards.

We’ll never know whether Biden would have defended these programs or folded to right-wing pressure to cut them: Clinton’s plan to close out his presidency by “reforming” entitlements was derailed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But Biden’s willingness to even rhetorically put these popular programs on the chopping block foreshadowed a new, more strident phrase of his antipathy to government spending.

Balance the Budget — or Else

This antipathy found its most radical expression in the form of the balanced budget constitutional amendment, which Biden had viewed as laughable and dangerous in previous decades. Now he was warming up to it. Its opponents viewed it with alarm: making a balanced federal budget a constitutional requirement would not only hamstring the government during times of emergency but require — even during economic downturns, when most economists advised more government spending and when spending cuts had historically plunged countries into even greater misery — the government to sharply raise taxes or, more likely, make drastic cuts to core, often life-saving programs.

To the relief of progressives and hundreds of economists, the amendment never passed under Clinton. But with the help of a wavering Biden, it came perilously close.

With the backing of its chairman, the Judiciary Committee started the decade by endorsing the amendment two years in a row. A 1991 report Biden issued warned that “the spree of deficit spending by our federal government must be curbed.” All the while he acknowledged it would be a disaster. “This is a lousy amendment,” he said in 1991. “It’s not a good idea — except I can’t think of any other idea except maintaining the status quo. And the status quo stinks.” Biden was, he explained, “prepared to take what I consider radical medicine” to tackle deficits.

Had the constitutional amendment process been less onerous, the balanced budget amendment may well have passed several times in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Biden stayed undecided until the eleventh hour, when he and several other Democrats, including future presidential nominee John Kerry and future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, came out against the amendment, causing it to fall four votes short of the sixty-seven needed to pass. Biden instead voted for a doomed alternative offered by Reid that insulated Social Security and construction projects from any painful cuts.

That sweetener was gone from the version that made it to the Senate floor the start of the following year, under a very different Congress and in a distinctly new political landscape. In between, the United States had experienced something of a political revolution, as a cadre of right-wing radicals, fed up with what they saw as the GOP’s timidity and feebleness, took over the House, leaving both chambers of Congress in the Republicans’ hands for the first time in forty years. In many ways, this was a more significant victory for the conservative movement than Reagan’s had been in 1980. After all, it was Congress that shaped and passed legislation, and Reagan’s vision had been largely stifled by Democratic control of the House throughout his presidency.

The George Washington of this victory was Georgia representative Newt Gingrich, who fancied himself “the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times” and called for “large-scale, radical change.” It was his “Contract with America,” a ten-point legislative plan that aimed to finish what Reagan had started, that victorious Republicans had signed and campaigned on. A balanced budget amendment was one of its key planks.

With the political calculus now altered, the Clinton administration toned down its opposition to the amendment. Even as Alice Rivlin, director of the Office of Management and Budget, warned that the amendment would “exaggerate the boom-bust cycle,” engineer “worse recessions,” and make for “bad economic policy and bad constitutional policy,” the White House made clear that it had lost the appetite to fight. Gingrich left a meeting with Clinton with the impression that he was “not going to engage in an aggressive campaign against” the measure.

Gingrich’s confidence was likely rooted in the fact that many Democrats had become devoted converts. The 1995 version of the amendment, which required the prohibitively high threshold of three-fifths of both chambers of Congress to either raise the debt limit or pass a non–balanced budget, was sponsored and championed by Illinois’s Paul Simon, one of the Senate’s stalwart liberals, and backed by prominent Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and, of course, Biden.

“Something is going to come bouncing out of here and sent to the states [to be ratified],” Biden said. The amendment had “real flaws,” he repeated, but vowed to back it because “we need something.” After several Democratic attempts to make it more forgiving failed, Biden and the rest of the committee, on a 15–3 vote, once more sent the amendment to the Senate.

“Some of us tried to make this a better proposal,” he said as he prepared to vote for it. But he was “faced with a choice of an imperfect amendment or continued spending,” and he had “sufficient confidence in our citizens and in our political institutions that we will confront any challenges” from its many flaws.

What those flaws and imperfections would mean in practice was stark. To make the spending cuts a balanced budget demanded, countless programs that Americans relied on would have to be cut or eliminated: low-income housing, heating assistance, federally funded school lunches, mass transit, even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funded hundreds of TV and radio stations around the country, not to mention the big three entitlement programs. It would “be a disaster for working people, for elderly people, for low-income people,” Bernie Sanders had warned.

In the end, a sufficient number of Democrats were spooked by the threat posed to Social Security and other programs to defeat the amendment, including Daschle and even California’s conservative senator Dianne Feinstein, both of whom had had been on board with the idea in 1994. But the decisions of Biden and two other Democrats to switch their votes in favor of the amendment brought it a mere two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

Biden’s support became even more determined as a result of his 1996 reelection contest. Once more, Biden faced an opponent who sought to paint him as an overly liberal flip-flopper. But businessman Ray Clatworthy was not only considered too far right by the Republican he had beaten in the primary; he was the first rival in Biden’s career who could match him in fundraising. Despite political experts stressing his seat was one of the country’s safest — borne out by his eventual 22-point margin of victory — Biden, per usual, moved right. While campaigning for reelection, he became one of just twelve Democrats to side with a near-unanimous GOP to again bring the balanced budget amendment within two votes of passage.

Even after his reelection, Biden stayed the course. This time, with Clinton’s second term in the bag, the measure faced stronger Democratic opposition. As the ground was readied for yet another vote in 1997, the White House lobbied key Democrats to reject the balanced budget amendment, and Clinton trashed it in his State of the Union speech, calling it “unnecessary and unwise” and warning that it could “cripple our country in time of economic crisis.” Biden, for his part, played unconvincingly coy. His spokesman told the press Biden would use his vote as leverage to make improvements to the measure, such as exempting Social Security — but then quickly added that Biden would vote for it no matter what, undermining any leverage he might have had.

Whatever economic motivation Biden may have had to support the amendment was undercut when more than one thousand economists, including eleven Nobel Prize winners, signed a letter pleading with Congress not to adopt it. One economist, Nobel laureate James Tobin, cautioned it would “put the federal government into a fiscal straitjacket” during economic crises; another compared its insistence on keeping spending strictly below revenue to “telling the Atlantic Ocean not to cross a line in the sand.”

Despite dithering in the days leading up to the vote, Biden voted for the third straight year to approve the amendment that even he — along with just about everyone outside of antigovernment, right-wing circles, including his local newspaper — had warned would bring economic catastrophe. He joined all fifty-five of the Senate’s Republicans and just ten other Democrats. The amendment failed by just one vote. Against Biden’s best efforts, disaster had been averted.

Hollowing out the Working Class

But if the American working class narrowly avoided the economic calamity of a balanced budget amendment, the same could not be said for a host of other measures passed by Biden and the Democratic Party during the 1990s.

The first came in 1991, as President George H W. Bush began working on what would come to be the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Despite a decades-long political career heavily underwritten by organized labor, Biden became one of a small group of Democratic turncoats that gave Bush “fast track” authority to negotiate the deal. AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland bitterly noted his “disenchantment that on a great issue that affects the livelihood and survival of our constituents,” the Democrats had deserted labor.

NAFTA would ultimately be ratified under Clinton, who during his campaign had done a careful balancing act, backing the agreement to prove he could “stand up to” unions but pledging to improve it once in power. The “improvements” Clinton secured did little to assuage labor’s fears, and Democrats like Biden were forced into a similar balancing act. Biden agonized over the decision, claiming in September 1993 that “if I had to vote today, I would vote no,” but also insisting he thought labor’s “theory” that NAFTA would lead to an exodus of jobs to Mexico was “flawed.”

He stayed undecided until the very day of the vote two months later, ultimately charting a course that was vintage Biden. In his floor speech, he launched into a spirited attack on critics of unions: “How dare we tell these people not to worry?” he shouted. “If you saw your future decimated, you would have every reason to be frightened. This is not a false fear.” He then dismissed the arguments on both sides of the issue as “vastly overblown,” claiming labor only opposed NAFTA “because they have nothing else” to criticize. After only briefly explaining his support, he declared the agreement “the best deal we are going to get now.” With his vote and that of twenty-six other Democrats, NAFTA passed the Senate.

Biden turned out to be grievously wrong. The deal not only caused the loss of nearly 700,000 US jobs, many of them in the country’s manufacturing centers, but it further weakened the power of unions. It became a gift to unscrupulous businesses who used the threat of offshoring jobs to Mexico — in some cases, purposefully loading equipment into trucks headed south of the border in full view of disgruntled workers — to push employees into accepting worse wages, hours, and benefits, and to undermine unions’ bargaining power. As Sanders had warned during the House debate on NAFTA, it was indeed “a bad deal for American workers.” Politically, the consequences would be just as grievous, as the loss of power for unions pushed the Democratic Party further into the arms of corporate donors, and Democrats saw an exodus of blue-collar support over the betrayal, creating a future opening for the party to be outflanked.

Next came the euphemistically named “welfare reform,” what Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott later termed “the Holy Grail of [the GOP’s] legislative master plan.” Conservatives had fantasized about dismantling the welfare system for decades. Reagan had memorably lobbed verbal broadsides at it during his 1976 presidential run, conjuring racialized images of a “woman in Chicago” scamming tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars and a “strapping young buck” using government handouts to buy a “T-bone steak.” Such deeply rooted caricatures had little relation to reality — in fact, the “welfare queen” stereotype was based on a career con woman with a much more complicated personal history — but they were potent images that seemed to confirm what many white Americans uncharitably suspected. More importantly, they were tied up with a centuries-old stereotype of African Americans as lazy and a post-1960s one of the poor as black and, as a result, lacking moral character.

Welfare had never been a big focus of Biden’s. He had gestured at vaguely doing something about it during his first campaign, but other liberal golden calves had always taken priority for him. By the late 1980s, however, he started to echo long-standing right-wing attacks on the system. “We are all too familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous,” he wrote in 1988. “Whether they are exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down — that it only parcels out welfare checks and does nothing to help the poor find productive jobs.”

The legislation Biden was writing about, the Family Support Act, was a somewhat progressive measure. It strengthened the collection of child support, forced states to set up education, training, and job programs for people on welfare, and expanded childcare and Medicaid for families going from welfare to work. But by penalizing parents who either didn’t take part in those programs or turned down any job offer, it chipped away at the welfare system in ways that would only intensify.

“There are some things, dammit, we have to change on,” he told a group of Iowa Democrats in 1992. “I don’t know of a single person who says that welfare, the way it is, we like it.” Biden kept using this language throughout the 1990s. He claimed that “too many welfare recipients spend far too long on welfare and do far too little in exchange for their benefits,” called for Congress to “require all welfare recipients to sign a contract in which they agree to work in exchange for their benefits,” and insisted they should have a limit of just six months to find a job before they lost their benefits.

By 1995, all the pieces to make this happen were in place. A radically right-wing, Republican-controlled Congress had just swept to power on the back of a promise to take on welfare. The Democrats were under the thrall of the DLC, which put welfare reform at the center of its policy goals. The president had promised to shrink the size of government and campaigned on ending “welfare as we know it,” and he had just hired a political operative whose grand strategy was to “fast-forward the Gingrich agenda.”

This was an agenda that, at least publicly, horrified Biden. He had thought about retiring, he told the 250-strong crowd at the annual Sussex County Democrats’ spring dinner in 1995, but the GOP takeover of Congress had changed his mind. “It’s going over my dead political body that they succeed,” he said, drawing the night’s only moment of spontaneous, passionate applause. “Newt Gingrich has energized Joe Biden. I’m looking forward to beating the hell out of the Republicans.”

The core of the Republicans’ vision of “reform” involved taking responsibility for welfare out of the hands of the federal government and putting it in the hands of the states in the form of block grants, funding packages they would be given complete discretion over. Biden understood some of the potential issues with this approach; he had attacked Reagan’s 1982 proposal to turn over social and economic programs and the taxes behind them to the states, charging that “the states, because of their own budget problems, are not going to fund these programs.” Nevertheless, in September 1995, the newly “energized” Biden voted with fifty-two Republicans and thirty-four other Democrats to make the radical welfare overhauls that Gingrich had made the cornerstone of the Republican agenda. “Generations have made welfare their way of life,” he wrote in the Wilmington News Journal. “This must end. It is simply unacceptable to me and most hard-working Americans.”

The Senate’s overwhelming passage of this measure sparked three months of pressure by progressive Democrats and activist groups to discourage Clinton’s support for it. Come December, when the House and Senate versions were reconciled into what Democrats decried as far too cruel and punishing to children, all but one Senate Democrat voted against the final version, which Clinton vetoed. But Democrats were “not going to quit,” Daschle pledged in the vote’s aftermath, and would “continue to try to present alternatives.”

Far from “beating the hell out of Republicans,” what ultimately passed in 1996 was a poster child for the bipartisanship Washington so often celebrates. As Biden’s fellow Delawarean in the House, Republican Michael Castle, teamed up with a Democrat to put forward a version of “welfare reform” supported by Clinton, Biden linked arms with another Republican, Arlen Specter, to introduce an identical version in the Senate. Castle thanked the two senators for “lend[ing] credibility to our proposal.” Delaware governor Carper (who is today a senator) said the proposal “demonstrates that Democrats and Republicans can work together in the Congress.”

For his part, Biden declared, “It is time to say we do not care who gets credit for reforming welfare. It is time to just do it — in a bipartisan fashion — for the sake of the American people and for the sake of the people on welfare.”

The Senate ultimately rejected Biden and Specter’s bill for one that William Roth was pushing. But as Roth explained, Congress wasn’t acting in the spirit of partisan competition. “We’re all working toward the same goals,” he said. “What has been lost in the shuffle and shouting of the last 10 months is that there is a great deal of common ground on welfare reform,” affirmed Biden. When it came to a vote, six of the seven Democrats up for reelection that year, including Biden, helped send the bill to Clinton’s desk with large bipartisan majorities even as angry protesters stormed the halls of Congress.

Clinton signed the bill on August 22, 1996, in the White House Rose Garden, surrounded by a bipartisan gaggle of delighted lawmakers. Lillie Harden, a black former welfare recipient from Clinton’s hometown of Little Rock used by the bill’s proponents as a living, breathing argument for the supposedly debilitating effects of welfare, stood by Clinton’s side. Biden, who seven months earlier had said the “Rush Limbaughs who got elected” had got his “juices going” and strengthened his resolve to stay in Congress, was one of the small number of elected officials confirmed to attend.

But as the presence of protesters suggested, not everyone was happy. Ted Kennedy said that calling the measure “reform is no more accurate than to call the demolition of a house ‘remodeling.’” Three of Clinton’s assistant secretaries at the Department of Health and Human Services resigned in protest. Bernie Sanders would term the law “the grand slam of scapegoating legislation.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat who had jumpstarted Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” called welfare reform “ruinous” and “grotesque,” warning it would throw between one million and five million children into poverty.

The predictions were largely accurate. The numbers of Americans living in deep poverty climbed to well over two million by 2005, with single-parent families with kids hit the hardest. Twenty years on, the number of households living on less than $2 a day had doubled. State governments, increasingly controlled by Republicans and free to do what they wanted with welfare funding, drew on those block grants to plug their own budget deficits while virtually eliminating the welfare programs they so despised. Across the West and South, the welfare safety net virtually disappeared. In Biden’s home state, the bill’s freezing of welfare funding at 1994 levels kneecapped the Delaware government’s welfare policy of putting more money into health care, day care, and job training. Meanwhile, Lillie Harden, who had had a stroke in 2002, died twelve years later at the age of fifty-nine, unable to get on Medicaid she had been while on welfare. Asked about the low-wage work she’d taken up that supposedly marked her successful transition from “welfare dependency,” she said: “It didn’t pay off in the end.”

The push for “welfare reform” had revealed a fundamental truth of US politics: even as partisan gridlock and dysfunction began to take hold of the US political system during the 1990s, the American ruling class was more than capable of coming together to get things done as long as it flattered the interests of the country’s most powerful and its victims were the working class. Just as with NAFTA, Biden and the Democrats’ support for all this would in the long run further sever their link to the party’s working-class base and swell the ranks of the disenchanted and politically disengaged.

Joe Biden (D-MBNA)

At the same time Biden was helping conservatives continue their assault on the American working class, he was going to bat for Delaware’s corporate sector.

Over the course of the previous decades, Delaware had transformed into a “bankruptcy haven,” one whose lenient bankruptcy courts, known for hustling cases through at twice the speed of the rest of the country and favoring bankrupted companies over creditors, helped attract a rush of major corporations — or at least the legal papers incorporating them. Thanks to this and a package of corporate-friendly state banking laws passed in 1981, more than 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies were incorporated in the state by the end of the 1990s, though you would be hard-pressed to find any of those companies’ stores or offices in Delaware. Bankruptcy was big business: the year before, 86 percent of bankruptcy filings by companies with $190 million or more in assets had been in the state, pumping money into local law firms and the surrounding economy. But the beneficiaries were chiefly suburbanites who commuted into Wilmington to occupy the city’s proliferating white-collar jobs.

The rest of the country had taken notice. By 1998, the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, a panel of judges, lawyers, and professors formed in 1994, recommended a proposal — given the moniker “The Delaware Killer” in legal circles — to bar companies that didn’t physically operate in states where they were incorporated to file for bankruptcy there.

Biden was outraged. “I cannot comprehend what purpose would be served by diverting cases from a court with such an accomplished record,” he said, vowing to oppose the measure when it came to the Judiciary Committee. His and the rest of the Delaware delegation’s outrage meant the measure never made it into a bill. “It looks like Delaware has won the first round,” Biden’s state director said. Calling it “a prestige thing” for the state, Biden threatened one year later to filibuster a bill that tried to do the same; its author admitted defeat over Biden’s “intensity” on the issue.

But when it came to easing the burden of bankruptcy on working Americans, Biden’s intensity went the other way. As the decade came to a close, a coalition of banks and credit card companies began pushing a bill described by the Associated Press as “the most far-reaching overhaul of the nation’s bankruptcy laws in twenty years.” With personal bankruptcies rising 300 percent since 1980 to hit an all-time high of 1.4 million eighteen years later — many of them due to credit card debt that banks were exacerbating by luring customers with high spending limits — the industry-favored legislation aimed to make it harder for ordinary Americans to file for bankruptcy. Biden swiftly became one of its champions.

The episode was a classic case of a politician protecting a local industry. Delaware at the time was home to no less than ten credit card banks employing 20,000 people, including MBNA, the second largest in the country. But there was more to it than this. MBNA, which complained it lost $1 billion a year under the existing bankruptcy regime, was by far the largest campaign contributor to all three of Delaware’s members of Congress. By 1999, Biden had received $67,100 from its officials since 1991, less than his two colleagues but enough to earn him the label of “the senator from MBNA.” The connections went deeper than donations, too. Biden had sold his house for twice its value to one of those donors, MBNA’s chief marketing officer, and his son Hunter had been hired straight out of law school in 1996 as a lobbyist for the company, zipping up the ranks to become senior vice president two years later.

Biden backed the bill, introducing an identical version of what had passed the House, even as consumer groups lined up against it and Democratic lawmakers warned it would hurt families and children. Democrats attempted to derail it, while a Harvard professor named Elizabeth Warren personally lobbied First Lady Hillary Clinton to get her husband to veto it. The pushback succeeded, and the threat of Clinton’s veto sunk the bill.

Or at least it did for a time. The lending industry continued pushing the overhaul well into the new millennium, this time under an industry-friendly Republican president and with Biden still its loyal soldier. He would vote again and again with Republicans to advance the legislation while taking tens of thousands of dollars more from MBNA, which by this point was paying Hunter, who had left the company in 2001 to become a lobbyist, a monthly consulting fee.

“Simply put, too many people are finding it too easy to walk away from their legitimate obligations by filing for bankruptcy,” Biden said, explaining his support for the bill. Warren, in a 2002 New York Times op-ed calling the legislation “a quiet attack on women,” charged that Biden had “agreed to vote with Republicans on almost all the issues that were holding up the bill.” The two would finally meet face to face three years later at a Judiciary Committee meeting, where Biden accused her of making a “mildly demagogic argument” and insisted her real problem was with interest rates, not bankruptcy.

“But if it’s not going to fix that problem, you can’t take away the last shred of protection for these families,” Warren shot back. “I got it, okay,” Biden replied, chuckling. “You’re very good, professor.”

Biden and the lending industry won; he and seventeen other Democrats voted with yet another lockstep Republican majority for the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, signed into law on April 20, 2005. It was another disaster for the American working class: even as households remained buried under mountains of debt, fewer filed for bankruptcy, deterred by the bureaucratic hoops and higher costs ushered in by the law. Credit card fees, interest rates, and prices, all of which the bill’s proponents swore would drop once the law went into action, kept on climbing, bringing record profits to the industry on the order of many billions more a year. The law swiftly came to be hated by a cross-section of bankruptcy judges, furious at having to dismiss cases where the filers didn’t know they were required to take credit counseling classes first. “Unquestionably, this is the most poorly written piece of legislation that I or anyone else has ever seen,” said one. Another accused Congress in a written opinion of working with the credit industry “to make more money off the backs of consumers in this country.” Of course, all of this affected Hispanic and black families the most; they were two and three times more likely to file for bankruptcy as white families, respectively.

All this had happened in no small part through Biden’s efforts. “He provided cover to other Democrats to do what the credit industry was urging them to do,” Travis Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, would later recall, saying Biden had provided a “veneer of bipartisanship” that helped the industry sway other Democrats. Warren remembered it similarly. “The Senate was evenly split between the two parties, but one of the bill’s lead sponsors was Democratic powerhouse Joe Biden, and right behind him were plenty of other Democrats offering to help,” she charged in 2014.

This was a pattern with Biden. At various times, he voted against a measure banning double charging for ATM transactions, an amendment strengthening protections for bankrupt Americans who had large medical debts or served in the military, a provision to shift responsibility from debtors to the predatory lenders who had drove them into bankruptcy, and a requirement that credit card companies warn consumers of the consequences of making only minimum payments. It is little wonder that Warren, coming off her own political conversion from being a Republican, would view Biden as everything wrong with the Democratic Party.

But even all this paled in significance compared to a virtually ignored vote Biden cast at the close of the 1990s. After Citigroup was formed in 1998 out of a merger that was, strictly speaking, illegal, Robert Rubin — Clinton’s former Treasury secretary who, unbeknownst to anyone, was in talks for an executive position at the new bank — worked his influence in concert with Citi lobbyists and Clinton’s banker-friendly advisers to retroactively legalize its creation. They did so through a bill repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law separating commercial and investment banking passed to prevent another epochal crash. Voting against it in the House, Bernie Sanders warned it would lead to “more mega-mergers” and the “further concentration of economic power in this country.” Biden, once more with a unanimous GOP and a large contingent of Democrats behind him, voted to make it law.

“’I think we will look back in ten years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past,” Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said after the vote. “That which is true in the 1930s is true in 2010.”

Reigniting the War on Crime

Just as in the 1980s, there was one aspect of the federal government and its purse strings where Biden’s budget-cutting obsession not only didn’t apply but went in the opposite direction: crime and drugs.

The end of that decade set the pattern for what followed. In September 1989, President Bush had delivered a speech outlining his National Drug Control Strategy, calling for harsher punishments for drug dealers, nearly $1.5 billion toward drug-related law enforcement, and “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors” at every level throughout the country. At the time, the right-wing Heritage Foundation gushed that this constituted “the largest increase in resources for law enforcement in the nation’s history.” Decades on, it’s remembered as a key moment in the escalation of the “war on drugs,” with Bush putting forward an expansive bill based on the strategy the following year.

But for Biden, it was a half-measure. “Quite frankly, the President’s plan is not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand,” Biden said in a televised response to Bush’s speech. “In a nutshell, the President’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them, or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”

Just as Biden spent the 1980s chiding Reagan for being insufficiently pitiless on crime, he would spend the 1990s leading the Democratic Party in an ongoing contest of one-upmanship against the GOP on the issue. The stakes were high. Bush had won the presidency in 1988 by successfully tarring Michael Dukakis, his centrist Democratic opponent, as a wimpy liberal who put law-abiding Americans in harm’s way by being too soft on criminals. Neither Biden nor the rest of the party would let themselves be outflanked on the issue again.

Partisan wrangling over tough-on-crime legislation occupied most of Biden’s time and energy for the first half of the 1990s. Biden and the Democrats tried again and again to pass a major, extreme new crime bill, eager to prove to the voting public they could be just as harsh and unforgiving to criminals as the GOP, if not more so. In 1991, Biden boasted that his much bigger version of the crime bill included the death penalty for no less than fifty-one offenses — five more than Bush’s bill. “What do we have to do, put half the country behind bars?” Bernie Sanders said on the House floor.

“A wag in the newspaper recently wrote something to the effect that Biden has made it a death penalty offense for everything expect jaywalking,” Biden joked.

These efforts were roundly criticized at the time. The NAACP and other groups lobbied against the bill. In a letter addressed to senators just a few days before the vote, three ACLU lawyers called the legislation “far worse from a civil liberties perspective than any that has ever been considered by the Senate.” Lawyers and federal judges — including the latter’s official policy-making body — warned the law would overwhelm the judicial system and widen its already broad inequality. As the different versions made their way to Bush’s desk, the Washington Post condemned them as “rotten” and an exercise “not so much to combat crime as to convince the public that legislators are tough on criminals.”

Occasionally Biden would oppose a particularly extreme Republican measure, though in typical style, only after accepting the premise and watering it down somewhat. So when Republicans tried to get rid of the exclusionary rule — that is, allow the use of illegally seized evidence in court as long as it was illegally seized by authorities in “good faith” — Biden argued forcefully against it on the floor, then put forward a proposal that allowed the use of evidence seized in “good faith” under an improper search warrant. Civil liberties advocates looked on in horror as dubious measure after dubious measure made its way into the bill, while one embarrassed Democratic senator shook his head at the “crass political contest” over who “hated crime the most.” “No one will deny this is an extremely tough bill,” Biden said.

The legislation failed, but only because of the GOP. Its gun control provisions inspired pushback from the National Rifle Association, and Republican senators subsequently blocked it. When that didn’t stick, Bush, afraid of handing the Democrats a win on one of his key issues so close to an election, vetoed it, claiming it was too soft. The process would repeat itself again the following year, when Republicans filibustered that edition because the severe limits it placed on habeas corpus, or prisoners’ right to appeal, weren’t severe enough. “I just can’t believe Republicans would kill a death penalty bill,” said Biden.

By 1993, however, things had changed. Bush had been replaced by Clinton, who, facing down a surprisingly ferocious right-wing campaign, had every reason to make his party look tough on crime. Whispering in his ear was adviser Rahm Emanuel, a right-wing fundraiser who assured Clinton it would poll well. Whispering in his other ear was Biden, who privately urged the president to “seize control of the issue by upping the ante” and demanded “rapid enactment of the Biden/Clinton” crime bill to “maintain crime as a Democratic initiative.”

While Clinton gave the effort his full backing, Biden put his famous skills at Senate wheeling and dealing toward passing what was essentially a conservative Republican bill. On television, Biden offered Texas Republican senator Phil Gramm a deal: if Gramm dropped his opposition to the bill’s gun control measures, Biden would support Gramm’s mandatory minimum sentences, which at least one newspaper described as “vague” and “almost uniformly bad.” This was despite saying that same year: “I think we’ve had all the mandatory minimums that we need. We don’t need the ones that we had.”

In went Trent Lott’s amendment setting up a “three strikes” provision for violent felonies, something Biden had called a “wacko amendment” one year earlier but now voted for despite laying out his concerns about it at length. Same with an amendment to make carjacking a federal offense, potentially punishable by death. Even the extreme things Biden voted against, like prosecuting kids as young as thirteen as adults, didn’t dampen his enthusiasm to get the bill passed.

“There is a mood here that if someone came to the floor and said we should barb-wire the ankles of anyone who jaywalks, I suspect it would pass,” he said in November 1993. “I think we’ve gone overboard already.”

As he explained on the Senate floor, he was fine with what he called “barbed-wire amendments” because while “they make sense and they are useful,” they also didn’t “mean anything of consequence.” The real meat of the bill, he said, was the extra $21 billion being pumped into law enforcement, funded by almost the exact amount of savings ($22 billion) Biden and the rest of Congress had made by approving Clinton’s earlier slashing of the federal workforce. “We are trading, in effect, in this bill, bureaucrats for cops,” he explained.

This was far from an outlier in the Clinton years, when the money cut from public housing and welfare budgets was diverted instead toward building the carceral state. As sociologist Loïc Wacquant pointed out, slicing $17 billion from public housing while lifting prison funding by $19 billion in these years effectively made “the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”

On August 25, the bill cleared the Senate for the final time. “Biden’s relief was obvious,” went one account of the vote. “He gave a thumbs-up sign to a reporter in the press gallery. He chatted with his Democratic colleagues. He stayed unusually quiet in the floor debate. And he smiled. Often.” Dianne Feinstein kissed him on the floor. Maine senator George Mitchell declared him “the one person most responsible for passage of this bill” and “the most effective legislator in the Senate, bar none.” “I hope my mom was listening,” Biden replied.

The bill whose passage Biden and the rest of the Democrats were celebrating like it was V-E Day wasn’t necessarily viewed so favorably outside of Washington. Around the country, newspapers deemed the congressional bidding war that produced it a creation of “hysteria,” pointing out, for example, that mandatory minimums, which had helped to triple the prison population in fourteen years, were disastrous. Even in Washington the feeling wasn’t unanimous, with the Congressional Black Caucus voicing wide-ranging objections. Biden’s own words on the Senate floor described the skepticism: that Congress was simply trying “to show everybody how tough we are.”

Indeed, just as in the previous decade, Biden had actively cultivated this hysteria even while crime had in fact sharply dropped since a decade earlier. When the Justice Department released a 1991 report showing a decrease since the previous year, Biden called it flawed and urged no one to believe “the epidemic of crime in America has been broken.” That same year, he claimed that rural America was “suffering a plague of violent crime, drug trafficking and drug abuse,” even as the per capita rural crime rate was dwarfed by its urban counterpart. He charged that the whole country had just “undergone the worst crime epidemic in its entire history” and that “demographics” — namely, a “growth in violent teenaged gangs” — had led to this “record carnage.” As he steered the bill toward passage, he assured audiences that “the victimization of America is greater than the statistics suggest,” and that FBI figures showing a fall in crime over 1992 were “misleading.”

But as Biden’s private and public rhetoric made clear — and as was widely understood at the time — the legislation had always been about securing political cover. As Biden put it on the Senate floor:

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties.…The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has 70 enhanced penalties.…The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells.…I would like to see the conservative wing of the Democratic Party.

“I hope the president would maybe take the politics of crime out of the upcoming elections,” Biden had said after an earlier version passed under Bush. When the bill finally became law in 1994, he made it the centerpiece of his 1996 reelection campaign, touting it and his support for the balanced budget amendment to the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce, which gave him a standing ovation. When neoconservative commentator Bill Kristol told the GOP leadership to keep attacking Democrats on the crime bill, Biden responded: “I would like to be running and have someone ‘use the crime bill’ against me.” “I hope to God that Bush attacks us on crime,” he said on the eve of the 2000 election. “I think we would eat them alive.”

Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law on a sunny fall day in September, as Biden proudly looked on and a large, bipartisan crowd of officials applauded. By the time Clinton left office, the United States had the world’s highest incarceration rate, and two decades after the bill passed, the federal prison population had more than doubled. Even the bill’s few laudable measures like the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden had pushed for intensely and which motivated even critics like Sanders to vote for it, further fed incarceration rates while doing little to bring down domestic violence — and even exacerbated it in some cases.

It is little surprise that prominent figures involved in the law’s passage would come to regret their roles, including the Clintons and Sanders, who later admitted he was “not happy I voted for a terrible bill.” Not Biden, though. For more than a decade afterward, he touted what he called the “Biden crime law” as one of his proudest accomplishments, claiming as late as 2016 it had “restored American cities.” Perhaps he had a point: evidence suggests that by locking more people away and taking them from the labor pool, mass incarceration artificially depressed official unemployment numbers, letting Clinton and his neoliberal policies take credit for a supposed economic miracle.

But the 1994 law was not the end of Biden’s overzealous crime-fighting efforts. For the second half of the decade, he turned his attention to “juvenile delinquents.”

Warning of a “youth arms race,” he sponsored a bill in 1996 loosening the rules around imprisonment of minors, letting local jails keep juveniles locked up for three times as long in certain circumstances and relaxing the requirement that they be kept “out of sight and sound” of adult inmates. For the next three years, he worked with Republicans and Democrats to write and rewrite a massive juvenile crime bill, which at various times included provisions creating special juvenile “gun” courts, putting $1 billion toward jails for violent juveniles, and building on the 1994 crime bill by generally expanding the size and powers of law enforcement.

What prompted and justified such severe measures was one criminologist’s racist 1995 prediction that the country was on the brink of an outbreak of “superpredators”: fearless, remorseless, violent youth criminals who didn’t know right from wrong. The prediction seemed to be proven true by a spate of school shootings. The theory, which its author later retracted, would become infamous during the 2016 election, when a twenty-year-old video of Hillary Clinton, now the Democratic presidential nominee, espousing the idea ignited outrage. At the time, though, Biden echoed this language, charging that his 1996 bill would apply “very forcefully to that category of children who are predators,” whom he placed in a separate category from “at-risk kids.”

Biden seemed to have a change of heart as deliberations wore on, saying the bill “may be a cure worse than the disease”; warning, uncharacteristically, that tougher sentencing may not actually fix anything; and calling one provision that let police and schools access juvenile offenders’ records “overkill.” Yet he still cosponsored the 1999 iteration of the bill, which had this and many other troubling elements in it, including the central provision undergirding all these efforts: making it easier for prosecutors to try kids as young as fourteen as adults and applying harsh mandatory minimums to them in the process. Despite years of work and progress, and perhaps to Biden’s relief, the bill never made it out of Congress.

Nonetheless, this impulse stretched on into the new millennium, when Biden turned his attention to a drug mostly consumed by middle-class white kids: ecstasy. Declaring that “most raves are havens for illicit drug use,” he introduced a 2002 law that held concert promoters responsible for any drug use at events and treated objects like water bottles and glow sticks as drug paraphernalia. To get the bill passed, Biden reintroduced it numerous times, including once by slipping it into an unrelated bill creating the Amber Alert system.

Where the American People Are

“All the things I had fought for were under siege,” Biden had said in 1996, explaining his decision to run for a fifth term. And he was right. What he left out was that they were in large part under siege by him.

Though at its close many looked fondly back on the decade as one of prosperity and plenty, the 1990s were in fact a disaster for the American working class. Building on the political sea change and economic pain first wrought by Reagan, those ten years saw jobs offshored, government shrunk, hard-won state programs debilitated, and huge numbers of mostly poor and nonwhite people thrown into prison, usually for behavior born out of social and economic circumstances they had little control over. And Biden and an increasingly right-wing Democratic Party bore much of the responsibility.

“It’s the middle class, stupid. It’s the middle class,” Biden said as he fought for that fifth term. “They are the beginning, the middle and the end of the political viability of this government.” Yet the freedom to finally pursue a neoliberal agenda — whether by passing NAFTA, slashing spending, shrinking the federal workforce, or making bankruptcy harder for ordinary Americans — ironically led Biden to hollow out that same precious middle class in the long term, a blow that would come back around frighteningly decades later.

And yet Biden looked back on those eight years with satisfaction. “Clinton got it right,” he said in 2001 when a journalist asked him whether Democrats should run on a populist message or if that risked alienating suburban voters. He went on:

I was one of those guys in 1987 who tried to run on a platform that Clinton basically ran on in 1992. And that is, for a lack of a better phrase, his “Third Way.” It worked. It’s where the American people are. It’s where the Democratic Party should have been.…One of the things I’m most angry about in the [aftermath of the] 2000 election, we’re now renegotiating as a party what the hell our message should be and who we are, when for me it was settled in 1992.

In reality, by the time Biden said these words, centrism had been an electoral failure. Besides Clinton, centrist Democrats who ran away from the New Deal were largely a political failure; presidential candidates cut from this cloth had lost spectacularly throughout the 1980s, closely in 2000, and twice more in pivotal elections after that. It was part of the reason an ever-louder chorus of voices would demand that the party return to the economically populist roots Roosevelt had charted during the New Deal, voices that would be mostly shut out and ignored for another fourteen years.

“First off, they’re wrong substantively,” Biden told his interviewer in 2001. “But secondly, it’s not the way we win elections.…So the idea now, and it’s credible, is that class warfare and populism is the way we should conduct the next election. We do that [and] George Bush will be a second-term President, regardless of how bad a job he may do.”