As Biden’s victory for the nomination has become increasingly clear after his collection of endorsements from former opponents and stellar results in the latest primary elections, Democrats are now shifting their focus towards the coronavirus response and Biden’s possible picks for Vice President. Not everyone is convinced, however, that Biden is the safest pick for the nomination.
I wrote in another article why Senator Bernie Sanders was an unattractive candidate for many Warren supporters. Now I will analyze why former Vice President Joe Biden is a huge risk for the Democratic Party as an unattractive candidate among many progressives within the party.
Biden’s Racist Past
Although Biden’s long political career and bipartisanship make him the most experienced candidate for the presidency, it can also be the bane to his candidacy. Despite being the vice president under the nation’s first black president, the most glaring issue with Biden is that he has a well-documented history of working with segregationists and being an opponent to school busing and proponent for the 1994 crime bill, and he is known for his harsh treatment of Professor Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
During the Democratic debates, Joe Biden came under fire over his remarks in which he fondly reminisced to the “civility” of the Senate back in the 1980s by recognizing his work with late Senator James Eastland of Mississippi (also known as the “Voice of the White South”) and Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me.
I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”
Biden was notoriously against busing in the 1970s, even sponsoring a bill to limit the court’s powers to integrating schools and also introduced an appropriations amendment to bar the federal government from withholding funding from schools that were still segregated. This is just the tip of the iceberg for Biden’s long record against busing, but he also took it upon himself to “fight for their cause”, as NBC reported.
Back in 2016, progressives rightfully criticized Secretary Hillary Clinton for her use of the word “superpredators” to describe African American youth to a white audience during a campaign event in the 1990s as her husband President Bill Clinton pushed for a tougher crime bill. As we fast-forward to 2020, many activists are rightfully criticizing the current frontrunner Joe Biden has also used to the term to describe urban African Americans in 1993 on the floor speech to the Senate as a central figure around the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (a.k.a. the 1994 crime bill). It seems that Secretary Clinton received more scrutiny over her comment and her husband’s support of the bill than Joe Biden has as the one overseeing the passage of the bill as the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In fairness to President Clinton and then-Senator Biden, the bipartisan tough-on-crime measures were certainly a campaign effort to end the narrative at the time that Republicans were the only ones tough on crime as the so-called “party of law and order” during a time where violent crime was a contentious campaign issue for voters. However, the bill itself had significant consequences for many black communities already entrenched in a vicious cycle of crime and poverty. The bill and others like it (such as the Comprehensive Control Act and Anti Drug Abuse Act) not only escalated the war on drugs, but it also escalated mass incarceration at state level by imposing tougher minimum sentencing, worsened the bail and plea bargaining system, and funded the construction of more state prisons. Although crime rates did decrease after the passage, it had little effect itself on crime rates due to efforts already underway at local and state level while mass incarceration continued to increase. By focusing on punishment to address crime, the federal government neglected to take into account the root causes of violent crime: the historical socio-economic circumstances that led to the rise in violent crime (but that is an article for another day). The rate of mass incarceration for non-violent offenses and the disproportionate effects on the black community has worsened as a result of harsh state policy metastisized by federal legislation to where we find ourselves today in which the U.S. has nearly 25% of the world’s prison population despite having only nearly 5% of the global population.
It’s also worth noting that tough-on-crime measures were popular among the older generation of black leaders and activists with poor urban neighborhoods because they saw them as necessary to address such significant problems with urban crime in their communities even though they did not agree with everything within the legislation. In fact, in an interview with Slate according to Michael Fortner, professor of urban studies at the City University of New York, “Kweisi Mfume [a congressman from Maryland who served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus] suggested in 1994 that the crime bill might lead to the incarceration of large groups of African American men”, yet he still reluctantly supported the crime bill alongside others.
In Fortner’s telling, the black silent majority’s heightened sense of anger, fear, and despair greatly attenuated the appeal of the so-called “old penology” favored by white liberals (as well as a lingering minority of black voices), which emphasized treatment and rehabilitation over punishment. While Fortner argues that it isn’t quite fair to say that the old penology had failed — to the extent treatment-centered approaches were tried in mid-century New York, they were likely doomed from the start by a lack of funding and improper implementation — once this attitude had hardened, it pushed Harlemites to seek enforcement- and punishment-heavy responses to help stabilize their neighborhoods.
There were, of course, other black political leaders such as Rev. Jesse Jackson who opposed it, with whom Joe Biden has also had a contentious relationship with (Jackson endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders). Despite the criticism and warnings, the Democrats (including Bernie Sanders) at the time passed the measures anyways. President Clinton and former Vice President Biden have apologized yet still defended themselves and the legislation anyway. There are some like Biden that still fail to understand the link between the government’s approach to addressing crime and how those policies have perpetuated into a vicious cycle of poverty in crime-ridden neighborhoods that have been historically marginalized by racial and socio-economic means in the first place.
Another issue that many activists have not forgiven Biden for was his treatment of Professor Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court. Professor Hill had alleged that Judge Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her during her time at the EEOC. She was not the only one, but two other accusers did not testify because then-Chairman Biden failed to call additional witnesses to support her; Biden was also under scrutiny for doing little to defend her while Republicans on the committee attacked her with comments such as questioning if she was a “scorned woman” who “militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights”. Biden has apologized with several non-apologies such as this one that was too little too late.
Perhaps the most telling sign that Biden still has not learned enough from his mistakes are recent problematic statements he has made.
- In the 2007 primaries before he was meant to announce his candidacy for President, he described then-Senator Obama as the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”, which Rev. Jackson described as “highly suggestive”.
- In an interview with the New York Times Editorial Board, he suggested that black parents are reluctant to participate in their children’s education and are responsible for the racial achievement gap.
- He said that “poor kids” are just as bright as “white kids” during a speech in Iowa, implying that most poor children are people of color.
While Biden may have evolved from many of the views and past associations during his long career, his record and comments have made young black voters like myself very uncomfortable with the idea of him being the frontrunner and eventually voting for him in the General Election.
What has been Biden’s saving grace for many black voters is the fact that he was vice president under the first black American president in US history. Since he was a loyal vice president in whom Obama entrusted for two terms, that time as VP has overridden Biden’s past policies and redeemed him in the eyes of many older black voters. Biden tends to do well among older black voters who are more conservative and Sanders tends to do better among younger black voters who tend to be more progressive. Older voters feel that they know him better in comparison to Senator Bernie Sanders, even though Sanders has a considerably better record in racial issues.
I saw this phenomenon myself on the eve of Super Tuesday while canvassing in Tuskegee, Alabama for Elizabeth Warren. Unfortunately for my candidate, from the voters that I talked to, most that had made a decision had already made a decision to vote for Biden. They made this choice based on two reasons:
- They wanted to get Trump out of office to return to a sense of normalcy.
- They felt that they knew him better since he was Obama’s loyal VP, and wanted a return of Obama-esque policies out of nostalgia.
For these reasons, they felt more comfortable with him as someone who seemed more “electable”. They felt that he was the safest choice because of that familiarity and the narrative that Biden has a “bipartisan” record. Biden ended up winning 67.5% of the vote in Macon County where Tuskegee is and 72% of all black voters in Alabama.
As for Obama’s decision to make Biden his running mate in the first place, the prevailing narrative has been that he was selected in order to be able to use his international and congressional relationships to push policies through. Many others like myself believe that he also chose a mainstream moderate candidate like Biden in order to make moderate white voters more comfortable with voting for a black candidate and his progressive message in the 2008 General Election.
Whichever the case, Obama’s vice president has certainly outperformed Senator Sanders on the black vote and is likely to continue as Sanders entrenches himself in the primaries despite his recent losses.
Wolf In A Progressive’s Clothing
During a March 2019 speech to the Delaware Democratic Party before announcing his 2020 candidacy for the presidency, former Vice President Joe Biden told his state’s Democrats “I have the most progressive record of anybody running… anybody who would run.” By December of 2019, Biden aligned himself with Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg as moderates for a public health care option rather than a single-payer Medicare-for-All system, even though the latter is more popular among Democrats. To progressives, the public option does not eliminate the administrative costs to reduce health care costs and big insurers use their political and economic clout at federal and state level to bend the rules in order to remain profitable, as they did with the ACA.
For many progressives within the party, this was only one of many reasons besides his abysmal record on race relations as to why he is an unattractive candidate. As a perceived candidate for the establishment, there are many within the activist wing of the party who assert that by electing an aging moderate candidate like Biden, that the Democratic Party has not learned the circumstances that led to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016. In the view of progressives, Joe Biden represents the corporate establishment of the party that Clinton also represented. It has been the pro-corporate establishment of the party that has bent the rules of the economy through legislation and regulation in order for those rules to benefit the wealthy few and the corporations rather than the middle class and poor.
Progressives are right to think this way. Biden told a roomful of New York donors last summer (in the same fundraiser where he boasted his ability to work with the segregationist senators) that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he was elected and suggested that he may not even raise taxes on the wealthy. CommonsDreams.org gives a comprehensive list of the times that Joe Biden has represented the interests of Wall Street over the interests of most Americans throughout his career in the Senate and how his campaign continues to rely on wealthy donors. According to OpenSecrets, 61.8% of his campaign contributions come from big donors whereas 38% come from small donors (>$200), and he has multiple billionaires as his supporting donors, according to Forbes. He is also funded through super PACs from the financial industries and special interest groups like Blackstone, Raytheon, State Farm, and others. All despite his claim that he “works for you, not any industry”.
One example of how Biden aligns himself with the corporate establishment is how he bent the bankruptcy protections. According to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in his book “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few”, one of the building blocks of the free market and capitalism is bankruptcy law, along with contract law, property law, monopoly law, and how such laws are enforced. As its senator, Biden represented a state that is a domestic tax haven in which big financial industries hold immense weight, and his contributions reflect it. In 2005, he was the Democratic weight behind the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA), which made it harder for middle-class Americans to gain bankruptcy protections and easier for Americans to drown under student loan debt. One of those that opposed him at the time was none other than progressive icon Elizabeth Warren, who was a Harvard Law professor who specialized in bankruptcy law. Her full testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee can be watched here. The BAPCPA, unfortunately, passed with Biden’s support and led to the global financial crisis in 2008 by contributing to the surge in subprime foreclosures, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Biden was one of those that made government protections harder for the middle class without addressing the root cause of why Americans are struggling financially while making such protections easier for big corporations to receive along with corporate bailouts. This is exactly the frustration over this, progressives argue, that led many Americans to turn to a candidate who is anti-establishment. As the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany shows us, when people feel that the government is no longer working for them and that the deck of the economy is stacked against them, they tend to turn towards authoritarian demagogues who offer simple solutions and reforms to complex issues, one of those solutions being proferring up scapegoats. The alternative choice is a figure who offers actual big structural reform if they can consolidate both grassroots and eventually the establishment around them. The latter is why Obama did so well in 2008. Senator Bernie Sanders did well with consolidating much of the grassroots around him (even though he hasn’t been doing as well in this regard in 2020) but was unable to get the establishment on his side, although he had tremendous influence in the new platform for the Democratic Party towards shifting it leftward. 8 years later after the Obama recovery, Americans once again feel that the decks of government and the economy are stacked against them. Since much of the stimulus bailout went to the big banks and corporations, the pay of CEOs and corporate profits soared while the median wage remained stagnant even though productivity rose and unemployment rates dropped, so most Americans did not feel the fruits of the recovering economy trickle down.
As the anti-establishment candidate, it was the consolidation of the grassroots and establishment of the Republican Party that Donald Trump was able to win and maintain the loyalty throughout his presidency. I try to avoid making comparisons to Hitler but Trump used the former avenue of anti-establishment demagogue by stoking up racism through proferring up immigrants as scapegoats to their economic woes while using the latter avenue of consolidating the party by promising to “drain the swamp”. On the other hand, Secretary Clinton had the establishment around her while not doing so well with progressive grassroots as Sanders did, and represented the continuity of the said establishment and its corruption (this is not to say that sexism did not also play a role in this, because it did). In fact, the Burisma scandal threatens to haunt Joe Biden in the general election as Benghazi did for Clinton.
Since it has become increasingly clear that Trump has done the very opposite of draining the swamp, many progressive Democrats and independents are looking for another candidate who is able to consolidate both progressive grassroots and establishment around them. As the candidates for big structural change, Warren and Sanders are the most obvious choices to excite the base and the electorate for structural reform as Obama did. However, Warren was not able to capture much of the progressive wing of the party due to Sanders’ leftover support from 2016, and even Sanders has not done well in turning out his base. After the departures and bending of the knees from Klobuchar, Harris, and Buttigieg, Biden has consolidated the moderate and establishment wing of the party. As Sanders and his campaign continue chugging along, it remains to be seen whether Sanders and the progressive wing will acquiesce around Biden.
For many young progressives and independents who don’t find him particularly inspiring as the progressive standard-bearer and for those who worry about his constant gaffes and mental state due to his age (he would be 78 by the time of the inauguration if elected), many are concerned if he is enough to take on Trump (who also seems to have a declining mental state). Disillusionment with the Democratic Party could threaten the Democrats’ hope in beating Trump in the 2020 General Election, just as it did in 2016. This is why Biden must do all he can to consolidate progressives within the party.
Biden’s Progressive Redemption?
In order to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016, Biden must do everything he can to attract the progressive wing of his party. To his credit, he already has a more progressive agenda than most people think. His platform is very pro-union and collective bargaining, and reduces the influence of big money in politics. He even recently adopted a new criminal justice plan as the antithesis to the 1994 crime bill, and recently adopted Senator Warren’s free tuition plan as well as her plan for bankruptcy reform and student loan relief as the antithesis to the 2005 bankruptcy reform. These shifts are significant because they represent a major evolution in Biden from his role in the 1994 crime bill and 2005 bankruptcy reform.
Whether he can be trusted to keep these progressive promises is another thing, because we have little reason to trust him. Because of his long career on the wrong side of history and for the special interests (not to mention his promise that “nothing will fundamentally change” to a room of big donors), many feel that he may compromise too much to moderate Democrats and the Republicans as Obama had to do with the ACA. Not to mention, many pro-Bernie and pro-Warren progressives are still rightfully skeptical of Biden because of his opposition to Medicare-for-All in favor of the permanent public option.
In order to keep attracting the progressives, he should probably consider adopting Warren’s more realistic plan to implement Medicare-for-All with a temporary public option, a stronger corporate accountability and anti-corruption plan like Warren’s, and the climate change plans from Warren and Sanders. He needs to also work to improve Democrats’ messaging to appeal to both poor urban and rural communities as a modern-day New Deal/FDR Democrat as Warren and Sanders have tried to do in order to attract more voters around him to beat Trump. Democrats must overcome something that is as American as apple pie- distrust in government. We must ensure that we can appeal to people’s hope and meet the expectations so that Americans can have more faith in government once again to work for all that it governs- not just the wealthy few and corporations. We’re taking a huge risk in having Joe Biden as our inevitable nominee, and he must do everything he can to overcome those obstacles.