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Being Against Biden

It is important to oppose him without demonizing him

In early April I published two columns opposing Joe Biden’s entry into the Democratic presidential race, arguing that “he is looking backward at a time when we need to move forward,” and “he offers too little, beyond nostalgia, at a time when much is called for.”

Everything that has happened since his entry has confirmed this judgment. On the one hand, Biden has tripped over a series of hot-button issues — #MeToo, the Hyde Amendment, and now racially coded language — with his unique combination of tone deafness and stubborn self-righteousness. On the other hand, he has said and done nothing that adds anything new to policy debate or enhances the Democratic Party’s ability to mobilize new voters and to reinvigorate itself. In this regard, his entry into the race represents a profound regression in the face of the party’s real mobilizations, and victories, in November 2018.

Biden’s “claim” to the nomination is a simple one: “I’ve been around forever, you know me, I’m decent, I was with Barack, I am not an idiot, and I am not Trump.”

His current cluelessness about the racial and broader identity politics of today’s Democratic Party, to which I will return in a moment, has painfully exposed the thinness of this claim.

But perhaps equally telling is his performance at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention this past weekend. Trying to keep to the seven minutes of time allotted to each Democratic presidential candidate, Biden rushed through a terrible, uninspired speech in which he basically listed a bunch of policy ideas, each of which has been advanced with more vigor by one or more of his competitors. His message was tame, and lame.

As he stepped off stage, he went immediately to be interviewed by MSNBC’s Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton pressed Biden to acknowledge that he had been wrong to speak as he had spoken about his genial dealings with segregationists of yore, and to apologize to those who were troubled or offended by his words. Biden stubbornly refused, insisting that he has always been a supporter of civil rights and his words had been taken out of context. Sharpton later remarked that Biden had squandered an opportunity to speak more clearly to the concerns of those many critics who were deeply disturbed by his nostalgia for the days when he worked together with rabid segregationists to “get things done.” Sharpton was right.

The issue is not whether Biden is a racist nor whether he ever supported Jim Crow. He is not a racist and he has a solid record of legislative support for civil rights (though he also has a record of exaggerating his commitment to the issue). At the same time, Biden’s active opposition to school busing as a young senator is a genuine blight on his liberal bona fides. This is so not because he is or was a racist, but because he was a white centrist liberal who played an important role in the racial backlash politics of the 1970’s that laid the basis for the rise of the right and, ultimately, of Trump.

This is how Jason Sokol sums up Biden’s role, in his very nuanced August 2015 Politico piece entitled “How a Young Joe Biden Turned Liberals Against Integration”:

Gradually, busing plans would peter out. Busing had brought a measure of integration to many urban school systems. But without the strong support of leading liberals, and amid whites’ accelerating retreat to the suburbs, many locales soon ditched their busing plans. Conservatives succeeded in writing the first draft of history, in which busing is cited as the exemplar of social engineering run amok. Biden agreed, and he still does. In his 2007 memoir (titled Promises to Keep), Biden called busing “a liberal train wreck.” Alas, Biden was a product — and a symbol — of his times. He was a liberal in the age of the white backlash and the Reagan Democrats. In order to sustain a long political career, it was often necessary to avoid difficult stands — especially when it came to issues of racial equality. Elected officials drew an important lesson from the busing ordeal of the 1970s: Bold pushes for racial change entailed political death. It was better to abandon them.

Historian Brett Gadsden, in a recent Politico piece, “Here’s How Deep Biden’s Busing Problem Runs,” underscores the extent to which Biden, though important, was hardly alone:

School desegregation, as part of a broader suite of civil rights reforms, was once as a vital component of the Democratic Party platform. Yet since the 1970s, Democrats, in the face of concerted white backlash, have largely accommodated themselves to increasing segregation in public schools across the nation. Party leaders, even the most progressive among them, rarely propose serious solutions to this vexing problem. A sincere critique of Biden’s busing record would require a broader reckoning of the Democratic Party’s — and by extension the nation’s — abandonment of this central goal of the civil rights movement. And it’s hard to see that happening anytime soon…

Buckling to political pressure from his white constituents who wanted to keep things the way they were, Biden established himself as a leading Democratic opponent of busing in the Senate. Concluding that busing was a “bankrupt concept,” he found himself principally aligned with consummate civil rights opponent and GOP Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who was unabashed in his commitment “to put an end to the current blight on American education that is generally referred to as ‘forced bussing.’” Biden joined conservatives and increasing numbers of liberals who were determined to limit the scope of Title VI of Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its prohibition on school segregation and to hamstring the federal government’s power to compel localities — under the threat of withholding federal funds — to desegregate their schools.

Even more troubling is the lengths to which Biden was apparently willing to go in this effort, not simply making common legislative cause with racist Senators such as Jesse Helms, Herman “Hermie” Talmadge, and James O. Eastland, but fraternizing with them and even praising them, as he fulsomely praised Strom Thurmond. Here is what he said at the Strom Thurmond Institute at Clemson University:

I came to the United States Senate. I was a 29-year-old fellow out of the Civil Rights movement, a public defender, and it turns out one of my closest friends ends up being Strom Thurmond, a man whose background and interests, at the time I came, were considerably different than mine.If you had told me when I entered the United States Senate that one of the people that I’d have the closest relationship with in the Senate would be Strom Thurmond, I would have told you that you were crazy. And I suspect maybe Strom would have told you, you were crazy. I’m not just saying Strom and I are close. Anyone who knows the Senate knows how seldom we agree on the controversial issues but how closely we work together. I get along with Strom Thurmond because I respect him. Because Strom Thurmond believes deeply in what he does, and he is a consummate legislator. He understands that this country is made up of 240 million people, the most heterogenous, diverse society in the world, and every point of view has to be accommodated. Every point of view has to be listened to. And every point of view has to have its day. Its day in court, its day in the Senate, its day in the House, its day in the administration. And that’s how he operates.

Watch for yourself:

Biden delivered this encomium to Thurmond in 1988, the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and well into the process whereby the most vital achievements of post-WWII liberalism, engineered under the leadership of the Democratic Party, were being vilified and gutted by the Republican Party of Reagan and Thurmond. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Biden’s words. A fifteen-year veteran of the Senate, he spoke as an institutionalist, a man of the Senate, a man of negotiation and compromise, exactly as he continues to speak, and as he spoke last week with his nostalgic reference to Talmadge and Eastland. There is no racism in these words. But there is falsification of history. His claim about coming from “out of the civil rights movement” is surely a deliberate misrepresentation, designed to exaggerate his anti-racist credentials to make a point about civility but also to rationalize his earlier role in the contentious racial politics surrounding busing and indeed his long friendship with Thurmond. More egregious is his literal and figurative whitewashing of the record of Thurmond, the virulent racist and adamant opponent of civil rights who Biden describes as a paragon of John Stuart Mill-style pluralism or Habermassian deliberative democracy. This falsification serves a purpose: the glossing over of differences, the healing of old wounds, and a certain congratulatory satisfaction in the “progress” that has been made.

The problem with those sentiments then, and now, is simple: the progress was fragile, halting, incomplete, continuously resisted, and in many ways reversed; and while for some white liberals the differences of the past may be things of the past, for those who continue to suffer the consequences of those differences — the consequences of racism — or to be deeply troubled by these consequences, the wounds have not healed. Moreover, it was Biden’s very “friends” — Helms, Eastland, Thurmond, and the rest — who played such a crucial role, first in resisting civil rights and then, via the so-called “Southern strategy,” of moving the Republican Party far to the right. However mannerly and even genteel were these men in their dealings with Biden — and it is certain that they were less mannerly in their dealings with African-American politicians trying to make their way in the Congress of the 1970’s (I doubt that old Strom or “Hermie” ever affectionally put their arms around young John Lewis or Jim Clyburn) — they were political enemies of liberalism whose “accomplishments” helped to reinforce racial inequality and to weaken the welfare state.

This was true in 1988, and it is true now, over thirty years later.

Without Thurmond there is no Trump. But at the same time, without the backlash politics of white ethnics — the politics on which Biden cut his teeth — there is no Trump.

Biden is not a bad man. And he is hardly uniquely responsible for the ways that many liberals succumbed to backlash politics, in the 1970’s and the 1980’s and the 1990’s. Biden is a legitimate heir to and spokesman for this politics, which experienced its high point during the Clinton years, heralded by Clinton’s famous “Sister Souljah moment.” At every stage in the evolution of this politics, Biden has played an important role, less as a leader than as a mediator, moderator and deal-maker.

Perhaps he deserves a kind of “credit” for this, from those many regular Democrats — including many members of the African-American political elite — who have long been aligned with this kind of politics and whose allegiances he seeks now to activate.

But he surely does not deserve credit from all of those who experience what he has helped to create as unfair, unjust, and in need of fundamental challenge and change.

And he just as surely does not deserve to be the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party of 2020. Because his political “achievements” are a symptom of the historic weakening of the party in the 1970’s, its general move to the right and its specific repudiation of a robust politics of equality. And because the party now draws heavily on mobilized constituencies that have no nostalgia for Biden’s glory years.

Biden is not simply a gaffe-prone and inept campaigner whose most recent controversy has created real divisions within his own campaign.

He is a throwback to an earlier time, a time of liberal retreat. And he seems clueless about how much has changed since then, and how little his service as “Barack’s” avuncular, white wingman did to prepare us for the challenges we face.

Jonathan Chait put it well in his recent column:

The most favorable interpretation of Biden’s bipartisanship nostalgia is that he knows he’s peddling baloney, but he’s doing it because people like it. But that seems hard to square with him relying on an example that’s so politically radioactive. If Biden’s just being politically savvy, why is he doing it in such an un-savvy way? The other, scarier interpretation is that Biden actually believes the nonsense he’s peddling. He’s a 76-year-old man, and maybe he shares the inability of many old people to surrender the lessons of their youth. The American political system of today does not resemble the one that fostered Biden’s rise . . . . if he truly believes he can lead the Democratic Party by restoring the bygone habits of the system that bred him, he is unqualified to lead either his party or his country in a transformed era.

This is why it is important to honestly expose Biden’s weaknesses, and challenge his claims of “electability,” and support other, better candidates (my own preference on the issues is Elizabeth Warren; but there are at least a handful of hopefuls who are more dynamic, more appealing, and better suited to leadership, than Biden), who can arguably better tap and expand the energies that brought Democratic victories in 2018, and can run galvanizing campaigns against Trump in 2020.

Biden does not “deserve” the nomination. He deserves to be called out, challenged, and defeated in the primary, because of his troubling stances on the politics of race and gender, because of his ties to Wall Street, and because of his general fecklessness.

But, truth be told, no one can claim to “deserve” the nomination. The nomination must be won, in a protracted primary contest. That is why Biden’s many mistakes and flaws are so important. But it is also why it is important, at every moment, to criticize Biden and at the same time to refrain from demonizing him: because he might just win the primary, in which case he will be the only thing standing between us and another four horrible years of Trump.

That he is currently the “frontrunner” is beyond doubt. It is true that it is still very early in the process, and that his “name recognition” plays an important role in his current status. But name recognition matters a great deal in contemporary American politics, as the success of reality TV star Trump demonstrates. So too does momentum; Biden’s ability to garner attention and change the race by entering it is significant, and a few early primary wins could further cement his lead — one of the reasons he showed up in South Carolina last week. In addition, his candidacy has genuine strengths. One is his appeal to wealthy Democratic donors; whatever one may think of this, donors matter. A second is his appeal to white swing voters, for whom his earlier positions on busing and harsh “criminal justice reform” are not regarded as liabilities (of course the importance of such swing voters in a general election is rightly contested; but that they constitute a potential reservoir of primary support for Biden seems clear). And the third is his support among many African-American political leaders and voters. To be sure, the Black vote is not monolithic, and Biden’s recent comments accentuate his difficulties with younger Black voters and with many female Black voters. At the same time, Biden’s support among African-Americans remains substantial even in the face of some of the stupid and terrible things he has said and recent attention to troubling aspects of his past. While Sharpton, and others, may think, rightly, that Biden performed poorly in South Carolina last week, a recent Politico story offers a more sobering view, that “In South Carolina, Biden Finds Shelter From the Storm”:

The evening served as a reminder of how difficult it remains for any of Biden’s rivals to mount a sustained attack against him. In South Carolina, voters “either don’t know about [the controversy surrounding segregationists], or it doesn’t bother them,” says Antjuan Seawright, the ubiquitous local Democratic strategist who was set to host an after-party at a nearby steakhouse. “People in the bubble are most disturbed by that,” he said. “When you talk to everyday people, it really doesn’t bother them. And that’s the difference between running a real grassroots-focused campaign, vs. an in-the-weeds, in-the-bubble, D.C.-focused campaign.”

Seawright is a political operative who clearly seeks to “spin” things in Biden’s direction. But he speaks for many who are so inclined, and he articulates Biden’s real strength among segments of the African-American community.

It would thus be a mistake to underestimate Biden’s candidacy.

In a very fine recent piece at the Intercept, Naomi Klein wisely urges people on the left to “Forget Bernie vs. Warren. Focus on Growing the Progressive Base and Defeating Biden.” Klein argues that such an effort is necessary both to advance progressive policies and to maximize the chances of defeating Trump in 2020, favorably quoting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said on ABC’s “This Week”: “We have a very real risk of losing the presidency to Donald Trump if we don’t have a presidential candidate that’s fighting for true transformational change in lives of working people in the United States.”

I believe AOC is correct, and this risk is real. But there is also a risk of losing the presidency to Trump again by running a “transformational” candidate against him who may be “right” on the issues but “wrong” on prime-time public relations. I share the sense of AOC, Klein, and many others that the former risk is greater, and that Biden is a particularly weak and lackluster candidate who is unlikely to mobilize new voters. But he might prove himself able to outshine more lustrous or appealing candidates, or simply to outlast them, and to present his “centrist” option as the most persuasive, and compelling, to Democratic primary voters. In that event it will be important for those on the broad democratic left to support him, even as they work to move the party further in a progressive direction, and to lay the basis for a future beyond him.

For this reason, while I agree with Klein that it is important to focus political energy during the primary season on advancing a progressive alternative to Biden, I think it is also important to frame the primary contest less around “defeating Biden” than around advancing a strong and progressive candidate, and agenda, capable of defeating Trump. For while Biden is the intra-party adversary, it is Trump who is the partisan and ideological enemy, of the Democratic party and of constitutional democracy itself. It is thus important to avoid misleading and clickbaity titles like the one affixed by the Guardian to a recent piece by Bhaskar Sunkara: “Want to defeat Trump? Attack Biden.” In my experience, this title speaks to real inclinations among some — not all! — on the millennial left, who are understandably impatient with politics as usual and particularly impatient with old guard politicians like Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer seeking to school them about the virtues of moderation. But such rhetoric does an injustice to the actual argument presented by Sunkara, who seems attuned to the concerns I am raising:

Many progressives are understandably fearful that attacking the presumptive frontrunner might weaken him and give Trump ammunition for the general election. But challenging Biden’s record is important. For example, his core base of support — older Democrats — needs to know what an unreliable defender of Social Security and Medicare he is. By challenging him on his record, especially in the eyes of older, traditional Democratic voters, progressives could break the myth of Biden’s “electability”. (A strange trope given that Biden has tried and failed to be a presidential nominee since the 1980s.)

Although he seems to believe so, a Biden victory is not preordained. He could conceivably get edged out by a candidate, like Sanders, bold enough to offer a genuinely alternative vision for America — not just shielding us from the nightmare of Trump, but providing us with aspirations for the future.

Even if Sanders loses the primary, this strong anti-Biden stance might force the Democratic party to adopt more progressive positions that would actually help its chances against Trump. Not only is Medicare for All popular, but 60% of Americans support free college and a majority back a jobs guarantee. Big ideas to solve our social problems — and efforts to make the rich pay for them — are popular. Whoever challenges Trump will need to start adopting them.

Sunkara makes clear that it is Biden’s record that warrants criticism; that the overriding purpose of such criticism should be to shift the political agenda in a way that can mobilize a Democratic majority in 2020 and beyond; that it is an open question which candidate will carry this agenda into the 2020 presidential election; and that while Biden’s victory is not “preordained,” neither is his defeat. In other words, it is important to challenge Biden’s candidacy now in a way that avoids acrimony and leaves open the possibility of rallying behind Biden in the general election.

Biden is far from the most appealing or galvanizing candidate in the race. While his long career of public service may be a source of pride for him and many of his supporters, his brand of liberalism-in-retreat, and his willingness to compromise on questions of racial equality, gender equality, and economic equality, place him in tension with a future-oriented Democratic party and with the demands of our time. I wish he had never entered the race, and I wish he would now go away. But he did enter, and he will not go away, and he has many supporters, and he might win the primary.

And so he ought to be criticized, harshly when appropriate, but not demonized. Because he is no demon, and also because he might turn out to be the only person that stands between us and the orange authoritarian currently occupying the White House.

Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.

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