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Current Affairs - March 7, 2020

The audio version of this article is availablehere.

The video version is availablehere.

If you are a Democrat, you may be thinking about the presidential primary something like this: Joe Biden doesn’t seem like a bad guy. He was a good Vice President under Obama, and he’s certainly better than the monster we have in the White House right now. Biden may not be our perfect candidate—but who is? Right now the race is between Biden and Bernie Sanders, and Biden is clearly the safe bet. Bernie wants to shake up the whole party and push a radical agenda that Americans aren’t ready for. I agree with Bernie on a lot of things, but it’s time to get serious about beating Trump. Super Tuesday showed that Democratic voters want someone stable and experienced; they don’t want to throw out the “establishment.” Bernie would be a reckless choice. Biden is likable and pragmatic, and we need someone who can end the craziness of the Trump era and return us to a time when things were at least relatively sane. I wish Barack Obama could run again, but he can’t, and Joe’s the closest thing we’ve got. I doubt he’ll be a historically great president, but he won’t be an awful one either, and I think he is an empathetic and well-meaning guy.

If this captures your thinking, I would like you to give me a chance to show that this argument for Biden, while tempting, is ultimately wrong in a very dangerous way. Biden is not what he seems to be, and there are some facts we need to confront. Democratic leaders have tried to conceal that Biden is actually more of an unprincipled political insider than an affable middle-class schlub, but a general election Donald Trump will expose it for all to see. Not only that, but when it comes to “electability,” Biden is weak and vulnerable, and while those weaknesses may be kept out of view in the primary, they will be on full display in the general election—with devastating results. 

I would ultimately like to invite you to come and join with Bernie Sanders, to show you why we who support Sanders see things in such a different way, and to explain why I think you will be proud to have voted for Sanders and helped him become the nominee. I will be grateful to you for listening to me, because this election is an incredibly urgent historical moment and the decision you make could have serious ramifications for many millions of human lives. 

Why Not Biden?

You’ve indicated to me that a big part of your reasoning for leaning Biden involves the desire to beat Trump and a feeling that, out of the two Democratic contenders, Biden is the man best positioned to do it. I am going to give you a very strong argument for why this is not the case, and Biden is not, in fact, the most “electable” of the two candidates. But first, and because it will ultimately be relevant to the electability question, I actually want to start with a different question. First let’s ask: which candidate would we choose if we felt they had the same chance of beating Trump? What if we were just picking the person we thought would make the best president? Who can we trust with power? Who is honest and principled? Let’s compare the candidates on these grounds first, and then I will discuss the ramifications for the “electability” issue. I’ll show why the answer to the question “Who would make the best president?” affects the answer to “Who would make the best candidate?”  

Because you are a Democrat, I assume you believe in things. You deplore racism, sexism, and inequality. You believe that people shouldn’t die because they can’t afford healthcare, you are disturbed by needless destructive wars, you think climate change is real and urgent, and you think Democratic social programs like Medicare and Social Security are vital for keeping seniors comfortable in old age. You think the criminal punishment system can be harsh and excessive, that a woman’s right to choose is paramount, and that corporations shouldn’t take advantage of vulnerable people. Perhaps you wouldn’t describe yourself as a socialist like Bernie Sanders, but you do see how life for working people in America can be brutal and unfair, and you think it’s the government’s job to do something about it. The question, then, is which candidate can be trusted to best live up to your values, address the social problems that concern you, and fight for the things that are right. 

The reason many of us are so turned off by Joe Biden is that, over the course of a many-decade career in Washington, he has let us down on the key issues when it matters most. Joe Biden has shown himself to be fundamentally weak, unreliable, and dishonest. He gets taken advantage of by Republicans, and he seems more interested in making friends than advancing Democratic ideals. Biden, ultimately, is truly “just another politician”: a guy who will give you a warm smile and then sell you out behind closed doors, a person who will make terrible decisions and grubby deals and then cover them up with lies. He adopts a “middle class” image but sucks up to the rich and powerful, and has contempt for ordinary voters and their concerns. He’s a man with little integrity or moral character, whose choices in office have caused a lot of people a lot of harm. 

These are serious charges. I will fully substantiate them. First, let’s look at two of the most important issues a president will have influence on and needs to be trusted to handle well: war and the social safety net. 

Let’s start with Social Security: Biden has reacted angrily to Bernie Sanders’ suggestion that Biden tried to cut Social Security, accusing Sanders of engaging in “dishonest smears.” “I’ve been fighting to protect—and expand—Social Security for my whole career. Any suggestion otherwise is just flat-out wrong,” Biden said. But Biden is lying when he says he never tried to cut Social Security benefits for the elderly. You can even watch him brag about it. Biden has proposed raising the retirement age and eliminating cost of living increases, and has said of Medicare and Social Security that “you’ve got to put all of it on the table.” Ryan Grim and Lee Fang unearthed material from the 1990s proving that senior advocacy groups had “blasted” Biden for siding with the GOP, with an AARP representative saying Biden was endorsing “nothing more than a raid on Social Security’s trust fund.” In fact, not only has Biden called for cuts to Social Security repeatedly over his political career, but he was intimately involved with an Obama administration “fiscal responsibility” effort that would have “back[ed] cuts to Medicare and Social Security despite pushback from some Democrats who opposed touching entitlements.” (Those included Bernie Sanders, who lost friends in Washington by forcefully challenging the administration over Social Security cuts.) This would have real human effects: People would have to retire later, and would have less money to live on in their old age. It’s already tough being elderly in America, but Democrats who join with Republicans to cut benefits in the name of “reducing out of control spending” will make life for the elderly even more difficult.

Then there’s Iraq. In 2003, Biden was “a senator bullish about the push to war [in Iraq] who helped sell the Bush administration’s pitch to the American public,” who “voted for—and helped advance—the Bush agenda.” He was the war’s “most crucial” senate supporter. Biden repeated the myth that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, saying that “these weapons must be dislodged from Saddam Hussein, or Saddam Hussein must be dislodged from power.” The resulting war was one of the most deadly catastrophes in the history of U.S. foreign policy—the Iraqi death toll was in the hundreds of thousands or possibly even the millions, and 4,500 American troops died. And that’s just the dead: countless more were left permanently maimed, to suffer with PTSD for the rest of their lives. For every dead person, there is a family who will struggle forever to get over their loss. This is no trivial issue: In selecting a commander in chief, you want someone who doesn’t launch catastrophic wars of aggression. 

Now, you might be tempted to forgive Biden: Who among us hasn’t made the occasional disastrous decision that caused millions of deaths? But most unforgivably, Biden hasn’t reckoned with or atoned for what he did. Instead, he has simply lied about it repeatedly, because he knows how embarrassing the truth is. “I never believed they had weapons of mass destruction,” he said in October 2004, even though he had told the American people the exact opposite. In this campaign, Biden has been saying things like:

President George W. Bush “got them in, and before we know it, we had a ‘shock and awe.’ Immediately, the moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment.

Biden had to admit to fact-checkers that this was false. He has explained his conduct by saying that he wrongly placed his trust in George W. Bush to use his authority carefully, but the Intercept has reported that as early as 1998 Biden was saying things like “the only way we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein is we’re going to end up having to start it alone.” If you want to understand the anger of the veteran who recently confronted Biden about his record on Iraq, saying he had “blood on his hands,” it’s important to remember that Biden not only provided Democratic support for George W. Bush’s criminal war of aggression, but he has lied about what he did and blamed Bush for his actions. He has been “repeatedly suggesting he opposed the war and Mr. Bush’s conduct from the beginning, claims that detailed fact checks have deemed wrong or misleading.” Biden “got the Iraq war wrong before and throughout invasion, occupation, and withdrawal,” and worse, he did so because of the foreign policy “principles” he now touts as giving him unique diplomatic judgment. Buying the obviously-flimsy rationale for the Iraq War in the first place (while others were loudly opposing U.S. conduct) clearly calls into question whether someone should be put in charge of a vast nuclear arsenal (where they will have to make lots of decisions like these and evaluate evidence). But you also can’t forgive someone for something they’ve done wrong until they fully admit what it was that they did. 

Why would Biden do these things, you might ask? He clearly didn’t desire for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to die, or for old people to suffer. But here’s an important thing to understand about Washington: The worst human consequences of political decision-making don’t come about because of outright malice, but because of indifference, self-interest, and ignorance. Politicians repeat facile dogmas about the need to “control the deficit” or “get tough on Saddam” without thinking about what the real-world effects of their actions are on the people whose benefits are cut and whose country is invaded. Insiders like Biden (who has been in Washington since 1972) are out of touch with what the world looks like for the people their policies affect. They listen only to the opinions of those who surround them, and those people are often self-interested lobbyists and donors. Someone like Biden is more interested in protecting his own position than on how his votes could impact people like you. ...
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