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Jacobin - April 25, 2019

Joe Biden is running for president. After a contrived, months-long will-he-won’t-he, the former vice president finally announced today, officially entering the 2020 Democratic contest as its front-runner after a rocky lead-up.

Despite the goodwill and name recognition among Democrats won through eight loyal years at Obama’s side, Biden — whose last two presidential campaigns spectacularly crashed and burned and unspectacularly petered out, respectively — will find this time around much harder going. The reasons for that are also the reasons why Biden is uniquely ill-suited as a leader in the current moment.

If Biden has an ethos, it’s an antiquated, anachronistic centrism, not even focused on finding a pragmatic middle that most of the public can get behind, but on “reaching across the aisle.” In other words, somewhere between centrist Democrats and an increasingly far-right GOP lies the sensible, moderate, center-right voter that he believes populates the country.

Nothing epitomizes Biden’s politics better than the speech he gave in 2011 at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, named after the Republican Senate Minority Leader who had at that point just finished up historically routing Biden and the administration he served. McConnell, who had candidly admitted his top goal was making sure Obama was “a one-term president” unless he did the GOP’s bidding, had turned a sixty-vote Democratic supermajority into an unavoidable necessity, stifling Obama’s legislative agenda and even slowing economic recovery to produce the Democrats’ “shellacking” in 2010. He then used this as leverage to get one of the most lopsided legislative “deals” in memory, trading the extension of unemployment insurance for the continuation of tax cuts for the rich, a markedly lower estate tax, and other giveaways that infuriated Democrats.

Three months later, Biden warmly celebrated McConnell and his success at having crushed the Democrats at their moment of historically rare political power. He painted the tax giveaway, which House Democrats angrily rebelled against and even Obama compared to negotiating with hostage-takers, as a textbook example of effective bipartisan compromise. And he reminded the audience about the essential unity of those who ran the government: whether they were liberal or conservative, Tea Party or Blue Dog, “they all ran for office because they love their country” and “because we basically all agree on the nature of the problems we face.” McConnell had bulldozed Biden’s house, and Biden sent him a gift hamper.

But Biden’s delusions about how the institution he had spent most of his adult life serving in functions is just one part of the story. Biden is a Third Way Democrat with a seemingly congenital aversion to anything that smacks of populism, at least of the left-wing variety. With a career in politics forged mainly in the “long Reagan era,” Biden has built up an image based on loudly shunning and bucking “liberal special interests” — that era’s code word for civil rights activists, unions, women’s groups, and the poor. As he told the National Journal in 2001, the Clintonite Third Way is both “where the American people are” and “where the Democratic Party should have been.” Resorting to “class warfare and populism” will only hand power to Republicans.

Of course, now that Biden is preparing to run on Obama’s legacy, he will tell you that he’s always been the darling of liberal groups. “The traditional judgements of whether or not you were, quote, a ‘liberal,’” he recently said, was “what your positions on race were, on women, what’s your position on LGBT community, what’s your positions on civil liberties. You know, I’ll stack my record on those things against anybody who’s ever run, who is running now, or who will run.”

The trouble for Biden is, his record on all of these matters and others isn’t particularly great.

... Biden also spent the 1990s voting for a string of neoliberal policies: NAFTA, one of the most devastating political defeats for unions in recent memory, and one where Biden was a crucial vote that switched to help it pass; the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, which he had earlier decried as “mak[ing] Herbert Hoover’s economic policy a constitutional mandate,” a claim that if anything understates the case; Clinton’s appalling welfare reform; and the repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall prohibition on banks engaging in risky securities dealings. He did this all while moaning endlessly about excessive government spending.

Not long after the turn of the twentieth century, Biden enthusiastically voted for the greatest foreign policy disaster of the twenty-first: the Iraq War (“I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again”). It was the worst of a pattern for Biden, who backed Margaret Thatcher’s war in the Falklands and was one of the key figures pushing for NATO’s eastward expansion in the 1990s, a needless provocation of Russia that the famed Cold War diplomat George Kennan, speaking more than a year before Vladimir Putin took office, presciently denounced as “the beginning of a new cold war.” Biden’s strategy for Afghanistan is indistinguishable from the one the Trump administration is now pursuing, and his “counterterrorism plus” approach — the use of drone strikes and special forces anywhere in the world — became Obama’s anti-terror policy, one that visited death and carnage to a long series of countries and fueled the very threat it was supposed to extinguish. ...
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