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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Everybody’s Chum

Joe Biden’s career shows why being a Washington “boys’ club” insider is indefensible…

In 1948, South Carolina segregationist Strom Thurmond ran for president on the breakaway Dixiecrat ticket. Thurmond was furious that President Truman had proposed anti-lynching legislation, the elimination of poll taxes, and the integration of the armed forces. Thurmond declared that there were “not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the n*gger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” The openly racist 1948 Thurmond campaign was lastingly infamous. When Republican leader Trent Lott spoke warmly of Thurmond’s run at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party in 2002, Lott was forced to resign from his party’s leadership. (It takes a lot to become too toxically racist for even the Republican Party to stomach.) Thurmond, however, was unapologetic. He said he had “no regrets” and when asked what he would have done differently during his 70-year career in politics said “I can’t think of anything.

Understandably, then, there were few left-wingers in attendance at Thurmond’s 2003 funeral. There was, however, a warm and affable eulogy from Joseph R. Biden of Delaware. Biden began his tribute to Thurmond by laughing at “a Northeast liberal’s presence here as the only outsider speaking today.” He did not ponder why most liberals were staying away from the funeral of the Senate’s most notorious white supremacist. Instead, he gave a heartfelt tribute to a man he clearly loved, winning over the crowd with his stories of Putting Aside Political Differences. (Biden reportedly “elicited the most laughs, the most muffled ‘wows’ and the most tears” of any speaker at the event.)

Biden explained how, at first, he had been skeptical of Thurmond due to Thurmond’s open racism. But he had come to respect Thurmond’s essential decency:

I went to the Senate emboldened, angered, and outraged at age 29 about the treatment of African-Americans in this country, what everything that for a period in his life Strom had represented. But then I met the man…  I grew to know him. I looked into his heart and I saw a man, a whole man. I tried to understand him. I learned from him. And I watched him change oh so suddenly. Like all of us, Strom was a product of his time. But he understood people. He cared for them. He truly wanted to help.

Biden politely refrained from discussing any of the specifics of Thurmond’s opinions on the “n*gger race,” which might have soured the tone of the event. Instead, he simply said that Thurmond had lived through “change” that “challenged” his “views”:

Strom knew America was changing, and that there was a lot he didn’t understand about that change. Much of that change challenged many of his long-held views. But he also saw his beloved South Carolina and the people of South Carolina changing as well, and he knew the time had come to change himself. But I believe the change came to him easily. I believe he welcomed it.

Biden left out the uncomfortable bits of Thurmond’s record, to the point of making Thurmond sound like a civil rights hero:

This is a man, who in 1947, the New York Times ran a lead editorial saying, “Strom Thurmond, Hope of the South,” and talked about how he had set up reading programs, get better books for separate, but equal schools. This is a man who was opposed to the poll tax. This is a man who I watched vote for the extension of the Voting Rights Act. This is a man who I watched vote for the Martin Luther King Holiday. And it’s fairly easy to say today that that was pure political expediency, but I choose to believe otherwise. For the man who will see, time heals, time changes, and time leads him to truth. But only a special man like Strom would have the courage to accept it, the grace to acknowledge it, and the humility in the face of lasting enmity and mistrust to pursue it until the end.

(Biden seems to think that the separate schools, were, in fact “but equal.”)

Biden concluded by extolling the virtues of putting “friendship” before “partisanship” and the many ways in which he would miss the virtuous genius of his dear friend, whose “powerful and lasting legacy” was a “gift”:

Strom, today there are no longer any issues to debate; there’s only peace, a patch of common ground and the many memories that you’ve left behind… [W]hen partisanship was a winning option, he chose friendship, and I’ll never forget him for it. I was honored to work with him, privileged to serve with him, and proud to call him my friend… [T]he powerful and lasting impact he had on his beloved South Carolina and on his nation is Strom’s legacy, his gift to all of us. And he will be missed… The truth and genius and virtue of Strom Thurmond is what I choose and we all choose to remember today.

Biden’s recollection of Strom Thurmond is moving. But it is also a complete lie. It’s important to examine closely, because it has important implications for Biden’s worldview. There is a myth about Thurmond held in Washington, a myth that Biden helped to perpetuate with his eulogy. The myth holds that while Thurmond was a “product” of the old South, as the South changed, so did Thurmond. The Dixiecrat campaign of the ’40s may have been unfortunate, but as “change” came, Thurmond saw the error of his ways and made amends.

This did not, in fact, happen. The decade after the Dixiecrat campaign, as the Civil Rights Movement took off, Thurmond launched the longest filibuster in Senate history to prevent the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Thurmond was willing to push himself to the point of physical breakdown, speaking on the floor of the Senate for 24 hours, to stop a bill that did nothing more than provide a few basic legal rights to African Americans. In 1964, Thurmond literally attacked and wrestled a fellow senator to the floor in order to stall the nomination of a pro-civil rights government official. He denounced Bayard Rustin’s “sexual perversion,” and when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, Thurmond called it a “tragic day for America, when Negro agitators… can cause the United States Senate to be steamrolled into passing the worst, most unreasonable and unconstitutional legislation that has ever been considered by the Congress.” The next year, he said of the Voting Rights Act that it existed solely because Martin Luther King “must always have an agitation objective lest he end up in the street one day without a drum to beat or a headline to make.” 10 years later, in the 1970s, he affirmed his distaste for the “unfortunate” Voting Rights Act. But if he didn’t change from the ’40s to the ’70s, did he mellow after the Civil Rights era? He did not. He voted against the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 and the Civil Rights Act of 1990. (The latter failed by one vote.) Then, of course, there was Thurmond’s personal conduct. Not only was he an infamous predatory womanizer, but he impregnated his family’s Black maid and refused to publicly acknowledge his Black daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, for his entire remaining life. He had a long time, too: Washington-Williams was in her 70s when Thurmond died. (Thurmond rebuffed her when she asked him to soften his pro-segregation stance, asking her why she would want to go to a Woolworth’s lunch counter. He also devastated her by discouraging her from her dreams of attending a major university, instead arranging for her to get a scholarship to a segregated institution.)

All of this is worth remembering because Joe Biden knows about it, and yet felt comfortable praising Thurmond’s “virtue” and spreading the lie that Thurmond had become a good person. In fact, all that had happened was that after the Voting Rights Act, South Carolinian African Americans could actually vote, threatening Thurmond’s political career, so he “adjusted his behavior to the reality that blacks had become a significant part of his state’s electorate.” He hired a few Black staffers, and voted for Martin Luther King Day, but (unlike, say, George Wallace) he never expressed anything close to actual regret. Biden chose to overlook this. He said he “chose to believe” Thurmond was not acting out of expediency, and “believed” Thurmond “welcomed” the civil rights era. Because there was no evidence that Thurmond greeted civil rights with anything but the most grudging acceptance, Biden had to fabricate an imaginary Thurmond, praising that Thurmond for his commitment to ensuring that Black children got taught to read so long as they stayed “separate, but equal.”

Why would the “liberal” Joe Biden be so friendly with the hard-core right-winger Strom Thurmond? It’s quite simple: From his arrival in the Senate in 1973, Biden has held a romanticized view of Washington politics, one in which clashes of political interests are mere “friendly disagreements” between people who are all fundamentally good. This view has allowed Biden to treat white supremacists as his friends. He has expressed nostalgia for the time when the Senate consisted almost entirely of white men who resolved their problems civilly over a meal:

I’ve been around so long, I worked with James Eastland… Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.

James Eastland, let us remember, degraded Black soldiers who fought Hitler as physically and morally incompetent, said that “racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth” and the “law of God,” and believed that the Mississippi civil rights workers murdered in 1964 were just staging a “publicity stunt” and had gone to Chicago. And Eastland wasn’t Biden’s only segregationist pal. In his Thurmond obituary, Biden tells a story about his “friend” John Stennis. Stennis, when a prosecutor, had sought to execute black sharecroppers who had confessed to murder after being tortured, and was another staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Act and signatory to the Southern Manifesto.

Joe Biden is widely considered a likable man. Genial Uncle Joe, he of Onion stardom and buddy cop fan-fiction. But in Washington, being too friendly can result in indefensible actions. You might be a perfectly nice person, but if those you spend time around are a group of segregationists, then your niceness is hurting people. Sometimes, being friends with one group means throwing another group under the bus. If you are determined never to say anything mean about anyone, and then you are asked to give Strom Thurmond’s eulogy, then you will end up fabricating history. As my colleague Luke Savage notes, if you reach too far across the aisle, you become an apologist for evil. 

In an excellent Harpers summary of Biden’s career, Andrew Cockburn calls Biden the “high priest of the doctrine that our legislative problems derive merely from superficial disagreements, rather than fundamental differences over matters of principle,” the sort who believes “political divisions can be settled by men endowed with statesmanlike vision and goodwill.” Biden constantly talks about the need to “end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart.” He has distinguished himself from the “partisan” Democrats by saying that he doesn’t “think we should look on Republicans as our enemies.” Indeed, his commitment to bipartisanship stretches so far that Biden has been willing to help Republicans defeat their Democratic opponents. Biden accepted $200,000 to give a speech in support of Republican Fred Upton, who was in a difficult fight against a Democratic challenger. (Biden praised Upton as “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.” Upton was re-elected. It is worth remembering this incident the next time someone points out that Bernie Sanders is “not even a Democrat.”)

Biden has told a story that explains his willingness to “cross the aisle” and his close relations with repulsive political figures. Once upon a time, he thought Jesse Helms (another vicious segregationist) was a bad person for opposing an early version of the Americans With Disabilities Act. He assumed Helms didn’t care about disabled people. But then he found out that Helms himself had adopted a disabled son. Since then, Biden said:

Never once have I questioned another man’s or woman’s motive. Because when you question a man’s motive, when you say they’re acting out of greed, they’re in the pocket of an interest group, et cetera, it’s awful hard to reach consensus.  It’s awful hard having to reach across the table and shake hands. No matter how bitterly you disagree, though, it is always possible if you question judgment and not motive.

Nothing better captures the philosophy of the Washington insider. It explains why Biden made a perfect Vice President for Barack Obama. Obama’s political approach was similarly based on the idea that “our” differences are minor compared to our similarities, and together we could set aside partisanship to privatize the school system and cut Social Security. To a certain extent, this philosophy “works”—Bill Clinton did manage to get his agenda passed, because his agenda was crime control, welfare reduction, the “defense of marriage,” and bank deregulation. But while it eliminates “division” it also abandons the entire fight necessary to advance progressive change. You can be everybody in Washington’s best buddy, or you can move the country toward justice, but you cannot do both. This is because there are powerful political figures standing in the way of justice, and the steps you need to take are going to alienate them.

Biden and Helms

Joe Biden’s career is best understood as what happens when a person who is not actively evil decides to prioritize chumminess and conformity over taking difficult moral stands. At every stage, he chose the path of friendliness over courage, resulting in a horrendous and embarrassing record that gives no reason to think he would be a successful president.

From the very start, Biden was making indefensible compromises and standing up for what was wrong. In the 1970s, as my colleague Asher Smith has documented, Biden opposed efforts to racially integrate the American school system. He lamented that busing “has been an issue that has been in the hands of the racists, and we liberals have rejected because ‘If George Wallace is for it, it must be bad.’” Biden proudly said that by breaking with other members of his party on the issue, “I’ve made it—if not respectable—I’ve made it reasonable for longstanding liberals to begin to raise the questions I’ve been the first to raise in the liberal community here on the [Senate] floor.” Biden was plainly appealing to the anti-busing sentiments of his white Delaware constituency—he has previously seemed to almost boast about Delaware’s “slave state” history and Confederate sympathies. Yet he laughably claimed that opposing busing was about “black pride” and identity, since black students didn’t want to go to school with white ones. The sole African American senator at the time, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, did not agree, calling the Biden measure “the greatest symbolic defeat for civil rights since 1964.”

In the 1980s, Biden became a “tough on crime” Democrat. He wrote the first version of the notorious Clinton Crime Bill, even encouraging Clinton to “maintain crime as a Democratic initiative” (which he certainly did). Biden collaborated with (who else?) Strom Thurmond to create the “Biden-Thurmond bill,” which restricted use of the insanity defense (shifting the burden of proof from the prosecutor to the defendant) and abolished parole. Biden “unblushingly cited his and Thurmond’s leading role in enacting laws allowing for the execution of drug dealers convicted of homicide, and expanding the practice of civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement’s plunder of property belonging to people suspected of crimes, even if they are neither charged nor convicted.” He warned of “predators on our streets” that were beyond hope of rehabilitation and simply needed to be cordoned off from the rest of society. By collaborating with the hard right to expand the death penalty, Biden hoped that he could “maybe take the politics of crime out of the upcoming election,” and “warned Republicans that they cannot claim they are tougher on crime than Democrats.” Biden was proud of his role in cracking down on crime, a staffer recalling him saying: “Whenever people hear the words ‘drugs’ and ‘crime,’ I want them to think ‘Joe Biden.’”

In 1991, Biden’s instinct for “balance” governed his handling of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegation against Clarence Thomas. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden allowed Hill to be heard, but also permitted his colleagues to mercilessly attack her, and prevented witnesses that would have supported Hill from being called. (Hill remained deeply disappointed with Biden for this, and he has never been clear on whether he regrets it or not.)

It is in keeping with a questionable commitment to women’s issues. Branko Marcetic documents Biden’s mixed record on abortion rights, including voting for Jesse Helms’ initiative that “permanently barred federal funding for both abortions and abortion research and training.” In the 1970s Biden was a critic of Roe v. Wade, issuing the rather stunning declaration that “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” (Who else does he think should have a say in what happens to her body? Perhaps Joe Biden. A female Democratic fundraiser told Harper’s: “He has a bit of a Me Too problem… We never had a talk when he wasn’t stroking my back.”)

Biden and a “decent guy

There is nothing more “bipartisan” than war, which is why those who speak most about the importance of cross-party cooperation often end up being hawks. Joe Biden proudly voted for the War in Iraq (“I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again”). Not only did Biden vote for the PATRIOT Act that vastly expanded U.S. surveillance powers in the name of combating terrorism, but he claimed to have come up with it himself, saying that it was a duplicate of one of his own initiatives.

“I actually like Dick Cheney. … I can say without fear of contradiction, there’s never one single time been a harsh word, not one single time in our entire relationship.” — Joe Biden (If there has never been a harsh word between you and Dick Cheney, you are failing in your duty to express harsh words to Dick Cheney.) 

Biden has, of course, been a staunch supporter of Israel over the course of his career (he said pro-Israel sentiment “comes from our gut, moves through our heart, and ends up in our head. It’s almost genetic.”), to the extreme point where he took on both the Reagan and W. Bush administrations for being too soft in their Zionism. In the ’80s he tried to “dramatically step up aid to Israel” and eliminate Israeli debt to the U.S., while in the 2000s, he insisted Israel’s extra-judicial killings were lawful and criticized the Bush administration for making Israel “less secure.” When he became Vice President, Biden said that the U.S. would not stop Israel from taking military action against Iran. There is no more bipartisan issue than unwavering support for the Israeli state no matter how many crimes it commits, and Biden could always be counted on to uphold the consensus.

Netanyahu and Biden: “still buddies” and “a friend for over 30 years”

Biden may have been chummy with everyone, but he was especially close with banks. Credit card giant MBNA, based in Delaware, was one of Biden’s biggest campaign contributors. (His son also worked for MBNA.) In the Senate, Biden pushed the “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act” favored by MBNA, which made it harder for debts to be discharged in bankruptcy. Chris Dodd called the bill “one of the worst pieces of legislation of all time,” and Elizabeth Warren battled Biden over it, noting that his “energetic work on behalf of the credit card companies has earned him the affection of the banking industry and protected him from any well-funded challengers for his Senate seat.” Andrew Cockburn explains what made the bill so bad:

This carefully crafted flail of the poor made it almost impossible for borrowers to get traditional “clean slate” Chapter 7 bankruptcy, under which debt forgiveness enables people to rebuild their lives and businesses. Instead, the law subjected them to the far harsher provisions of Chapter 13, effectively turning borrowers into indentured servants of institutions like the credit card companies headquartered in Delaware.

Biden was also “one of five Democrats in March 2005 who voted against a proposal to require credit card companies to provide more effective warnings to consumers about the consequences of paying only the minimum amount due each month.” He helped “defeat amendments aimed at strengthening protections for people forced into bankruptcy who have large medical debts or are in the military,” and “was one of four Democrats who sided with Republicans to defeat an effort…to shift responsibility in certain cases from debtors to the predatory lenders who helped push them into bankruptcy.” But revoking protections for debtors had been a consistent part of Biden’s career, and “as far back as 1978, he helped negotiate a deal rolling back bankruptcy protections for graduates with federal student loans, and in 1984 worked to do the same for borrowers with loans for vocational schools.”

Unfortunately, Joe Biden’s “D.C. chumminess” has characterized his entire career. He has long declined to take morally necessary stands that might alienate powerful people, preferring to be friends with “everybody.” This is only possible, of course, because Biden has not had to encounter the people outside that “everybody”—the Iraqis blown to pieces thanks to his Iraq War vote, the children thrown in prison thanks to his crime bill. People like Biden because he smiles so much, but we should actually be disturbed. Anyone in Washington who can be that happy-go-lucky is not exposing themselves to the human consequences of politics.

The problem here is not Biden’s “bipartisanship.” Sometimes you have to work with people whose values you find repellent. Finding points of common interest is basic political political pragmatism (see the bipartisan Yemen resolution shepherded through the Senate by Bernie Sanders). The problem comes when you get so close to the powerful, and spend so long around them, that you cease to be disgusted by disgusting things. At this point, “friendliness” just means a lack of moral seriousness. To be chummy with MBNA is to be cruel to bankrupt debtors. To be chummy with Mike Pence is to be cruel to LGBT people. To be chummy with Frank Upton means helping him beat his Democratic opponent. To be chummy with Israel is to ignore the murder of Palestinian journalists, paramedics, and activists. There come times when you have to take a stand, when you have to give your answer to that old labor question: Which Side Are You On?

Biden has made it clear that he doesn’t want to think in terms of sides. He tuts “Folks, that’s not who we are” when he “gets criticized for saying anything nice about a Republican.” Fellow Delaware Senator Chris Coons has said that as Biden plans a run for president, “his heart, his mind, and his spirit [are] focused on restoring some of the unity that used to characterize our country and that sadly has not been a part of our last two years.” Unity means trying to get people to be more sympathetic to the rich:

I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble. I get into a lot of trouble with my party when I say that wealthy Americans are just as patriotic as poor folks.

It seems peculiar to say that wealthy Americans are “just as patriotic,” given how quickly they threaten to take their business overseas the moment anyone talks about raising their taxes. But more importantly, when decades of unchecked corporate crime is now threatening the health of the entire planet, talk of “unity” is delusional.

And, in fact, this is the unspoken truth about appeals to “unity.” They’re always dishonest, because they are always selective. Can you unify the fossil fuel companies whose profits depend on destruction with the people who will actually suffer the consequences? Can you unify those who want equal access to good schools with those rich white parents who would kill to ensure that their children don’t have to go to school with poor Black kids? The empathy is usually selective, and it always turns out that somebody is excluded from consideration. In Biden’s case, while he speaks lovingly about the patriotism of the rich, he’s nothing but contemptuous for indebted millennials:

The younger generation now tells me how tough things are—give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it, give me a break.

No empathy? What happened to Affable Uncle Joe? In fact, as with so many “affable uncles,” it turns out that Joe’s chumminess extends only to those who are most like himself. George W. Bush is in the club. The Iraqis that Bush killed are not.

It seems now that Joe Biden is almost certainly running for president. He has told supporters he is planning a run and is trying to raise money. It is unclear how he will pitch himself, though based on his talk about restoring moderation and respect, it seems as if he will try to run as Obama’s heir. Biden has previously said that “[Bill] Clinton got it right” with his 1992 platform and that the “Third Way” “worked” and is “where the American people are at,” rejecting “class warfare and populism.” Personally, I do not think this kind of politics can be defended morally. Anyone who thinks about the lives of debtors, prisoners, and victims of war, will see something grotesque in Biden’s amiable smile. 

But beyond the question of whether it is right to be this way, it is doubtful whether it is even pragmatic. Perhaps in 1992 this would have been good Democratic politics. But in 2020, Democratic primary decisions need to be made on the basis of whether they will help defeat Donald Trump. Trump is a man who won’t hesitate to run to a candidate’s left when convenient: He will have no trouble criticizing Biden’s Iraq war vote, ties to banks, and tough on crime posturing. And Biden will have a difficult time responding, because these charges are true. Trump won in part because people really hate D.C. insiders, and nobody better embodies the term than Joe Biden. He came to the Senate during the Nixon administration, and his hands are all over every bad and off-putting Democratic compromise of the last 40 years. Inevitably, Biden will run as the pragmatic candidate, but in practice, against Trump, he may be disastrous.

Ultimately, the Biden approach to politics is a bankrupt one. If you’re all smiles and flattery, you are not really committed to a set of progressive political values. We do not need leaders who want to be everybody’s friend, we need leaders who know who their friends are and in whose interest  power needs to be exercised. You may like Joe, but he’s not a political leader. You can’t be everybody’s chum.

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