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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.
Just look at Biden’s stances on healthcare. Health insurance industry stocks have jumped thanks to Biden’s recent success in the primary, and early on it was reported that the industry seemed “to see Biden as their best chance to stop Sanders, or Warren or any of the other Medicare-for-all supporters.” It’s not surprising: Biden has promised to save their profits, while Bernie Sanders has said that healthcare financing should not be conducted by a for-profit industry in the first place. But the insurance industry makes those profits by denying people care and squeezing as much money as possible out of the sick and vulnerable.
I don’t need to remind you that many people die or go broke because they can’t afford treatment. But as policy analyst Matt Bruenig has noted, not only will Biden’s proposal—to the extent one can understand its confusing provisions—“cause enormous amounts of insurance churn and instability, further immiserating people when they face hardships like loss of job, loss of spouse, loss of Medicaid due to income increase, and every other negative life event,” but it “does not even aim to provide universal insurance coverage,” leaving millions uninsured. As Bruenig notes, this could lead to well over 100,000 unnecessary deaths per year, real people who will die because Biden wants to protect the industry that profits off those deaths. There’s absolutely no need for this: “Medicare For All” is a sensible, pragmatic, fiscally responsible proposal that would make sure nobody ever goes without insurance again. But Biden has chosen to spread right-wing lies about it, and even his most ambitious proposals (presuming he chooses to fight for them and they don’t get watered down and compromised) will leave you vulnerable in ways you wouldn’t have to be if you had, like other countries do, a national health insurance plan that covered everyone.
Biden’s willingness to do the bidding of the rich and powerful in ways that hurt ordinary people has extended across many areas, and makes his claim to be an ambassador for the “middle class” seem sick and perverse. Consider his relationship with the finance sector, which invested millions in him. As good government advocate Zephyr Teachout has written, “‘Middle Class’ Joe has perfected the art of taking big contributions, then representing his corporate donors at the cost of middle- and working-class Americans.” He “supported banking industry consolidation and Too Big to Fail Banks” and “supported the elimination of protections that limited Wall Street speculation.”
As Teachout notes, while “bankrolled by the credit card industry… [Biden] delivered for it by spearheading a bankruptcy bill that made it harder for Americans to reduce their debts and helped cause the financial crisis.” The Consumer Federation of America said that he “provided a ‘veneer of bipartisanship’” to stripping bankruptcy protections “that eventually helped the credit card companies win over other Democrats” and Biden “provided cover to other Democrats to do what the credit industry was urging them to do.”
That bankruptcy bill led to an infamous clash between Biden and Elizabeth Warren, who was then a law professor specializing in consumer bankruptcy issues. Warren was scathing of the way Biden wanted to make it harder for poor people to get out from under crushing debts and start fresh, and concluded that “senators like Joe Biden should not be allowed to sell out women in the morning and be heralded as their friend in the evening.” In a scathing New York Times op-ed, Warren did not hold back:
Do politicians like Mr. Biden who support the bankruptcy bill believe they can give credit-card companies the right to elbow out women and children so long as they rally behind an issue like abortion? The message is unmistakable: On an economic issue that attracts millions of dollars of industry support, women have no real political importance.
As GQ reporter Luke Darby put it, in times of economic downturn “millions more Americans could end up struggling with mountains of debt than they would otherwise had Biden not fought so hard to strip them of bankruptcy protection.” Biden, who touts his loyalty to Obama as a key asset, even “went against Mr. Obama to help defeat amendments aimed at strengthening protections for people forced into bankruptcy who have large medical debts or are in the military.” Biden also helped to kill an amendment that “would have stopped corporations from “judge-shopping” and going to the most-friendly venues for their bankruptcy case.” Biden “was one of four Democrats who sided with Republicans to defeat an effort, supported by Mr. Obama, to shift responsibility in certain cases from debtors to the predatory lenders who helped push them into bankruptcy.”
But it wasn’t just the bankruptcy bill. Biden also “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.” 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.” And there was a corruption angle, too: The New York Times reported that “during the years [Biden] was helping the credit card industry… his son had a consulting agreement that lasted five years with one of the largest companies pushing for the changes.”
In 2008, when Biden was nominated to be Barack Obama’s vice president, progressive commentators accurately saw it as a sign of Obama signaling to corporate interests that he had no intention of threatening them. Glenn Greenwald wrote that “Biden is a reliable supporter of virtually every prevailing bit of conventional wisdom within the American elite political consensus, which is why his selection has been widely praised by the establishment, whose principal concern is that their fiefdom not be disrupted and that their consensus not be challenged.” Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted ruefully: “the bottom line is that Biden’s shameless kowtowing to the credit card companies won’t hurt him or Barack Obama. The only ones getting hurt are you and me, and that poor struggling family at the kitchen table.”
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This is only the start. We can go through almost every issue that has mattered to progressive Democrats over the last several decades and find that Joe Biden’s record on it was disappointing at best and scandalous at worst.
- Women’s rights and reproductive justice — Since 1974, when Biden gave the rather shocking quote that he “didn’t think a woman had the sole right to say what happened to her body,” Biden’s record on women’s issues has been deeply disappointing. In the 1980s, he voted to let states overturn Roe v. Wade, which the National Abortion Rights Action League said was “the most devastating attack yet on abortion rights.” In 2006, Biden described himself as an “odd man out” among Democrats on abortion because he held a more conservative position than Planned Parenthood/NOW, and said he “did not view abortion as a choice and a right.” Instead, abortion was “always a tragedy” and “we should be focusing on how to limit the number of abortions.” In 2019, he was still saying he supported the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding of abortion, which Toni Van Pelt, head of the National Organization for Women, called a “shocking,” “unacceptable,” and “unsupportable” position. The NOW president did not mince words: Anyone without clear opposition to Hyde “should consider leaving the race… the girls and women of our nation deserve better.” Last year, Biden’s spokesman “declined to detail Mr. Biden’s current views on specific policies he once supported, including banning all federal funding for abortion services and research.” Finally, Biden succumbed to pressure and reversed his position, having had to be forced by decades of activism. (We also cannot discuss Biden’s record on women’s issues without mentioning that he has a long history of making women deeply uncomfortable by violating their personal space, sniffing them, stroking them, and rubbing them. Eight women have accused Biden of inappropriately touching them, and in response Biden has literally said he is “not sorry for anything that I’ve ever done.” I do not understand how there is any world in which this is not immediately disqualifying, and we can expect to see quotes in TV ads like “I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me,” and “I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth… He was the vice president… I was a nobody,” and “It doesn’t even really cross your mind that such a person would dare perpetuate harm like that.”)
- Criminal Punishment — The American criminal punishment system is hideously unjust. The “freest” country in the world has the most people locked up per capita—2.2 million total. Biden contributed significantly to that problem. He was one of the key Congressional figures in refashioning the Democratic party as a “tough on crime” party. Biden collaborated with unrepentant segregationist 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 juvenile “predators on our streets” who “warrant exceptionally, exceptionally tough treatment,” suggesting they were beyond hope of rehabilitation and simply needed to be cordoned off from the rest of society. Biden collaborated with the hard right to expand the death penalty, boasting that “the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties.” Indeed, people did get sentenced to death because of the law Biden himself wrote. 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.’” He 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.” It’s often said that Democrats in the 1990s who led the crime crackdown were responding to a genuine crime wave, which is true, but Biden went far beyond the others. He was truly vicious. Biden promoted measures that “created more heavily armed police forces increasingly focused on locking up people for minor drug crimes.” Citing ecstasy use, Biden called for “stiff criminal penalties for anyone who had a rave,” demanding rave venues be bulldozed and proprietors be put in jail. This is sheer madness (and it comes from Biden’s more lucid years). As late as 2010, Biden was saying of marijuana “I still believe it’s a gateway drug… I think it would be a mistake to legalize” though he now gets annoyed when people try to hold him responsible for the consequences of this belief. (He has flip-flopped during this campaign over whether marijuana may be a gateway drug.) As criminal punishment historian Naomi Murakawa put it, “There’s a tendency now to talk about Joe Biden as the sort of affable if inappropriate uncle, as loudmouth and silly… But he’s actually done really deeply disturbing, dangerous reforms that have made the criminal justice system more lethal and just bigger.” Let’s remember: “mass incarceration” is not just an abstraction, something vague and far away. By locking tens or hundreds of thousands of people in prison to serve his political career—people who would have otherwise been free—Biden has caused indescribable pain. In the U.S., a prison sentence makes it almost impossible to live a fully normal life afterward. This system has robbed children of their parents, mothers of their children. It tortures people and makes them kill themselves. It’s a horror, and instead of repairing it Biden threw more people into it.
- Civil Liberties — Biden voted for the infamous PATRIOT Act, which he called “measured and prudent.” In fact, “he would have liked it to go further, regretting that measures handing police more extreme powers had been removed,” and he has even bragged that the PATRIOT Act was based on a bill he himself wrote long before 9/11, but hadn’t been able to get through thanks to the opposition of civil liberties groups. Biden says John Ashcroft told him of the PATRIOT Act “Joe, I’m introducing the act basically as you wrote it in 1994.” Branko Marcetic documents Biden’s role in eroding civil liberties in the 1990s as well, by proposing measures that civil liberties advocates said would “erod[e] constitutional and statutory due process protections,” and extend “some of the worst elements of crime bills of the recent past.” Biden even said it was “time to revisit” the centuries-old ban on using the military for domestic policing, which was meant to prevent the rise of an authoritarian state. Biden, citing the government’s need to efficiently fight terrorism, pushed for increased government wiretap power and reduced accountability for law enforcement, and he voted for a bill that gutted federal habeas corpus protections, the “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,” which has been called “surely one of the worst statutes ever passed by Congress and signed into law.” Marcetic writes that Biden has “proven himself a reliable supporter of an ever-expanding national security state during his time in Congress” and that Biden’s bill “mandating that tech companies create ‘back doors’ in their products for law enforcement to snoop through… so alarmed one programmer, it spurred him to develop email encryption.”
- Immigration — The Obama administration deported hundreds of thousands of immigrants, more than any other administration, a process that tore countless families apart and has served as Donald Trump’s go-to rationalization for his own brutal immigration policies. Biden has sometimes simply lied about this and pretended it didn’t happen. The Obama administration misled the public about what it was doing, and reports concluded that “contrary to Obama’s avowed policy, a huge part of ICE’s enforcement efforts resulted in the separation of families, and a much smaller portion went toward deporting people who posed legitimate public safety threats.” For countless children, this meant “pain and trauma [that] stunts their growth and development.” Under the administration Biden served in, “the budget for immigration enforcement jumped at one point to a staggering $18 billion annually, more than all other law enforcement agencies” combined. Splinter’s Natascha Elena Ulmann documents Biden’s horrific record on immigration over the years and the impact it had on immigrant communities. Biden “voted to uphold an HIV travel ban that authorized the indefinite detention of Haitian refugees despite a wave of public sentiment in their favor.” He “called for a crackdown on employers who hire “illegals” and fought against driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.”
- Climate change — Since I am assuming you are a Democrat, I’m going to assume you accept the scientific consensus on climate change: that is, you agree that it’s a fucking emergency and we need immediate national action to curb emissions and prevent future catastrophe. Congressional Democrats have so far considered climate change a secondary priority, to the point where one wonders if they are even serious about it at all. If we are serious about it, we need a president who has the necessary sense of urgency and the political will to get things done. But climate activists have been consistently disappointed by Joe Biden’s lackadaisical approach to the greatest challenge of our time. It shouldn’t be that surprising: Biden’s campaign is stuffed with fossil fuel executives. His climate adviser is a former board member of natural gas company Cheniere Energy, one of his fundraisers co-founded natural gas company Western LNG, the pro-Biden Super PAC has a former gas lobbyist on its board, and his national campaign co-chair, Cedric Richmond, “has one of the most pro-industry voting records on fossil fuel issues among all congressional Democrats.” And as many know, at one point Biden’s son Hunter was being paid tens of thousands of dollars a month to serve on the board of a Ukrainian fossil fuel company. This is troubling, because in order to combat climate change, we’re going to need to take on the industry; their continued profits are in conflict with the needs of humanity. But how likely is someone to effectively challenge an industry, when those close to him are tied to it? It’s very likely that Biden will be talked out of doing anything that could seriously threaten the financial interests of those in his circle. Sure enough, Biden’s original climate change plans got a D- from Greenpeace (he quickly reversed course and the grade was improved), and the Sunrise Movement’s climate plan ratings show his proposals falling well short of Sanders’. The MIT Technology Review says Sanders and Biden have “sharply contrasting visions” on the scale of what needs to be done and the speed with which it must occur. Biden’s approach to politics, which emphasizes compromise and incremental steps, is simply deadly and irresponsible when there is an actual crisis facing us. Crises demand ambitious, energetic, and sometimes “divisive” action, of precisely the kind Biden seems disinclined to ever take.
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On issues like war, economic policy, climate change, and healthcare, Biden would almost certainly do the bidding of the powerful in ways that hurt ordinary people around the world. He does not have the kind of record that should lead us to think he deserves the honor of the Democratic party nomination. In fact, I can’t think why any Democrat should want to vote for him. Biden himself, upon first getting elected to office, said:
“When it comes to civil rights and civil liberties, I’m a liberal but that’s it. I’m really quite conservative on most other issues. My wife said I was the most socially conservative man she had ever known. … [W]hen it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother.”
As we’ve seen, this is not true: He is not even a champion of civil rights and civil liberties. But he was honest about his general orientation. Biden is not a progressive. (Later, he would become less forthright about this, simply misstating his voting record and pretending to have been more liberal than he was.)
But I also want to talk about Biden’s character and values. It’s not just that he’s bad on the issues: It’s also that he’s a sleazy and dishonest person, the kind who should not be rewarded with a position of extreme trust like the presidency.
It’s always worth remembering that Biden had to leave his first presidential race in disgrace, because he was caught copying his speeches directly from a British Labour leader (including not only mimicking his gestures, but lifting references to the leader’s wife and his coal mining background—Biden said he was the first in his family to go to college, which was true of the guy who wrote the speech but not of Biden!). The scandal was compounded by a lie that he had finished in the top half of his law school class when he had finished near the bottom, and his having plagiarized his academic work in law school. Lies like this may seem small in the age of the Grand Trumpian Lie, but they are real red flags about a person’s character: If Biden can so easily say things about himself that aren’t true, and do so convincingly and with that warm smile that makes you trust him, what else might not be true?
Well, a whole lot: At various points over decades, Biden literally fabricated an entire fictitious career as a civil rights activist. He told audiences he “participated in sit-ins to desegregate movie theaters,” when he did no such thing. Recently he told a black audience an extremely specific story about his involvement in the civil rights movement and his anti-segregation activism. It appears to be entirely made up. He did this over and over, as Shaun King documented. (King’s report is devastating and it’s shocking that it hasn’t gotten more media attention.) Biden said that he was arrested in South Africa on his way to see Nelson Mandela, which also wasn’t true. Lies like this are an insult to the people who actually did put their lives on the line during the Civil Rights and anti-Apartheid struggles, which Biden could have participated in but chose not to. Pretending to have been a civil rights hero is like pretending to have been a decorated soldier: People are honored for this work, and fakers like Biden are trying to take that honor for themselves without having done the work.
The South Africa lie was recent, meaning that Biden is still doing exactly the sort of thing that he was forced to drop out in 1988 over. It’s not clear why this time the press has decided not to care, because the underlying conclusion should be the same: This is a person who is not honest enough to be the Democratic nominee.
Biden has lied about matters large and small. He claimed, without evidence, that the other driver in the car crash that killed his wife and daughter had been drunk, leading the man’s family to call on Biden to apologize for publicly smearing him. When confronted about his terrible record on abortion by the New York Times, Biden’s “response was to lie about his well-documented record,” by saying he was on the opposite side of the one he was actually on. A Biden delegate defended his South Africa arrest lie by saying that “everyone does” this. But that is not the case. Only incredibly dishonest people do it.
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Character is about more than telling the truth. It’s also about knowing which side is right. Bernie Sanders is often criticized for “not being a Democrat”—he’s an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Joe Biden frequently contrasts himself with Sanders by emphasizing his pride in his party affiliation. But in fact, perhaps no Democratic politician has done more to cozy up to and help Republicans—and excuse their wrongdoing.
Biden’s cozy relations with, and endless excuses for, the worst right-wing Republicans, have been documented extensively in both this magazine and Branko Marcetic’s excellent Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. Marcetic takes us back to the 1980s, when in keeping with his benefit-cutting philosophy, Biden said “the election of Ronald Reagan is more consistent with the budgetary thrust that a guy like me . . . has been going for for the past few years.” Indeed, he voted for the Reagan budget that saw “scores of federal programs for health, education, and social services drastically cut back, weakened, or outright eliminated.”
The cuts threw countless lives into chaos, with 270,000 public service workers losing jobs, more than 400,000 families thrown off the welfare rolls, and more than one million workers ineligible for extended unemployment benefits, just to name a few. The Reagan onslaught marked “the reversal,” wrote the Washington Post, “of two great waves of government intervention, the New Deal and the Great Society,” a verdict shared by lawmakers on both sides of the issue.
Biden also voted for Reagan’s tax cut, which Marcetic calls a “lopsided giveaway to the very richest that led almost instantly to ballooning deficits and widening economic inequality,” and pushed for the reduction of federal spending on social goals, saying the government should be “less involved in direct social questions like day care, education or health.”
Personally, I am quite cynical about Democratic legislators, but even I was shocked when I began to look into Biden’s history, which included partnering with and making excuses for outright racists like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. As Norman Solomon notes, Biden “spouted white backlash rhetoric, used tropes pandering to racism and teamed up with arch segregationists against measures like busing for school integration. As I noted in my article :
In the 1970s… 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.”… The sole African American senator at the time, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts [called] the Biden measure “the greatest symbolic defeat for civil rights since 1964.”
Asher Smith notes that Biden joined with Jesse Helms—a man who called every black man he met “Fred”—on a measure that would have prevented “the Justice Department from bringing desegregation lawsuits that could result in court-mandated busing.” Whatever you think of the efficacy of busing in achieving civil rights gains, it was not defensible to partner with segregationists to lift the George Wallace agenda and claim it for the liberals. One of the major problems with what Biden did is that he sanitized the legacy of his white supremacist friends, portraying them as good people who had atoned when they clearly hadn’t; they had just morphed from open racists to advocates of “tough on crime” policies and “states’ rights.” I noted when I wrote about it last that when you do this, you dishonor the victims of white supremacy, and that acting as a friend to people who oppress others means acting as an enemy to the oppressed.
That’s precisely what so horrifies me about Biden’s warmth toward Dick Cheney: “I actually like Dick Cheney, for real… I get on with him. I think he’s a decent man,” Biden said. Cheney was the architect of a criminal war of aggression and oversaw the construction of a torture regime. To call him “decent” is to erase his victims and bury the truth. And if that weren’t ludicrous enough, Biden once presented George W. Bush with a “liberty medal,” praising him effusively. (Cheney, for his part, said he would “love” to see Joe Biden run in 2016). Someone who makes these men out to be nice guys who made slight mistakes is altering the historical record in a shameful way. These men committed a terrible crime and we can’t bury it for the sake of D.C. decorum.
In fact, Biden doesn’t really see conflict between Republicans and Democrats as particularly significant. As Andrew Cockburn put it in a useful article on Biden’s history, Biden is the “high priest of the doctrine that our legislative problems derive merely from superficial disagreements, rather than fundamental differences over matters of principle” who thinks “political divisions can be settled by men endowed with statesmanlike vision and goodwill” and he says he doesn’t “think we should look on Republicans as our enemies.” Biden constantly praises the decency of his right-wing colleagues, proudly saying that he never questions their motives, and his “political career has been defined by his enthusiasm for Senate relationships.” (He has described the Senate as “home.”) But you need to question their motives, and as Ezra Klein writes, Biden’s view is totally ignorant of the way that the powerful white men who were his colleagues and chums were reinforcing the the inequality of race and class:
But sometimes, the inside of an institution can deceive you as to its true nature. It can lead you to explain away the compromises and abuses, to ignore the larger forces constraining decisions. When you work every day with individuals, when you hear their rationalizations and sympathize with their decisions, you can lose sight of the structures shaping their behavior… In extolling [the system’s] virtues, Biden ignores its horrors. This civility was built atop a boneyard. The coalitional politics of the US Senate gave outsize power to unreconstructed racists… what he sees as a virtuous era of compromise reflects a shameful period in our history.
One reason Biden’s attitude is so dangerous, and leads to getting taken advantage of and making bad policy, is that Republicans certainly think of us as their enemies. Eight years of hell-bent Republican efforts to destroy Barack Obama and turn back the modest amounts of social progress we have made should have told Biden that. Unsurprisingly, Biden’s failure to notice this leads to naivete and being taken for a chump, and his “eagerness to cut a deal with the Republicans [has] sometimes elicited outrage from his fellow Democrats, who felt he was giving too much away.”
But Biden maintains the delusional notion that if he is elected president, Republicans will stop their intransigent opposition to liberal social reforms. He doesn’t understand how deep the ideological differences between left and right are, and is thus incapable of fighting Republicans on key issues. He has even considered picking one as his Vice President, which would mean that if anything happened to him, power would immediately be thrust into the hands of the GOP. His lack of commitment to advancing Democratic values means he is very likely to sell those values out—and that it’s not really clear why “being a Democrat” is so important to him. He doesn’t realize, or doesn’t care, that with Republicans in power, we’re talking about the criminalization of abortion, the gutting of food stamps and the social safety net, the unleashing of catastrophic climate change, and a reckless foreign policy that can plunge the globe into a nuclear arms race. But maybe he does understand—with his record on war, criminal justice, banking, racial integration, same-sex marriage, and abortion, Biden often might as well have been a Republican all along. It’s not surprising that he has welcomed the endorsement of Michael Bloomberg, a plutocratic racist Republican, whose big money infiltration of the Democratic Party is precisely the sort of thing that any principled party member ought to full-throatedly oppose.
Like Bloomberg, Biden has even directly helped Republicans keep Democrats out of office. In 2018, he accepted $200,000 to give a speech to a Republican audience in which he heaped praise on Republican representative Fred Upton, which helped Upton defeat a Democratic challenger by 4.5 points, and “buoyed the GOP in the Midwest.” Biden “set his lucrative personal activities at odds with what some Democrats saw as his duty to the party,” even though Upton had helped craft a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act that Biden spends so much time defending. The local Democratic party chair was furious, saying “the former vice president had badly damaged the Democratic cause.” Biden didn’t care. He had pocketed his 200k.
Any assessment of Biden’s character should mention the infamous Clarence Thomas hearings, where his failures were on full display. Biden has been controversial for his handling of the hearings, in which Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Biden was criticized for “his decision to allow aggressive questioning of Hill by a panel exclusively comprising white men—while he prevented three women from testifying about other instances of alleged inappropriate behavior by Thomas.” As one Democratic adviser said, “Biden agreed to the terms of the people who were out to disembowel Hill” and a fellow legislator said that “Joe bent over too far backwards to accommodate the Republicans.” Biden even said of Thomas that “I believe there are certain things that are not at issue at all… and that is his character,” when that was exactly what was at issue.
Biden has shown a mixture of contrition and defiance about the period, saying he wished he “could have done something” to help Hill, when the entire point is that he was the very person who had control over the proceedings—he was the chairman of the committee! Years later, when Biden finally gave Hill a pitiful semi-apology, it left her “deeply unsatisfied.” Biden also said that he “believed Hill from the beginning,” but his fellow senator Arlen Specter said Biden told him privately that Biden thought she “was lying.”
Here we see several Biden traits in one incident: the failure to stand up for women’s rights, the excessive deference to Republicans that allows them to get whatever they want, and the tendency to distort his record after the fact in order to avoid taking full responsibility for his shameful conduct. It’s not the worst thing he ever did. It’s just a good example of the kinds of thing he does constantly.
Personally, as a millennial who believes there are crucial social and political challenges facing our country that we need to meet, it’s not just that Joe Biden is inadequate. It’s that he fundamentally does not understand my values, or seem to care about the things I care about. Biden himself conceded in 2008 that:
“I may not be what the party’s looking for. I may be too ‘muscular’ on foreign policy. I may not be ‘pure’ enough about abortion rights. I may not have been ‘energetic’ enough about gay marriage.”
These are, of course, euphemisms: by “muscular” he means that he helped initiate a disastrous endless war, by “pure” he means that he was actively fighting against women’s rights groups over abortion, and by “energetic” he means that he voted for the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act.
I felt like I knew everything I needed to know about Joe Biden when I heard him tell rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he was elected president, and when he said of people in my generation that he had “no empathy” for our concerns, like being overwhelmed by student debt and unable to afford kids. Why would we want a president who promises no change? There needs to be change. How can I become even slightly enthusiastic about someone who says he has no empathy for me? One of Joe Biden’s supposed best qualities, according to his boosters, is that he is overflowing with empathy. But he openly states that he doesn’t care about me or the others in my generation. Surely Democrats can do better than this.
Now, at this point, you may be saying: Okay, but nobody’s perfect.
But we don’t have to settle for this terrible candidate! Remember: We have another Democratic option we could choose. (Note: We’re still talking in terms of “who is better,” not “who is more electable,” which we will get to shortly.) We could pick Bernie Sanders.
On every issue I’ve discussed, Bernie Sanders is better than Joe Biden. Sanders voted against the horrific war that Joe Biden helped to cause, because Sanders knew it would be a catastrophe. Sanders fought to protect Social Security as Joe Biden was trying to cut it. Sanders’ healthcare plan covers every single person, so that hundreds of thousands of people don’t die from uninsurance. Sanders has never made up a fictitious history of civil rights activism—he doesn’t need to, because he has a real history of civil rights activism! Joe Biden is the kind of oily politician who makes up heroic deeds he never did; Sanders actually got arrested fighting to end segregation, but it isn’t the kind of thing he likes to brag about. Which kind of person do you want to be president: Someone who makes up their accomplishments, or someone who actually has them?
There is a stark contrast between the moral character of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Biden was not just a booster of an illegal war based on a lie (which shows a lack of perceptiveness at the very least), but lied about it afterward instead of owning up to the true devastating human consequences of his actions. Go through the past 40 years of American political history, and on almost every issue, you’ll see Joe Biden on the wrong side and Sanders on the right one. When Biden was saying that a woman shouldn’t have the “sole right” to determine what to do with her body, Sanders was literally calling out politicians for telling women what to do with their bodies. While Joe Biden was voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, Sanders was sticking it to Republicans who dared to question the loyalty of gay soldiers. The president needs to have good judgment, and this is what good judgment looks like: understanding what is important at your particular historic moment in time and acting on it, not screwing up on issue after issue and then having to fudge, lie, and apologize years later when it becomes embarrassing.
Biden and Sanders are both around the same age, so their parallel lives are useful lesson in the two kinds of person you can be: someone who cares more about making friends in the Senate or someone who cares more about standing up for the powerless, even when doing so loses you friends. It’s true that a lot of people in Washington don’t like Sanders, although it’s a myth that this has kept him from being an effective politician. In fact, for an Independent whose positions are strongly opposed by party leadership, he has been impressively effective at getting stuff done. He passed more roll call amendments than any other House member for many years, and has an impressive track record of getting through reforms considering his position outside the structure of the two-party system.
The big fear of Sanders, of course, is that he’s a “radical.” But he isn’t really. He’s actually pretty moderate. Consider what his big plans are (the supposedly utopian ones, which will inevitably get watered down before they actually pass): a national health insurance program of the kind that exists around the world, a living wage that can cover the cost of rent and food, providing free college tuition the same way we provide free high school tuition, and an ambitious climate change response strategy of the kind that we very clearly need in order to avert disaster. Even the Wall Street Journal, when describing what “Bernie’s America” looks like, depicts it as having only modest differences with the country we have today, and economists who strongly dislike Sanders, like Paul Krugman, admit that he’s not going to damage the economy. There has been a lot of ludicrous hyperbole around Sanders, with publications like the New York Times printing allegations that he represents the “end of liberalism” and had a soft spot for authoritarian Soviet governance. But these are simply not true: Sanders has always fought for the civil liberties of people he disagrees with the most strongly, and when he was mayor of Burlington he was a fiscally responsible progressive. His long record does not show him attempting to do anything dictatorial or abusive: quite the opposite, it shows him as a principled champion of freedom and the improvement of working people’s living conditions.
So if we get past the heated rhetoric in the press about how Sanders is shouty, angry, divisive, etc., and try to evaluate him as fairly and objectively as possible, we see that he is not in fact any kind of threat. One Biden surrogate said she was “terrified and traumatized by the prospect of a Sanders presidency,” and would not vote for him if he was the nominee, which is ludicrous and irresponsible given the scale of the threat Trump poses. (That’s why, even as a staunch opponent of Hillary Clinton in the primary, I was telling people in 2016 they really needed to vote for her if they lived in a swing state.) In fact, Sanders would probably be a good president who would push for social democratic programs that everyone would benefit from. Just look at his agenda. Read his book Our Revolution. Listen to him, not what people say about him. He might not get done everything he proposes. He may have to change or soften some initiatives. He will make some bad calls, and we’d need to be vigilant in criticizing him when he does. But he would clearly fight for things that are worth fighting for, and we have every reason to believe that he is honest, authentic, and tends to be proven right by history. The case that Bernie Sanders is the better man to be president is difficult to seriously dispute.
Who Can Beat Trump?
Okay, you say: I admit that Joe Biden has a history of showing egregiously poor judgment on nearly every political issue I care about, fabricating his biography to make himself look good, defending the worst Republicans, and actively doing harm to progressive causes. I admit Bernie does not share Biden’s history of telling outrageous lies, undermining women and LGBT people, and sidling up to banks, insurance companies, and the fossil fuel industry. But I still think Biden is the best candidate to run against Trump. He’s simply more electable.
Now, to me this seems a little counterintuitive: I’d think it would be quite difficult to run someone as uninspiring and untrustworthy as Biden, because it would make it tough to convince Americans that that person would be a good president. When Joe Biden tries to point out that Donald Trump is a serial liar with bad judgment and a history of being creepy and corrupt, Trump will just say that the same things are true about Biden. It will be difficult to draw a clear contrast of character, and Biden has built his central case against Trump around their supposed contrasting characters! To me, you’d be better off running the person you think makes the best potential president, because it will be easier to make the case that they are the best potential president.
In fact, isn’t it a little strange that all of the above qualities don’t affect people’s thinking about Biden’s “electability”? Surely taking ignorant, unprincipled positions and lying about them is something that’s going to come up. I’ve separated discussion of the “electability” question from the question of whether Biden would be good as a chief executive, but I actually think those questions are one and the same: Voters are going to think about these things when they decide who to vote for. It’s harder to run someone who lied about doing sit-ins than someone who actually sat in, because those fictions will be exposed and they will turn people off. Every single thing I’ve mentioned—from Hunter Biden’s consulting gig with the credit card companies pushing Joe Biden to strip consumer bankruptcy protection to African Americans victimized by Biden’s punitive drug sentencing—is going to be put in ads run against Biden, and Trump has hundreds of millions of dollars to blast those ads far and wide. They will be effective, because they will be correct. And if you do not think Trump would run ads criticizing Biden on behalf of incarcerated African Americans, you do not know Trump: He’s already been doing exactly that.
To Democrats, it may be self-evident that Joe Biden is far better than Donald Trump, and so they assume that all the bad things he has done will not matter to anyone. Any Democrat in the White House is better than Trump, I hear a lot, and I agree with it. But if you are going to make a clear and powerful case against Trump, you need to be free of the kinds of dirt that are going to muddy your case. If we’re going to point out that the president has been accused by dozens of women of inappropriate touching, we don’t want that message to come from someone who themselves has been accused of inappropriate touching (and who said they are “not sorry” for it). If we’re going to accuse the president of being reckless and warlike, we don’t want the argument being made by a candidate who pushed the most reckless war in the last several decades. If we’re going to accuse Trump of being corrupt, we don’t want a candidate who has done the bidding of the credit card companies while his son took a cushy job with them. If we’re going to call Trump out for separating families, we don’t want a candidate who deported hundreds of thousands of people themselves, and if we’re going to call Trump a racist, we don’t want a candidate who was best friends with segregationists and helped build modern racist policing and imprisonment regime. As with Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden’s record is so bad that he’s unable to effectively attack Trump on the areas where Trump is most vulnerable. This is one reason Biden has to resort to simply attacking Trump’s “character” and his “malarkey”—but as I’ve pointed out, Biden himself is of poor character and half of what comes out his mouth is malarkey! He’s exactly the sort of corrupt, sleazy insider politician D.C. is full of, and who we need to get rid of if we’re going to advance the cause of justice.
In fact, the parallels with Clinton are striking. As this magazine pointed out in early 2016, Clinton was a uniquely weak candidate against Donald Trump, because she had the kind of record on issues like trade, war, and Wall Street that his “populist” campaign could hit an “establishment” politician hard on. She was the perfect foil for his message, because she embodied the D.C. insider culture he was trying to whip up hate against. Trump thrives on dirt and scandal, and Clinton was tainted by enough corruption and misconduct allegations that he had an easy time landing blows. Mehdi Hasan puts things very well when he says:
I just don’t get why Democrats… think that you can just rerun the 2016 playbook and not think that Donald Trump will rerun his. I mean, they tried to run a pro-Iraq War, pro-Wall Street, establishment Democrat with a history of dubious claims and dodgy dealings and dodgy comments about mass incarceration and superpredators. Where did that end up? What’s the old saying? Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.
Indeed, Biden shares many of Clinton’s exact weaknesses. He voted for NAFTA, the “bad trade deal” Trump loves to attack for shipping Rust Belt jobs overseas. (Sure enough, Trump has already started bringing up NAFTA.) Biden is a creature of the “swamp” that Trump has vowed to drain, a pal of lobbyists and bankers. (The New York Times even called his staff “more than a bit swampy.”) And then, of course, there is the corruption. Ryan Grim of the Intercept reports that Biden’s “family has been cashing in on his career for decades,” something Democrats have not wanted to admit. Biden “has not even bothered to come up with a persuasive answer to his son Hunter’s involvement with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.” Even pro-Biden centrists like Jonathan Chait admit that “Biden’s responses to questioning on his son’s role, which range from challenging his interlocutor to a push-up contest to trailing off awkwardly, have hardly allayed the concern.” As Eric Levitz put it, “Hunter collecting $50,000 a month to sit on a board for which he had no qualifications was clearly corrupt influence peddling.” Hunter Biden and Joe Biden’s stories are in conflict, too: Joe Biden says he never discussed it with his son, while Hunter says they did talk about it and all Joe said by way of objection was “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
If you’re a Democrat, you probably don’t want to hear about any of this. Let’s be honest: Many Democrats are simply lying to themselves and pretending that Biden is someone other than who he is. (A Detroit Free Press editorial says Biden has “occasional lapses of judgment but not of character” and is as “innocent of venality as any politician in Washington.” As if pretending to have been a civil rights hero is not a “lapse in character”! And as if we didn’t all know how disgustingly venal most Washington politicians are.) But brace yourself, because in a general election, you’re going to hear about all of this all the goddamn time for months on end. And you’re going to wince as Biden struggles to come up with an explanation of what Hunter’s role at the Ukrainian energy company was, or responds by challenging honest critics to a push-up contest. (Expect to hear the phrase “Quid Pro Joe” about 10 billion times. Also, if you haven’t heard of Jim Biden, get ready: you will.)
One worrying thing we’ve learned about Biden over the course of this election is that he needs to be kept away from voters. Not many show up at his events in the first place, but when they do, his interactions with them are often excruciating. He has told them to go vote for his opponent. (In Iowa, 85 percent followed his advice.) He even called one young woman a “lying dog faced pony soldier” after she asked him a tough question. She was horrified:
“It was kind of humiliating to be called a liar on national TV by the former vice president. Instead of answering that question straightforward, his immediate response was to attempt to invalidate me by exposing my inexperience.”
The Biden campaign’s response is that Biden was attempting to quote a movie, which explains nothing and makes no sense. Get ready for a hell of a lot more of this in a general election, and get ready for Donald Trump to mercilessly mock and repeat every single Biden misstep. (Often by turning Biden’s indefensible acts into amusing memes.) Trump’s specialty is brutal attacks on DC politicians, which he does with a knack for entertainment that those who come out of the Senate instead of television can hardly hope to match.
I’m actually something of an amateur Trump scholar, and one thing I have found many Democrats do not sufficiently understand about him is that Trump is a genuinely formidable political opponent who is good at crushing the weak. Trump packs stadiums and is bringing in campaign cash in the hundreds of millions. It should be of serious concern, then, that even though Biden has ultimately been able to consolidate centrist voters behind him, his fundraising has been anemic, his events poorly-attended, and his on-the-ground campaign apparatus bare bones. Until Democratic leaders rallied around to revive him, Biden “had less than a third as much cash on hand as Bernie Sanders” and was doing so poorly that he eventually had “to abandon his pledge to not accept support from corporate-backed outside super PAC groups.” One reason for this is that Biden doesn’t inspire confidence; even Barack Obama was reportedly nervous about running him in the primary. Democrats might be resigned to putting Joe Biden up against Donald Trump, feeling they have few other options, but you won’t meet many who are excited for his campaign, and he’s hardly likely to build a grassroots movement of volunteers and donors in the fall.
To make matters worse, Joe Biden does not seem to be in excellent form at the moment, to say the least. The more people see of him, the worse he looks. The gaffes, always a Biden trait, have become near-constant: forgetting the first words of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident… you know, all men and women are created by the, go, you know, you know the thing”), forgetting which office he is running for, forgetting Barack Obama’s name, forgetting that the Parkland shootings did not happen while he was in office, mixing up his wife and his sister, and telling bizarre, rambling stories that make Grandpa Simpson look like a man who gets straight to the point. This may well be why his advisors had to keep him from doing too many public events, preferring quiet private fundraisers to rallies and town halls. Biden surrogate John Kerry was reportedly making desperate calls from Iowa, telling Democrats that Biden wasn’t up to it, and wondering if Kerry could step in to replace Biden on the ticket. Other Biden-sympathetic Democratic officials on the ground said Biden didn’t “seem to have his heart in it or the energy for the slog.” The disgraced Chris Matthews, no Bernie sympathizer, criticized the Biden campaign for hiding the candidate from the press, and the New York Times chased Biden for months to answer some basic questions. Even now, in the wake of Biden’s big Super Tuesday resurgence, Rachel Maddow has struggled to get him to appear on her show alongside the other candidates.
This should be a giant red flag. If Biden is not in peak fighting shape, he will lose and lose badly. Donald Trump is the King of the Bullies. When he senses weakness, he pounces. You need to have boundless energy and stamina and fire to counteract him. And they can’t hide Biden away forever. Sooner or later, if you’re running for president, you’re going to have to make some appearances. It is not a good sign if your allies are suggesting you scale back events so that voters don’t accidentally hear you speak off the cuff.
Democrats do not want to talk about the question of whether Biden is up for this. And none of us want to say the word “dementia” when we don’t actually know whether that’s true. Politico reports that journalists have shied away from answering the question of whether Biden is mentally capable of his task. But it’s a serious issue: If you choose a nominee who is going to embarrass themselves in front of the country, you’ve just thrown the entire election. It’s a colossal risk. We can’t not confront it, because Trump is coming. Trump has already begun to bring up Biden’s mental health, noting that Biden “said 150 million people were killed with guns and that he was running for the United States Senate.” (Biden did say both these things.) Trump will compile all of the flubs, go through them in excruciating detail at his rallies, and talk about how sad it is to see someone in such obvious decline. He will compare Joe Biden’s brain to the Democratic Party itself, and will ask why anyone would want someone in charge of the country who cannot be trusted to remember which state he is in, which day of the week Super Tuesday is on, or who the Prime Minister of Great Britain is. It will not be easy to answer this question.
Be ready for what is going to come at Biden in a general election. Just look at Trump’s tweets for a preview of what we’re going to see:
- I will protect your Social Security and Medicare, just as I have for the past 3 years. Sleepy Joe Biden will destroy both in very short order, and he won’t even know he’s doing it!
- Super Predator was the term associated with the 1994 Crime Bill that Sleepy Joe Biden was so heavily involved in passing. That was a dark period in American History, but has Sleepy Joe apologized? No!
Do you think “Sleepy Joe” is up to the challenge of proving Trump wrong? Probably not even on a good day, because Biden’s record on Social Security and criminal punishment is not defensible and gives Trump the upper hand. But lately, even Biden’s good days have been few and far between, and I shudder to think of his flailing responses (probably his go-to will be “challenge Trump to a push-up contest”). I hope the Democrats who have suddenly come together behind Biden have a good reason for having changed their minds and concluded he is ready for what would hit him. But I suspect they’ve just tried not to think about it.
So: The central argument for nominating Joe Biden is not that he would be a good president, because, for all the reasons I went into, he clearly wouldn’t. The only case for him is “electability”—even Joe Biden’s wife (not sister), Jill Biden, makes the argument this way: “You know you may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who’s going to win.” But the electability argument for Biden might be the worst argument of all. Biden is a corrupt, inept, dishonest, undisciplined, rambling con man. This makes him less electable, not more. It makes him exactly the person we don’t want to use to make those very same charges against Trump. Because Biden is a man with almost no message, a bunch of scandals including feeling women up against their will, a seemingly addled and confused brain, a long history of inventing nonsensical stories, and a record and agenda that will inspire no one, the electability case seems thin. Much is made of the difficult challenge Sanders faces in increasing youth turnout, but I’m not sure why anyone under 30 would show up for Joe Biden, a man who has contempt for them and has spent his life embodying everything about the Democratic Party that turns them off politics. If there is a Biden plan for mobilizing and exciting ex-Sanders voters, I struggle to think what it could possibly be.
In fact, the only way the “electability” case can even begin to be made is by saying that whatever Biden’s chances are, Sanders’ are worse. Yes, you may say, I admit Joe Biden is a disaster waiting to happen. But Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist. I’ve discussed at great length before why I think this concern is actually backwards, and that a populist outsider like Bernie Sanders will have a much easier time running against Trump than Democratic insider politicians. In fact, Trump himself was afraid Hillary Clinton would pick Bernie Sanders as her running mate, because he guessed that she would have won with Sanders on the ticket. (In the end, spite won out over pragmatism, and she picked a guy with a terrible record on abortion rights whose name and face you may not even remember.) Sanders is very good at talking to Trump’s own voters, in a way that respects their concerns but doesn’t validate their racism, and has far less contempt for so-called “deplorables” than many Democrats do. I won’t repeat my full case for Sanders’ electability, which I have done so at length elsewhere, but I would ask that instead of assuming that received wisdom is necessarily true, you take a moment to question it and wonder whether the many talking heads who insist Sanders cannot win might be just as wrong as they were about whether Hillary Clinton’s victory was inevitable.
* * * *
“How much more so, as I believe, nay, am certain, that the sage Freston, who stole my closet and books, has converted those giants into mills, in order to rob me of the honour of their overthrow, such is the enmity he bears me; but, in the end, all his treacherous arts will be little avail against the vigour of my sword.”
— Miguel de Cervantes, The Achievements of the Sage and Valiant Don Quixote de La Mancha, Part One, Book I
I was depressed after Super Tuesday, as you can imagine, because to me the stakes of this primary are incredibly high. I was alarmed to see the increased odds of choosing a disastrous candidate like Biden to run against Trump, with all of the human misery Trump’s reelection would ensure. So on Wednesday, I spent my morning in a coffee shop in the French Quarter, reading Don Quixote, because I’d never read it and needed something apolitical to take my mind off things. As I was leaving, a Current Affairs reader recognized me and came up to introduce himself. He asked what I was reading, and then said it was “topical.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, but then he explained: Don Quixote, the old, confused member of the social elite, who doesn’t notice that the world has changed around him, is living in a fantasy of the past. Half-demented, he fancies himself winning when he is losing, and when his delusional worldview comes into conflict with obvious facts (as when the giants he attacks turn out to be windmills), he simply modifies his story so that he can never be wrong (by saying a sorcerer must have turned the giants into windmills at the last minute to deny him his rightful victory).
This is the Democratic party elite in general, and Joe Biden in particular. They still believe that everything operates according to the old rules. In 2016, it should have been evident that this was not the case: Donald Trump violated every rule of decency and civility, brazenly flouted the most basic political norms, and then won. But, like Don Quixote, instead of accepting that they had been wrong, and trying to understand this new world, they simply made up new stories that allowed them to rationalize continuing to do the same thing (Trump was illegitimately put into office by the sorcerer Putin, not by their own failures to effectively counter his messaging.) In 2020, they will do precisely what they did in 2016: run an uninspiring establishment candidate, with no clear agenda or reason for being in the race beyond self-advancement, whose criticisms of Trump ring false because of hypocrisy. And when they lose again, it will not even cause them to finally wake up and see the windmills. Even as the party falls apart, they will be clueless as to why.
Here is my fear: A narrative is rapidly going to take hold that Bernie Sanders is on the outs, and Joe Biden is rising from the ashes. The race is still technically close, but Biden has “momentum” as top Democrats coalesce around him. They will say: Bernie’s revolution didn’t happen, everyone go home, time to Get Serious and pick Joe. People will temporarily forget what Biden is like; his name will just be a codeword for “Moderation” and “The Everyman.” The New York Times has gone hard after Bernie recently with a flurry of negative stories, and Bernie is going to have a tough time turning the narrative around before the next primaries.
Democrats do not realize that the only reason Biden appears strong is that they have managed to temporarily suppress discussion of all of the things that make him such a terrible general election candidate against Trump. Yes, if we don’t talk about his long history of involvement with all of the worst policy blunders of the last 40 years, or the ways Biden makes women uncomfortable, or his long history of outrageous lies about himself, or his son’s shady Ukrainian gas money, or his inability to organize a campaign rally or complete a sentence, or the total lack of answer to the question “how will Biden get Bernie’s supporters, especially young people, to turn out for him?”—if we just bury that, then we can make Biden seem like a reasonable choice. But those things do not go away. They are coming back, and they are going to hit Biden like a freight train the moment he faces Donald Trump. And, as Biden did in 1988 and 2008 and in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will likely crumple before you know it.
But we do not have to do this. We have a window, albeit a small one, to turn this around. I hope you, and everyone you know, will do whatever you can to help elect Bernie Sanders. We can bring a worthy fight to Donald Trump, instead of trying to put up a relic of the most discredited brand of Democratic politics. We do not have to settle for Joe. We can have a campaign, and a presidency, in which we can truly take pride. It is Biden, not Sanders, who would be the risky bet. A Sanders presidency is nothing to fear, but a Biden nomination certainly is.
- For more on the “electability” question, see my colleague Paul Waters-Smith’s article “A Biden Nomination Means A Second Trump Term.” For a good case for Bernie as a pragmatic candidate, see Paul’s “Why You Should Take A Chance On The Socialist.”
- For a good dive into Biden’s legislative record, see Andrew Cockburn’s “No Joe!” in Harpers.
- For thorough documentation of Biden’s lies about his Social Security record, see Ryan Grim’s “Joe Biden Has Advocated Cutting Social Security For 40 Years” in the Intercept.
- For the basic list of ways in which Biden has spent decades serving the interests of Wall Street, see Kenneth Peres’ “Joe Biden Serves Wall Street, Not Main Street,” in Common dreams.
- For an explanation of what it means for Biden to be a “creature of the system,” see Ezra Klein’s “Joe Biden will never give up on the system” in Vox.
- For a deeper look at how Joe Biden’s relationships with monstrous people have led him to be complicit in injustice, see my “Everybody’s Chum.”
- For details on Joe Biden’s immigration record, see Natascha Elena Uhlmann’s “Joe Biden’s Terrible Record on Immigration Should Haunt His Campaign” in Splinter.
- For more on the history of Biden’s shameful opposition to desegregation efforts, see Asher Smith’s “Joe Biden’s Record on Racial Integration is Indefensible.”
- For the world’s most thorough account of Joe Biden’s many atrocious actions, see Branko Marcetic’s Yesterday’s Man and his many Jacobin articles on Biden.