Joe Biden Wants Us to Forget His Past. We Won't
Joe Biden is the purest example of the corporate Democrats that turned the party decisively towards war, austerity and race-baiting in a previous era.
“He remains as much as ever a tool of Wall Street and corporations.”
After much huffing and puffing, Joe Biden has officially entered the race for 2020. In his announcement, he indicated his intention to hit the ground running immediately in early primary states, especially South Carolina.
We were struck by the emphasis on South Carolina. The state’s Democratic presidential primary has taken on iconic status at least since 2008, when candidate Barack Obama’s victory there, on the heels of a victory in the Iowa caucuses three weeks earlier, propelled him toward the nomination. In 2016, South Carolina stood out among the commentariat as the crucial test of a candidates’ ability to appeal to African American voters, and Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming win fueled the contention that she was a much stronger candidate than Senator Bernie Sanders among African Americans and other voters of color.
“Some South Carolina black Democrats were primarily motivated by fear of a Trump presidency.”
Of course, as the political scientist Cedric Johnson makes clear, black South Carolinians voted as they did in 2016 for a variety of reasons that couldn’t be reduced simply to attraction or loyalty to Clinton. Black voters, he stressed, are as complex and diverse as any others. He points out that some South Carolina black Democrats were primarily motivated by fear of a Trump presidency, which he notes could have been especially strong in that state. Many believed that Clinton may have been the more familiar, safer choice and responded to mobilization by the Clinton firewall in the state party. Others responded to the Clinton campaign’s red-baiting of Sanders. And those reasons were not mutually exclusive. Johnson’s view was borne out by our experience, as we both worked with the Sanders campaign in the state and talked with many African American voters and political leaders.
An unrecognized irony of the South Carolina primary’s current importance as a gauge of African American support is that it and other southern primaries figured prominently in the late 1980s and 1990s strategy of the conservative, pro-business Democratic Leadership Council – of which Biden was a member – to pull the party to the right by appealing to conservative white southern men, in part through stigmatizing and scapegoating poor African Americans.
“Biden and Thurmond pushed legislation that created the nefarious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.”
Biden was one of the lustiest practitioners of that tactic. In fact, that’s what often underlies Biden’s boasts about his talent for “reaching across the aisle”. In 1984, he joined with South Carolina’s arch-racist Strom Thurmond to sponsor the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which eliminated parole for federal prisoners and limited the amount of time sentences could be reduced for good behavior. He and Thurmond joined hands to push 1986 and 1988 drug enforcement legislation that created the nefarious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaineas well as other draconian measures that implicate him as one of the initiators of what became mass incarceration. (Making political hay from racial scapegoating was nothing new for Biden; he’d earned sharp criticism from both the NAACP and ACLU in the 1970s for his aggressive opposition to school bussing as a tool for achieving school desegregation.)
“His tender mercies have been reserved for the banking and credit card industries.”
Joe Biden was also an enthusiastic supporter of the 1996 welfare “reform” that ended the federal government’s 60-year commitment to direct provision of aid to poor and indigent people. Instead, his tender mercies have been reserved for the banking and credit card industries. He has a record that goes back to 1978 of consistently working to make it more difficult for poor and working people to declare bankruptcy. And he actively supported the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking. The result was to give commercial bankers access to depositors’ money and intensify the wild financial speculation that culminated in the Great Recession.
Indeed, despite his cultivation of a working-stiff image, Biden has a long history of willingness to cut social security and Medicare in the interest of “bipartisan compromise”. And, notwithstanding his photo-ops on picket lines and with union leaders, it’s more telling that he kicked off his fundraising effort with a $2,800-a-plate event hosted by cable giant Comcast’s executive president and including Steven Cozen of the notorious union-busting law firm, Cozen O’Connor.
Biden’s history regarding women and gender issues is as checkered as his record on race. As clueless and distasteful as his history of smarmy dealings with individual women is, his public record is worse. On reproductive freedom, through the 1970s he was openly anti-abortion and, as Andrew Cockburn reports in a fine Harper’s article, asserted in a 1974 interview that he felt that Roe v Wade “went too far”and that he didn’t think “a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body”. He supported the Hyde amendment, which denied federal funding for abortions and opposed the use of US foreign aid for abortion research.
“Biden asserted in a 1974 interview that he felt that Roe v Wade ‘went too far.’”
Of course, his most conspicuous affront to women was his role as chair of the Senate judiciary committee in condoning committee members’ vile and viciously sexist attacks on Anita Hill when she came forward to testify against the supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas. He then abruptly adjourned the hearing while two other female former employees of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Thomas were waiting to give testimony corroborating Hill’s allegations; Biden thus assured confirmation of one of the worst, most dangerously conservative supreme court appointees of the 20th century.
In addition to Biden’s disturbing record on domestic policy, he has been a consistent warmonger. He has supported every military intervention he’s been able to, including, most disastrously voting for the 2002 resolution authorizing war against Iraq and ushering the country into the endless war against “terror” we remain immersed in.
As times have changed, Biden has expressed retrospective misgivings about some of those earlier actions and stances. For example, he very recently attempted to offer an apology of sorts, more like an unpology, to Anita Hill, which she quite understandably rejected. And he remains a pure, dyed-in-the-wool neoliberal, as much as ever a tool of Wall Street and corporations.We deserve better than a candidate who wants us to look past his record and focus only on the image he wants to project and, when that tack fails, can offer progressives only a “my bad”.
Fortunately, there is such a candidate in this race. Bernie Sanders has consistently and resolutely opposed every one of those racist, sexist, anti-worker and jingoist initiatives Biden has supported. And he offers a clear, unambiguous vision for an America governed by and in the interest of working people and grounded fundamentally on commitments to social, racial and gender justice. And that’s an important contrast to keep in mind as we move forward in South Carolina and all over the country.
Adolph Leonard Reed Jr. is an American professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in race and American politics.
Cornel West is an American philosopher, author, critic, actor, civil rights activist and leading member of Democratic Socialists of America. Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University.
This article previously appeared in The Guardian.
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