Joe Biden is the hardest to figure of all the Democratic candidates in the presidential field. He is at once an obvious choice and also unsuited to the moment in almost every way imaginable.
On numerous fronts there are things about Biden, knocks against him that aren’t entirely fair or are things which are properly seen in the context of their times. But they are still things. Biden’s home state of Delaware is the home state of Big Credit Card. He was always close to that industry. He was a big promoter of the 2005-06 era bankruptcy bill. He carries this into an era in which Democratic politics are steeped in the politics of financialization, debt and inequality. It may not be an albatross. But it’s a decent sized bird.
He was also a big promoter of the Clinton crime bill. A lot of the activism against this bill I think takes it greatly out of context. The bill was coming just after the peak of the late 20th century crime wave which totally transformed American politics. Though we know now it had just crested, this was not at all clear at the time. Quite the contrary.
It was also to a great degree meant to counter throw-away-the-key crime politics being pushed by the GOP. If you were alive at the time you’ll remember that much of the 1994 campaign was run on the basis of GOP ads targeting programs like midnight basketball as risible liberal feel-goodism. Even a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for it. It wasn’t responsible for most mass incarceration which was and is happening at the state level and it wasn’t all focused on incarceration. Far from it. Yet for all that, we’re living in an era when mass incarceration and police misconduct against minority communities and more are at the center of the political discussion and rightly so. You can say it was 25 years ago. But it as at best a complicated history to carry into a campaign in 2020. It was a different time. But that makes it complicated to run with a candidate from that different time.
And did I mention the Anita Hill hearings? The logistics of managing that dreadly hearing were a bit more complicated than it looks in retrospect but … well, that happened too.
Then there’s #MeToo. I’m a 50 year old man and my life experiences are not those that have the best insight into the storm around Biden. My general take is that he’s this glad handing, hugging kind of guy. I don’t think these incidents are sexual per se. I don’t think they’re harassment. You can see a lot of this in how he interacts with men. But whatever should have been the etiquette of physical contact and friendly intimacies thirty years ago, this isn’t how we do it today. You can say that he’s a guy in his late 70s who was just acculturated in a different way. But he’s running for President in 2020 today. Again, a lot of explaining, a lot of weight to carry into a campaign in 2020.
The joke about hugs at that union event a few weeks ago is another case in point in my mind. Many interpreted that as a not terribly subtle signaling, telling an older and generally male crowd, ‘Hey, you know you how it is. You know what I’m dealing with here …”
I don’t think it was contrived like that at all. I think it was purely off-the-cuff and straight up. Just his way of having some fun at his own expense with a moment of humor. But when I watched it in real time I was brought back to watching that press conference where Hillary Clinton explained, by implication and elliptically, that after determining which emails were personal and which work-related, she had the former emails destroyed. I remember watching that moment, closing my eyes and thinking, “Is this really where we’re going here? Really? Because I saw this movie when it was in the theaters the first time.”
Then there’s busing. Apparently Biden’s very early politics in the early 1970s was anti-busing. This was a very different time. There was lots of opposition to busing. That’s one reason it didn’t last very long. It wasn’t all racist. This is one of the problems with running for President in an era of boisterous and aggressive movements of social change when you’ve been in politics for literally 50 years. It was a different time. But now we’re in this time.
As you can see in each of these cases I find it a bit nettlesome and grating re-litigating these various episodes from years or even decades in the past. I’m not here to defend Biden. It’s not my job and I don’t think he needs defending. These are things that happened and all need to be seen as part of the eras in question. They are what you make of them. Context and completeness are important. But this is all really the point. Who wants to relitigate the last 50 years of the history of the Democratic party while you’re trying to run a campaign to oust the worst President in American history?
At the end of the day, I like Biden. I think he’d be a good President. I think he has good values on key issues. As much as anything I think he has governmental experience that would be hugely valuable in beginning to repair the damage of the Trump presidency. Putting all of this together, finessing these evolutions, threading the needles of today and yesterday will be a complicated task. But I’ve seen little in Biden’s campaigns that suggest he has that campaigning skill.
I hope he surprises me. Maybe he will. But I kinda doubt it.