Is Joe Biden the new Hillary? Democrats must have a real debate to avoid disaster

Biden's "bipartisanship" is a throwback to the Democrats' biggest mistakes. But his coronation is not inevitable

Published June 10, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton; Joe Biden (Getty/Salon)
Hillary Clinton; Joe Biden (Getty/Salon)

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In October of 2016, I had a chat with a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. I had once worked for Bill Clinton but I’d spent the previous year arguing in Salon that Bernie Sanders was better on policy and a better bet to beat Donald Trump. Politicians remember what you did in the primary — the Clintons kept lists — so I was grateful for the chance to talk.

Tim Kaine had just debated Mike Pence and talked way more about Trump’s ill character than Pence’s extreme economic views. (Pence opposed not just a living wage but the $7.25 national minimum wage that even most Republicans see as wage slavery.) Clinton memorialized Sanders’ populist economic agenda in the party platform, then left it to molder. With the white working class trending toward Trump, shouldn’t she revive it?

Her adviser coolly appraised me, then asked, “Do you really think that will pierce their racism?” Caught short, I asked how many of "them," meaning Trump supporters, he thought were racist. No hesitation: “A third.” I reminded him that millions of them had voted for Obama but, yes, progressive economic populism is the one sure antidote to racist cultural "populism." He paused, then asked, “Bill, have you ever been in the South?”

I wanted to say I’d once had a three-hour layover in Atlanta, but sincerely hoped he meant southern Wisconsin. I bit my tongue instead. I felt his utter disdain for Bernie’s populism and his supreme faith in himself. I made a few minor suggestions about things Hillary might say in her next debate and thanked him for taking the time.

On the long drive home, an odd thing happened. I began breathing very rapidly. I’d heard of panic attacks, but had never had one. I pulled off the road. My anxiety soon passed, but not my foreboding. Clinton would go on decrying Trump and offering herself as a seasoned steward of a system without fundamental flaws. Then she would lose.

Clinton lost for lots of reasons; among them Vladimir Putin, James Comey, the Electoral College and sexism. But the biggest reason was how little she had to say to voters in open revolt against a failed political economy. Millions of them had gone 40 years without a raise, had lost their pensions and the equity in their homes, had had their dreams of college degrees and upward mobility for their children dashed.

Hard times fall harder on minorities, but there was grim news for white working-class families. Suicide rates had risen, opioid addiction had spiraled and, for the first time since America started keeping records, life expectancy fell. Yet in all the 2016 presidential debates, exactly one question was posed regarding the crisis in the white working class, and that was by the late African American journalistic icon Gwen Ifill.

In June, Britain’s Brexit vote had flashed a neon warning sign. Hillary Clinton never saw it. In the '90s, she and Bill helped craft a great bipartisan consensus: a faith in new technology, global financial integration and global trade that would usher in a golden age of prosperity. Twenty years later, anyone could see that global finance capitalism ran more on corruption than innovation; that corporate behemoths scouring the globe for weak governments and low wages had left the middle classes gasping for air. But Hillary didn’t see it. If she had, she’d have won no matter what they did to her.

On April 25 of this year, Joe Biden announced his run for president. That night he held his first big event, a $2,800-a-pop fundraiser at the home of head Comcast lobbyist David Cohen. Biden had vowed to take no lobbyist money — but under corrupt federal rules, a person who directs lobbyists needn’t register as one, so it was all cool.

Democratic elites and activists alike have trouble seeing how central the issue of public corruption is to our politics. Imagine if Biden’s first big event had been a megabucks fundraiser at the home of someone who was "pro-life" or pro-gun. Before he could even thank everyone for coming, his career would have been over. His Comcast gala elicited a few gurgles of disapproval but it mostly proved Democrats need to get a lot more "woke" about corruption.

With Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in retirement, Biden is America’s foremost living proponent of bipartisanship. Why anyone still salutes it is a mystery. The reputation of every big bipartisan "achievement" of the last 30 years is in tatters: NAFTA; the mid-'90s crime and welfare bills; the late-'90s Wall Street deregulation; No Child Left Behind; the bankruptcy bill; the Iraq war. Biden was for every single one of them.

Biden’s fans blame a generation of Democrats for these follies and say that it’s his bad luck to be the only one still around to blame. It isn’t true. A majority of Democrats in Congress voted no on NAFTA, the bankruptcy bill and the war. Only a handful of them voted wrong every time; only Biden shows up so often in critical roles (crime, bankruptcy, Iraq). It’s a unique record. Saying "everybody did it" just won’t wash.

Bipartisanship was Obama’s brand from the moment he stepped on the national stage. It led him to offload the public option and his pledge to raise the minimum wage; to abandon millions of homeowners with underwater mortgages; to dangle Social Security cuts in exchange for phantasmal GOP budget deals; to let Wall Street swindlers he’d sworn to put in jail walk free. Democrats love Obama but have lately begun to question those calls. Sooner or later they’ll have questions for Biden. Where was he when Obama made those decisions? What price did we pay for them?

Biden’s greatest assets are his affability, empathy and decency, His other calling cards are his connection to Obama and rootedness in an urban, Catholic working-class culture I know well. The implied promise of his candidacy is that in the industrial Midwest, millions of white working-class voters who defected to Trump will like him, trust him and come home to the party of their youth.

It might work. But Democrats should recall that before she began her campaign, Hillary Clinton was even better liked than Biden — according to polls, anyway. Nostalgia was part of her pitch too, though she took care to summon memories of the Clinton economy, not the Clinton White House. As she ran her race, her party and country were re-evaluating even those economic policies.

Biden resembles Clinton in other ways. For a guy running for president, he doesn’t go out much. He can seem tone deaf, as he did last week in nearly running aground over the Hyde Amendment; for years, his incessant back-rubbing and hair-nuzzling drew unfavorable notices without his so much as trying to rein himself in. Worse, he has Hillary’s defensiveness. After waiting 28 years to reach out to Anita Hill, he still couldn’t bring himself to take personal responsibility for his actions.

Biden joins Clinton, Al Gore and Bob Dole in a quartet comprising the four most experienced candidates to run for president in a hundred years, or maybe ever. Prior results suggest voters care more about where you’re going than where you’ve been. I doubt they’ll disqualify Biden for past mistakes, but I don’t doubt they’ll ask what he’s learned from them. It’s still early, but the answer thus far is, "Not much."

What Clinton and Biden have most in common is a shared faith in the economic consensus of political elites. It’s a bipartisanship rooted not in civility but in the interests of their donors. It is our most insidious form of corruption; it’s why our government stopped acting in the interests of our people, why our people lost faith in our democracy. It’s the main reason Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump.

In 2016, Clinton was the most conspicuous avatar of that consensus and the system that spawned it. Despite clear evidence of an imploding political center and global insurrection against systemic corruption, Democrats went ahead and nominated her. Now Biden fills that role. Employing the same gauzy thematics, he leads the early field, but by less than she did. If he learned anything from her fate, he isn’t tipping his hand.

In his third try, Biden may finally make it past Iowa. Or voters may notice the free-trading, bank-deregulating, donor-driven politics that drove them off Hillary and grow wary. Would he notice? Could he change? Again, the signs aren’t good.

I don’t believe Biden’s polls any more than I did Hillary’s. I fear what happened to her will happen to him; as middle-class families learn of his votes on credit cards and bankruptcy, NAFTA and Iraq, they won’t want him leaning in so close.

To avert disaster, Democrats must mount a robust debate. In 2016 we had our first in years, thanks to Bernie Sanders. We’re having one now, thanks again to Sanders and even more to the breathtaking campaign being waged by Elizabeth Warren. Hers is rooted in progressive values and in the notion that policy precedes message; first you figure out what you believe, then you figure out how to tell people about it.

The rap on Warren is that people — men, mostly — don’t like her. This reminds me too much of 2004 when Iowa Democrats voted for John Kerry, not because they liked him so much but because they thought someone else did. People may vote against Warren because they worry someone else doesn’t like her. They shouldn’t. The first big surprise of this race is that she wears well; the more people see her, the more they like her.

Party elites look at Warren and see Hillary: an Ivy League policy wonk who makes men squirm. Progressives look at Biden and see Hillary: a pay-to-play pol who sees the symptoms of the disease but not its origins or antidote. If the party figures out who’s who, it may also figure out why it lost in 2016 and how to win now.

Working families of every race, ethnicity and state may be as drawn to Warren’s folksy Oklahoma style and story as they are to Biden’s Scranton tales. They may also feel the best way to show the old folks at home you really love them is to stop the bank from taking the farm.

Some party elders — have those words ever been more apt? — are as bent now as they were in 2016 on shutting down the process. Now as then, the very thing they fear could be their salvation. Warren’s giving them the debate they need, one of civil words and fierce logic.

In every election the word comes to Democrats from on high: Cancel the debate, circle the wagons, sideline the populists. Most of all, placate the donors. The price we paid for that is President Donald Trump. To beat him, we must be as bold in telling the truth as he is in lying. We must show the American people we’re no longer afraid of a fight.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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