The core of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is the argument that he represents the “safe” choice. He’s the candidate who can defeat Trump. He’s the candidate folks are comfortable with. (He’s “Uncle Joe”!) He represents a “return to normalcy.” He can “reach out to Republicans” and “bring people together.”
But not only is it unclear whether Biden is really the “safe” choice — other Democrats have beaten Trump handily in recent polls as well (Quinnipiac, Fox), while seeming more sure-footed — it’s unclear how safe being “safe” really is. A "return to normalcy" will do nothing to address the underlying problems that led to Trump's election in the first place — neither the deep systemic problems of democratic decline around the world nor the specific problems of the American political system, driven by long-term forces described by Peter Turchin in “Ages of Discord” (Salon review here).
The long-term trends of increased polarization and negative partisanship described by Alan Abramowitz in "The Great Alignment" (Salon interview here) and Rachel Bitecofer (Salon interview here) aren’t going anywhere. Nor will the Republican Party magically reverse its 50-plus-year transformation, as explained in “The Long Southern Strategy” by Angie Maxwell (Salon interview here) and Todd Shields. Nor is there any reason to believe the GOP will stop playing asymmetric constitutional hardball (Salon stories here and here). Everything fundamental that made Trump possible in the first place is going to continue, unless something sweeping and extraordinary is done to counter it — and that’s precisely what Biden’s “return to normalcy” argument assures us will not be done.
A would-be President Biden will not get much more cooperation from the GOP than Obama did, but he will continue to play nice, babbling on about his “good Republican friends” only to have them tar him with everything that goes wrong as a result. All this will make massive midterm losses in 2022 even more likely (à la 1994 and 2010, as I noted here), and will position the GOP to run a more professional and disciplined Trumpist to defeat him in 2024.
None of that is certain, of course. The future never is. But what is certain is that Biden doesn’t give a moment’s thought to any of these grave concerns. He can’t. If he did, he’d have to engage in a much broader discussion of political realities that his entire candidacy is premised on avoiding — not least because his whole political history of defensive political posturing helped to bring about this disastrous state of affairs in the first place.
There are at least four main arguments against the supposed safety of electing Biden in 2020.
First, Biden’s fundamental political orientation of New Democrat “normalcy” has been utterly discredited by the election of Donald Trump. Serious long-term advocates for this approach have explained this earlier this year: it's based on a fantasy of responsible Republican and conservative behavior that recent history has demolished.
Second, within this orientation, Biden's specific record is particularly bad. He's done a great deal to contribute to the dysfunctions of our criminal justice system: mass incarceration, the militarization of local police, the perverse incentives of civil-asset forfeiture, disparate sentencing for crack cocaine. All these things reflect a mindset driven by political fears and right-wing agenda-setting, rather than facts or the values of the Democratic coalition he supposedly represents. Biden's catastrophic failure in the 1991 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings starkly underscores the core failings of his approach, as does his less-remembered role in tanking the nomination of Lani Guinier to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice under Bill Clinton.
Third, Biden’s once relatively sound foreign policy judgment has eroded over the years, as he has become increasingly influenced by center-right conventional wisdom in Washington. This culminated in his support for the invasion of Iraq, one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in American history. He shows no signs of adequately grasping the proliferating threats that have unfolded since, and thus cannot be a stabilizing leader in confronting them. Any leader will face unprecedented challenges, because the threats we face now are historically novel. But Biden is singularly unprepared, precisely because of all the questionable lessons he has learned.
Fourth, politics is like riding a bicycle, in that stability comes from change: Stand still and you fall down. We’re in a moment where a broad range of progressive policies addressing past failures have begun to gain traction. Biden’s backwards-looking “return to normalcy” message makes him decidedly less capable of producing the stability people wishfully project onto him.
Let’s consider each of these in turn.
The "New Democrat" failure
Earlier this year, two serious thinkers of the "New Democrat" era — meaning the "neoliberal" Democratic Party as reinvented during the Bill Clinton years — explained why they saw their political project as having failed, requiring them to support more left-leaning policies, simply on pragmatic grounds. Biden’s willful blindness to what they saw is precisely what should worry any Democrat thinking one day beyond Nov. 3, 2020.
The first was UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, a self-described member of the "Rubin Wing of the Democratic Party,” a reference to Robert Rubin, who was treasury secretary under Bill Clinton. The second was Democratic strategist-turned journalist Ed Kilgore, a self-described “charter New Democrat who fell in love with Bill Clinton in the mid-1980s and with Barack Obama almost instantly.”
DeLong started things off on Twitter. He described the "Rubin Wing" as “those of us hoping to use market means to social democratic ends in bipartisan coalition with Republicans seeking technocratic win-wins." Then he continued:
Over the past 25 years, we failed to attract Republican coalition partners, we failed to energize our own base, and we failed to produce enough large-scale obvious policy wins to cement the center into a durable governing coalition.
Those failures are utterly ignored by Biden in his call to “return to normalcy.” Those failures are normalcy. They are what brought us Donald Trump.
There are others to be blamed, DeLong went on to say, “but shared responsibility is not diminished responsibility. And so the baton rightly passes to our colleagues on our left. We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.”
In a Vox conversation, DeLong elaborated further:
We were certainly wrong, 100 percent, on the politics.
Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. He’s all these things not because the technocrats in his administration think they’re the best possible policies, but because [White House adviser] David Axelrod and company say they poll well ….
And did George H.W. Bush, did Mitt Romney, did John McCain say a single good word about anything Barack Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years?
No, they fucking did not. No allegiance to truth on anything other than the belief that John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell are the leaders of the Republican Party, and since they’ve decided on scorched earth, we’re to back them to the hilt. So the politics were completely wrong, and we saw this starting back in the Clinton administration.
DeLong’s values and ideology haven’t changed. What has changed is his understanding of the world and what’s possible in it. His pragmatism is intact — Joe Biden’s not so much. He clings to a fantasy of responsible Republicans who simply don’t exist. DeLong again:
Until something non-rubble-ish is built in the Republican center, what might be good incremental policies just cannot be successfully implemented in an America as we know it today. We need Medicare-for-all, funded by a carbon tax, with a whole bunch of UBI rebates for the poor and public investment in green technologies.
Ed Kilgore’s like-minded reflection placed more emphasis on the New Democrats’ seeming success:
They have won seven consecutive Democratic presidential nominations (or perhaps eight, depending on how you classify Michael Dukakis), and then went on to win the popular vote in six of those general elections. This stretch of relative success came after Republicans had won five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.
That sounds pretty impressive, but then he casts things in a more realistic light:
Yes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama held back what at some points seemed to be an irresistible conservative tide led by an increasingly irresponsible and extremist Republican Party. But their positive accomplishments were limited, and were eroded by their Republican successors. Perhaps more importantly, their effort to revive progressivism by marrying it to market mechanisms — in part to secure business and moderate Republican support — never caught the public’s imagination or secured bipartisan support. It instead became a vehicle for deregulation and speculative excesses that helped produce the financial crisis and the Great Recession, a hollowing-out of industries employing the non-college-educated, and the kind of growing income inequality that looked to be waning for a moment in the ’90s. And even when this approach succeeded initially, as with the classic public-private structure of Obamacare, it conspicuously failed to inspire the sort of loyalty commanded by the supposedly archaic and sclerotic public programs of the New Deal and the Great Society.
And that was before 2016, “when the political premise of Democratic centrism evaporated in Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss to Donald Trump.” To date, Biden has exhibited little if any awareness of these profound failures, which means he is powerless to correct them moving forward.
The descriptive framework Kilgore uses differs slightly from DeLong’s, but the bottom line is the same: a theoretically plausible political economy project failed to find coalition partners, failed to build public support, failed to inspire its base, was met with implacable bad-faith opposition, and thus failed to deliver what it promised.
One could also add that the New Democrat project was saved or preserved, at least temporarily, by two of the most charismatic men ever to run for president — a description no one would apply to Joe Biden. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s electoral victories were followed up, however, by epochal midterm losses, not just in the House of Representatives, but in state legislatures across the land. The New Democrat project utterly failed at party-building and in fact was party-destroying. There’s little reason to expect something dramatically different should Biden be elected president next year.
Put simply: Both men were wrong about the world. As DeLong said, “The world appears to be more like what lefties thought it was than what I thought it was for the last 10 or 15 years.” But that’s not a lesson that Biden has learned. In fact, Biden has been significantly more mistaken than most.
Biden’s record on crime and justice
As the former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden’s bad record on crime and justice is particularly important, and is not just a matter of the distant past, as most Biden apologists would have it.
In early July, Biden was asked about progressive proposals to rebalance the courts — more than three years after Mitch McConnell’s unconstitutional refusal to let the Senate even consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. Biden’s “don’t hit me!” response was telling: “I’m not prepared to go on and try to pack the court, because we’ll live to rue that day.”
That’s certainly true, if folks like Biden are running the party. Because his record in this regard is atrocious, as I recounted here in September 2015. Four things I focused on back then are worth recalling here:
First, Biden’s image as a kinda-sorta progressive is belied by his rightward drift in the Senate. From entering the Senate in 1973 through January 1987, he averaged the 16th most liberal member of the Senate; from then through January 1999, he averaged that 30th most liberal; and from that till he left the Senate in January 2009, he averaged out as the 38th most liberal member. His DW-Nominate score (based on roll-call voting) shifted 10 percent to the right over this time.
Second, Biden played a leading role in building the drug war, as summarized by Jamelle Bouie at Slate. This included:
- Helping to craft and pass the 1984 Comprehensive Control Act, working with Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond and the Reagan administration) “which enhanced and expanded civil asset forfeiture, and entitled local police departments to a share of captured assets”
- Co-sponsoring the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, “which created new mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, including the infamous crack-vesus-cocaine sentencing disparity”
- Playing a major role in shaping the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, “which strengthened mandatory minimums for drug possession, enhanced penalties for people who transport drugs, and established the Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose director was christened ‘drug czar’ by Biden”
- Authoring the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which “increased funds for police and prisons, fueling a huge expansion of the federal prison population” and “also contributed to the rapid growth of militarized police forces that used new federal funds to purchase hundreds of thousands of pieces of military equipment.”
There were voices of reason whom Biden simply ignored. One example I cited was the 1994 book, “A Rage to Punish: The Unintended Consequences of Mandatory Sentencing,” by Lois Forer, a Philadelphia judge with 16 years experience, who focused on using reparations for damages in dealing with nonviolent offenders. Now that we finally have a robust mass movement pushing similar arguments to the fore, Biden hardly seems qualified to lead, much less the "safe choice."
Tying these first two points together, I noted that Bouie quoted from Naomi Murakawa's book, “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America,” in which Sen. Orrin Hatch accused Democrats of "bowing to the liberal wing" on criminal justice issues. As Bouie explained:
Let me define the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties … the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells.
Third, I focused on Biden’s undermining of Anita Hill, smoothing the way to place Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. I drew on Steve Kornacki’s damning summary of the evidence against Thomas for Salon in 2010, adding that “there was already overwhelming evidence back at the time of the Senate confirmation hearing” in 1991, and that Biden played a key role in suppressing that evidence. I quoted Hill from a 2014 Huffington Post interview:
I think he did two things that were a disservice to me, that were a disservice, certainly, to the public. This was a public hearing. We were there to inform the public. There were three women who were ready and waiting, and subpoenaed to be giving testimony about similar behavior that they had experienced and witnessed. He failed to call them. There were also experts who could have given real information, as opposed to the misinformation that the Senate was given, who could have given information, and helped the public understand sexual harassment. He failed to call them. Those were two things. I think there were probably more, if I went play-by-play.
As I concluded in 2015, “Biden failed in his leadership. Instead of leading his committee through an informed deliberative process, he helped to perpetuate a coverup, which put a sexual harasser on the highest court in the land.” That is not what safe, stable leadership looks like.
Fourth, I delved into Biden’s silencing of DOJ nominee Lani Guinier, in which he bought into into the baseless, racist propaganda campaign to demonize her, rather than even bothering to listen to her arguments himself. This story has largely been buried by history, but it's worth revisiting.
Guinier was a courtroom voting rights litigator with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, who then became a professor who developed a pathbreaking sophisticated analysis of the Voting Rights Act. I quoted from an earlier interview with Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot,” where he explained her three-phase analysis — the first phase removed barriers to voting, the second knocked down discriminatory electoral systems that prevented minorities from winning elective office, and the third phase was about “giving people a fair share of political power.”
“There were mountains of evidence documenting what [Guinier] was talking about,” I wrote. “But it was profoundly at odds with the right-wing narratives flooding Washington at the time, like the wildly distorted 'welfare queen,' a racist trope that was repurposed to attack Guinier,” turning back to Berman’s description:
Instead of the Congress engaging with her ideas, she was demonized by the right as a "quota queen," and so there was not a serious discussion of the remedies that she was proposing, because people were so concerned that she was going to mandate affirmative action in the electoral sphere. That was really a low point, I think for Congress ...
As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden was the No. 1 person responsible for that failure, as I noted:
[H]e failed in the very same way that he failed both with crime legislation, and with the Hill/Thomas hearings: he grounded his thoughts and actions in the customs, assumptions and attitudes of Washington, instead of the country that Washington is supposed to represent.
This sums up the long history of Biden’s failures regarding crime and justice — the policy area where he has played his most prominent role. That alone should make clear that Biden cannot provide safe, reliable leadership into the future.
Joe Biden’s foreign policy judgment
Biden’s foreign policy judgment was once relatively sound. A 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed, lambasting his record to make Sarah Palin seem acceptable, inadvertently made him sound pretty good: He voted to cut funding to end the Vietnam War, and had opposed Ronald Reagan's funding of right-wing terrorism in Central America, Reagan's "Star Wars" fantasy and George H.W. Bush's 1991 Gulf war, asking, "What vital interests of the United States justify sending Americans to their deaths in the sands of Saudi Arabia?"
But after that, his judgment began to falter. In 1998, as ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Biden "expressed support for the use of force" in Iraq, as the Washington Post reported at the time. The "failure to do so," Biden said, "‘will only embolden Saddam to take an increasingly more aggressive posture on production of weapons . . . and threaten his neighbors again.’ Biden also urged a sustained effort to ‘dethrone him over the long haul.’”
Four years later, as chairman of that committee, he told "Meet the Press," that Saddam Hussein was “a long-term threat and a short-term threat to our national security. We have no choice but to eliminate the threat. This is a guy who is an extreme danger to the world.” Presented with that clip by Tim Russert five years later, Biden insisted, “I was correct.” So it’s no surprise that he was one of 29 Senate Democrats who voted for the Iraq War in October 2002.
Let’s be clear. Saddam Hussein was an oppressive dictator, but hardly the only one on the globe, and in no way a serious threat to the national security of the United States. Threatening figures should be managed with diplomacy. That’s what mature world leadership does. Once upon a time, Biden knew that. Somewhere along the line he forgot.
What’s more, Biden shows no signs of grasping the broad range of threats that have unfolded since the Iraq War — especially cyber-warfare, hybrid warfare and the worldwide rise of ethno-nationalism and white nationalism in particular. Biden’s obdurate refusal to acknowledge his past mistakes makes him particularly ill-suited to the proliferation of new threats. He doesn’t have a solid foundation of old knowledge to build on, and thus he can’t be a stabilizing leader in confronting the world as it is now. If he had recognized the mistakes he’s made in the past, and surrounded himself with a new set of advisers, it might be reasonable to give him another chance. He hasn’t done that.
Stability and change
In our personal lives, a stable person may often be someone who seems unchanging. But in the realm of public affairs, change comes with the territory, and stability comes from embracing and mastering it. Biden is still wedded to the past, looking for nonexistent "responsible Republicans" to partner with.
The disruption that brought us Trump in the first place won’t disappear, no matter whom we elect or what course we follow. But there are plausible paths forward that point in a different, more progressive direction. For example, Data for Progress recently unveiled national polling on a dozen progressive policies. “These policies have durable support and can stand up to predictable right-wing counterarguments,” DFP wrote. “We have good reason to believe that even when they become politicized, they’ll remain popular with persuadable voters and the base in many geographies.”
Policies with majority support in all 50 states include legalizing marijuana, red flag laws on gun sales, 15% rate caps on credit cards, extending the New START treaty on nuclear arms, employee governance at large corporations (in practice meaning that employees get to elect certain seats on the board), corruption reforms (such as banning stock ownership by members of Congress and top government officials) and more. Paid family leave has majority support in every state but Wyoming. Automatic voter registration polls somewhat lower, but has majority support in states like Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas, where increased voter turnout would likely have an enormous impact.
It's not just the Democratic base but America as a whole that is moving in a more progressive direction. Fighting against that tide — as Biden’s “return to normalcy” clearly does — is not a pathway to greater stability, but to deepening frustrations and schisms. Democrats have an especially severe problem with voter turnout in the midterm elections that immediately follow a victorious presidential campaign. A president who disappoints and frustrates the Democratic base on top of that makes the party particularly vulnerable to electoral disaster. Joe Biden could definitely wind up as our next president. But that's in no way a safe bet on the future.