Screenshot this hot take. Bookmark it. Print it out and stow it away. Do whatever you want. That’s how confident I am that this headline won’t come back to bite me. This discussion has begun to start so I may as well make my (obvious) points before everyone else does.
Mind you, this isn’t a hot take borne out of pessimism, but of optimism (well, pessimism for Biden’s chances). Much of American liberalism has undertaken a serious introspection in the wake of the most embarrassing election loss in human history, and in the 2017 and 2018 elections, liberals have demonstrated the potential to both bring in a very wide swath of voters and more importantly, do very big things. For example, no one knew what the Green New Deal was a few weeks ago (the most ambitious policy proposal of millennials’ lifetimes), and now it has the endorsement of thirty House Democrats and four in the Senate as of this writing, thanks to both a sincere grassroots push and new blood in Congress challenging the corrupt and oil-laden status quo.
The lesson from 2016 for Democrats is this: losing to Donald freaking Trump should lead to challenging some of your longtime beliefs and assumptions.
Which brings me to Joe Biden. Beloved Uncle Joe. Remember Uncle Joe from the Obama years? Man those were great. We did…um…we had our first black president! The Democratic Party achieved one of the most important and tangible symbolic victories in the history of American democracy in 2008! Now we have one of the presidents who did…um…one of the most beloved presidents in history! There’s no reason to change course from the past! 2016 was an aberration! The Clinton Method is tried and true!
Wrong. A supremely competent woman lost to an animatronic YouTube comment who can’t stop talking about how badly he wants to have sex with his daughter. Yes, Russia and James Comey undoubtedly swayed some votes (or far more likely, convinced people to stay home), but it should have never been that close in the first place. I said the following in my piece criticizing Democratic donors and the culture they have fostered, which is currently punishing Kirsten Gillibrand for Al Franken’s sins, but I feel the need to repeat myself since I don’t think the entire left has fully internalized this yet:
WE LOST TO DONALD FREAKING TRUMP
WE LOST TO HIM
WHATEVER WE DID TO LOSE TO HIM, WE CAN’T DO IT AGAIN
I say “we” because I am part of this failure. So is Paste politics. So are you, if you are a liberal. This was a collective failure on the part of liberalism. America looked at what we all presented to them in 2016, and chose an outright white supremacist who talks like a man who just sustained a severe concussion.
Joe Biden represents the past, and for his sake, he should remain there.
We remember Biden for his affability and transparent humanity during the Obama years, but here’s a fun fact: he was also one of the most powerful people in the country during his 36-year tenure as a senator from Delaware, and this is where my confidence that he will not win in 2020 comes in.
This is what matters, right? Winning elections doesn’t mean anything if we can’t do big things to improve a ton of people’s lives. As a leftist, this is my biggest critique of those who are still enamored with the Clinton legacy: policy should matter more than charisma. That’s the central problem in this past week’s Beto O’Rourke wars. It was a bunch of crosstalk pitting policy versus personality. For those of you who live a better life than me and don’t have your brain irreparably ruined by Twitter, here’s the quick recap of what happened:
— Turns out, a Texas politician takes a lot of oil money. Shocking, I know. You can see for yourself on OpenSecrets.
— Journalists who happen to be leftists brought up that fact.
— Neera Tanden, head of the largest liberal D.C. think tank, helped to mobilize a pushback, essentially asserting that it was not right to criticize (certain) Democratic candidates, and blamed Bernie Sanders for a conspiracy to discredit their beloved Beto.
If raising inconvenient facts are a problem, guess who it’s a problem for?
Hint: not the person raising them.
If Beto wants to be a serious 2020 nominee, he simply must explain how he is going to both take a ton of money from oil interests (so much as to violate his No Fossil Fuel Money pledge that he signed), while seriously fighting climate change by doing what is required per the scientific consensus, and pivoting our entire energy economy away from fossil fuels (as well as the economies of worse polluters, China and India). Policy matters, especially when we are fighting for our future on an increasingly hostile planet.
Which brings me back to Joe Biden. Over his 36-year tenure as one of America’s most powerful men, he was the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Chair of the International Narcotics Control Caucus and the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There is a lot of nuance in congress and not every single vote is a damning indictment of someone’s political priorities, but when you sit at the top of multiple powerful committees, your legacy is your legacy. You own it, and Biden’s isn’t great.
Joe Biden oversaw the famed Anita Hill hearings along with still-Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, which live in infamy as an example of the kind of culture that #MeToo is pushing back against. Biden and Hatch didn’t call any sexual harassment experts to testify at the hearing, and it was largely set up to put the entire spotlight on Anita Hill to prove her case that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. Biden has since apologized and said he wished that he could have done more.
On matters of concrete policy, it gets much worse.
The 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act is one of the main reasons the United States of America imprisons more people than Joseph Stalin did at the height of his barbarity. Here’s a visualization of our depravity.
Mass incarceration began before the Bill Clinton-backed bill, but this effort put it on steroids. We have 120,000 innocent people in prison in large part because this bill gave prosecutors far more power than anyone should have, as it helped to create a reality where oftentimes it is simply more pragmatic to confess to a crime you didn't commit than spend the resources to fight it and take the risk of a trial where the state will be pushing for as big of a sentence as they can get. Remember that viral John Oliver segment about prosecutors a few months ago? You can thank the 1994 Crime bill for a lot of that dystopia he described.
And who is the architect of the 1994 Crime bill?
Per Uncle Joe
”I'm not ashamed of [the Crime bill] at all. As a matter of fact, I drafted the bill. We talk about this in terms mostly of 'black lives matter.' Black lives really do matter, but the problem is institutional racism in America. That's the overarching problem that still exists.”
Biden's not completely wrong, it's just astounding that he can't make the connection between the first half of that quote and the second half. There is no bigger historic purveyor of institutional racism than the American state. It is the institution. It was the federal government who drew red lines around black neighborhoods that they would not lend to as they opened up a vast new investment in America with the New Deal. It's the government which has a systemic issue with racism amongst the agents of the state who have been given the state's blessing to conduct extrajudicial killings. Racism is a huge problem that reaches every crevice of America, but it all begins with the entity who sanctioned the genocide and mass enslavement that built the foundation of this country.
Joe Biden's 1994 Crime bill is a stain on this nation and if he wants to wear it as a badge of honor, then he will find Michael “Stop and Frisk” Bloomberg credibly running to his left in the Democratic primary. This is far from the only policy where Biden finds himself sitting on the far-right flank of the Democratic Party (or more accurately, in mainstream Republicanism).
In 1997, he voted for a boilerplate libertarian policy called a balanced budget amendment—which sounds good in theory, but it's actually the economic equivalent of trying to drive a car with no tires. Biden voted yes on the 1998 GOP budget that began to put the finishing touches on completely unchaining Wall Street from the constraints the government put it in post-Great Depression, and he voted along with tons of other Clintonian Democrats in 1999 to destroy Glass-Steagall—which was one of the first reforms we passed in the wake of the Great Depression (it established a firewall between investment and commercial banking, meaning that your deposits can't be used for bankers' gambling—which is also the “too-long, didn't read” explanation of the 2008 crisis).
Like the Anita Hill hearings, Biden expressed regret over his Glass-Steagall vote.
Joe Biden deserves real credit for endorsing same-sex marriage before Barack Obama did, but in 1996, Biden joined 83 other senators in voting for the Defense of Marriage Act (that was later ruled unconstitutional), which allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. The 1990s weren't some aberration in Biden's career either. He has a long-standing record of taking what can only be described as Republican positions. In 1975, Biden said that busing to reduce school integration was “the single most devastating issue that could occur to Delaware.” He even echoed famed segregationist, George Wallace, when he kept repeating the bullshit phrase “forced busing,” to stump for an anti-desegregation amendment in 1974.
In 2001, Biden voted to loosen restrictions on the government's ability to tap your phone. NARAL gave him a mixed record on the totality of his votes pertaining to abortion. Biden even voted for George W. Bush's failed No Child Left Behind Act (and yet again, later said that he regretted the vote). Over and over and over again, we find votes in Biden's past that he has either apologized for or would likely have to apologize for in order to win the Democratic nomination in 2020.
Which brings me to my main point: Joe Biden will not win because he is on paper, the most conservative choice the Democrats will have to choose from. Folks like Michael Bloomberg and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz are ideologically to the right of modern-day Joe Biden, but as his tone-deaf response to his monstrous crime bill demonstrated, Biden will either have to largely defend an unpopular conservative congressional record, or repudiate much of his legacy given that almost everyone will be running to his left. Either way, “I swear I'm different now!” isn't exactly a coherent and inspiring message that will break through in a crowded field with an electorate that is getting more liberal by the day. Biden is currently leading in the polls because he's the only person in the Democratic Party outside Bernie Sanders who has any broad name recognition.
Biden represents the past because he helped to create the past, and we are in our present malaise thanks to the past decisions made by powerful men like Joe Biden. Bill Clinton’s presidency was not liberal, and Joe Biden endorsed multiple Clinton-backed policies that he now claims were bad decisions. Policy should rule above all, and it’s difficult to see how Biden would dramatically deviate from his longstanding Republican-esque positions, especially when articles encouraging him to run for president (with Mitt Romney!?!?) pop up in Politico, written by folks like these:
Juleanna Glover has worked as an adviser for several Republican politicians, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani and advised the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Jeb Bush. She is on the Biden Institute Policy Advisory Board.
Not everything that Biden did as a senator was bad—you can parse through his votes and find plenty of good—but his overall record is simply not liberal. The fact that he still defends his brutal crime bill even as he backs down on other votes serves as proof that he simply does not understand the systemic injustices built in to this country, and he adheres to a worldview which has proven itself insufficient to addressing the challenges we face. Biden’s 2016 quote asserting that his bill, which constructed a ton of prisons, has nothing to do with systemic racism is frankly, disqualifying.
The 2018 midterms did not prove that leftists are the dominant power in the Democratic Party—far from it—but it’s indisputable that the party is moving left. The only question is how far left we will go. Joe Biden is a relic of a bygone conservative era, and if he cares about his legacy, he should not run for president in 2020. His record in the senate will move back into the forefront of people’s minds thanks to the efforts of the Democratic field, while his symbolic power as Vice President will fade into the background of our collective memory. The best thing that Joe Biden could do to protect his legacy is to not run for president—keeping his reputation as “Uncle Joe,” instead of running and becoming the Democrats’ version of Jeb!
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.