“I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
—Joe Biden, 1975
When people talk about Joe Biden, they’re talking about history. If you ask his supporters, they’ll give you that answer. “Why should we vote for him?” History. “Why should I support him?” He was with Obama: history. “What qualifies him as a candidate?” History.
As it turns out, if you want to answer “Why would we not want to vote for him?” the answer’s the same: history.
In the past week, unpleasant anecdotes about the former veep have come to light. Even in the midst of scandal, the New York Times talked about Biden as a figure of history. The paper noted Biden’s predilection for “old-school” backslapping, his so-called “tactile” politics:
But the political ground has shifted under Mr. Biden, and his tactile style of retail politicking is no longer a laughing matter in the era of #MeToo. Now, as he considers a run for president, Mr. Biden is struggling to prevent a strength from turning into a crippling liability; on Tuesday alone, two more women told The New York Times that the former vice president’s touches made them uncomfortable. For Mr. Biden, 76, the risks are obvious: the accusations feed into a narrative that he is a relic of the past, unsuited to represent his party in the modern era, against an incumbent president whose treatment of women should be a central line of attack.
Biden’s defenders said he was generous with physical affection, with both men and women. The Times pointed to Bush’s attempted massage of Chancellor Merkel, noting that gregarious politicians often misread situations. Yet, as the Times pointed out, “But touching someone you know is one thing; touching complete strangers, as Mr. Biden often does, is another.” The story went on:
The list of women coming forward is growing. Caitlyn Caruso, a former college student and sexual assault survivor, said Mr. Biden rested his hand on her thigh — even as she squirmed in her seat to show her discomfort — and hugged her “just a little bit too long” at an event on sexual assault at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She was 19.
The Biden stories come at a strange time. I don’t just mean the #MeToo movement, or Biden’s theoretical run for the presidency. I mean the very real, very grotesque existence of Donald Trump. We live under a presidential sex predator who espouses white supremacy. Trump’s sins are visible from outer space.
Biden’s problems are of subtler kind. To quote Charlie Murphy, the man is a habitual line-stepper. When he kneecapped Anita Hill, he didn’t ask Arlen Specter-style questions—he just sat by and let it happen:
While every lawmaker on the committee had his own dedicated time to ask questions, Hill supporters noted that Biden was the one overseeing all of the proceedings and could have used his authority to step in. “The Republicans metaphorically stoned Anita Hill, while the Democrats, Biden being the gatekeeper, let it happen,” Angela Wright Shannon, an EEOC employee who also raised allegations against Thomas, told Roll Call.
Biden isn’t a robber capitalist, but he speaks at Davos, and a couple of years ago he made it impossible for student loans to be forgiven through bankruptcy. Biden didn’t quip that white supremacists were “very fine people,” like a certain disassociating statesman. But Delaware’s favorite son did help legislate a racist crime bill. At NYMag, Eric Levitz has a catalog of quotes so cringy that even Jordan Peterson’s white-dude army might feel shame:
Joe Biden once called state-mandated school integration “the most racist concept you can come up with,” and Barack Obama “the first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.” He was a staunch opponent of “forced busing” in the 1970s, and leading crusader for mass incarceration throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Uncle Joe has described African-American felons as “predators” too sociopathic to rehabilitate — and white supremacist senators as his friends.
Biden began his career as a busing advocate, but time passed. He eventually discovered that:
the arc of history was bending toward white backlash, [so] the young candidate bent with it. He became a caricature of a white northern liberal — arguing that forced busing was appropriate for the South (where segregation was the product of racist laws), but unnecessary for the North (where, Biden pretended, it merely reflected the preferences of the white and black communities).
As Jamelle Bouie wrote in the Times:
Consider the message [a Biden candidacy] would send. For decades Biden gave liberal cover to white backlash. He wasn’t an incidental opponent of busing; he was a leader who helped derail integration. He didn’t just vote for punitive legislation on crime and drugs; he wrote it. His political persona is still informed by that past, even if he were to repudiate those positions now. Biden could lead Democrats to victory over Trump, but his political style might affirm the assumptions behind Trumpism. The outward signs of our political dysfunction would be gone, but the disease would still remain.
CNN detailed Biden’s positions on crime, and they do not make for pleasant reading:
More than 2.2 million Americans are imprisoned today, and a majority of that population is black and brown. There’s no arguing that Biden’s laws mostly targeted black and brown communities and have perpetuated the racial disparities in today’s justice system — from legislation he co-sponsored in 1988 that created huge sentencing disparities for possession of the cheaper crack cocaine (popular in black and brown communities) and powder cocaine (the chosen drug, then, of mostly affluent white users), to those that dramatically increased prison funding and established harsh mandatory drug sentences for low-level offenses. One Biden-backed law, The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, allows police to seize personal property (cars, cash, entire homes) without even proving the person is guilty of a crime. Local and state police departments can then sell the property and profit from the value of those seizures, with little or no public accounting of how the money is spent.
In so many ways, the former Vice President is a walking microaggression. Even before his handsiness became a public scandal, Biden has gotten away with terrible laws, terrible words, and terrible ideas. And he did all of this while staying inside the bounds of the party. In so many ways, Biden embodies the troubled legacy of the post-Carter Dems. He’s a guy who manages, time and again, to lean towards the losing side of decency. I’m glad Biden released a video apologizing for his behavior, and pledging to change:
“Folks, in the coming month I’m expecting to be talking to you about a whole lot of issues, and I’ll always be direct with you,” he said. He continued later in the video, “I’ve never thought of politics as cold and antiseptic. I’ve always thought it about connecting with people, as I said, shaking hands, hands on the shoulder, a hug, encouragement, and now, it’s all about taking selfies together. You know, social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it, I get it.” “I hear what they’re saying, I understand it, and I’ll be much more mindful, that’s my responsibility. My responsibility, and I’ll meet it,” he said.
The problem is, Biden is not running on the last two days of his life. He’s basing his candidacy on four decades in power. You can see Biden’s comments online. You know what else is on the Internet? Biden’s unpleasant lawmaking. His more extreme quotes have been public knowledge for years. Which raises this question: why are the current stories about him gaining so much ground?
Because it’s about time.
If you want to understand everything about the Biden candidacy, you have to understand the era we live in. With Biden, it’s about time.
Right now, the Dems are desperate for a victory over Trump. Biden is the champion for the people who are still pining after the Obama years. With the Clintons out of the game, Biden is the last best hope for centrist revenge. With that chance comes a bright spotlight. Journalists are paying attention to his past, and the moment is right for a Biden Discussion. But there’s another reason to talk about Biden, and it has to do with Biden’s history—his double-edged sword. What makes Biden stand out from everyone else? History. What makes Biden a problem? History. It’s about time.
The accusations against Biden are a problem for several reasons. First—and it’s troubling that this needs saying in 2019—it’s wrong to invade someone’s space without permission. Women are sovereign over their bodies. And that isn’t up for debate—except, apparently, in the Georgia House. Second, the Democratic Party cannot run a suspected creep against the Assault President. Third, the Touchy Joe narrative complements the larger problem of Biden’s judgment. A man who cannot understand the discomfort of others—of an Anita Hill, or of people brutalized by police, or a person he’s hugged too long—will not be a president of all the people.
There’s a fourth issue, which the Times alludes to by using the phrase “relic of the past,” before moving on to the testimonies. It appears later, in the same story:
As they were getting ready to go onstage at a campaign event, Ms. Denish said, Mr. Biden “just put his hands on my shoulders and leaned back and said, ‘Go get ‘em,’ a little peck on the head. I paid so little attention to it, but I’m of a different generation than Lucy Flores.” On Tuesday, the Biden camp sent reporters quotations from about two dozen women — including former aides, current and former members of Congress, and news media personalities including Mika Brzezinski — vouching for the former vice president. But Ms. Lawless, the political scientist, said that if Mr. Biden was to survive this episode, he would have to persuade his fellow Democrats that he could and would change.
“I’m of a different generation” and “Could and would change” are telling. The question that Washington and the media are dealing with is not, “What do we do with Biden?” but, rather, “What time is it for Biden?” There’s that theme again. Marx said that people make their own history, but they don’t make it as they please. We are creatures of the times we are born into, in other words. I put the “300 years” quote at the top of this feature to make a point. Biden is an artifact of the American past, as much as Trump is. The era that shaped Trump shaped other men too. That’s not a pleasant conversation to have, but we have to have it. You see, it’s about time.
Isn’t it strange how the same motifs can repeat over and over again? Like recurring bass in the background, a reverb that shakes the floorboards. These repeating patterns, it’s funny. You don’t really notice them until you do. Then you can’t help but see them. And by then, you’re wondering: how did take me so long to glimpse that? But some traits take a while to stick out: it’s about time.
In fact, when people discuss Biden’s creepiness, when they bring up testimonials from people who have known him, they are playing the time card. You’ll hear this a lot in the weeks to come. Biden’s supporters can’t scrub women’s anecdotes from Biden’s record, and they can’t take back the votes he made in Congress. But what they will say—what they are saying, in not so many words—is that Biden is a creature of his time. I can hear them now: Sure, Biden voted for this racist Crime Bill, but that was a different time, when we were scared! Sure, Biden is handsy, but that was a different time, when people were open! You get the drift. This is a flimsy excuse, and should be dismissed immediately. Behavior that compiles across many places and dates is habitual. It’s about time.
The fact that Biden’s major qualification (time) and his major rhetorical defense (it was a different time) are the same, maybe that should tell us something about the nature of Washington. And Biden’s place inside it. I’ve said before that politics is too obsessed with personality. As an individual, frankly, Biden is not that interesting. But what’s around Biden is fascinating. The best way to understand the former vice president is to think of him as a keystone species in the Democratic Party. Biden came to the Senate in January 1973. His personal political change dovetails almost perfectly with the slow rightward lurch of American liberalism. You know, when the party went right, I guarantee you the big-money donors said, “It’s about time.”
The keystone species is a concept in ecology. Like the keystone in an arch, a keystone species plays a disproportionately large role in an ecosystem. The jaguar is a keystone species. So’s the hummingbird. Take away a hummingbird, and pollination declines, with predictable consequences. Keystones hold up structures, whether those structures are good or bad, beautiful or ugly. From an environmental point of view, the “keystone” characteristic is actually more important than what the animal actually does. If a keystone species is removed, all fall down. In his shifting priorities on race—in his friendliness to capital—in his belief that cooperation with the crazed GOP is still sane and good—in his inherent social conservatism—in his troubling handsiness—Biden is a keystone of the Democrats. He’s spent a lot of years in the party, and you know, where seniority dominates, it’s about time.
Political systems are made up of keystone figures, and keystone norms. There are events which seem unremarkable, viewed objectively. But if we take a step back, our perspective changes. What seemed like one unusual moment is suddenly revealed to be an important turning point. When keystone norms are violated, the world changes. When Trump mocked John McCain and was not punished for it, that was the breaking of a keystone norm: the GOP won’t pretend to love vets any more. When Ilhan Omar and every progressive below forty publicly broke with AIPAC, that was the breaking of a keystone norm: elected officials can publicly criticize the Netanyahu government. When Betsy DeVos cut Special Olympics funding without pretense, that was a keystone: the Administration is done pretending to care.
When keystone norms crumble, it matters. Norm collapse divides the world along a before-and-after boundary. But it’s important for us to remember that “before” and “after” are cheat-words where ethics are concerned. When discussing personal morality or political morality, we choose to make an arbitrary marker between past and present. We utter phrases like “This was then” and “This is now.” But what was wrong in the past is wrong now, and what is wrong now should have been wrong back then. Time changes, we change, but right and wrong do not change. We just get better at seeing what was always there. We learn. Sometimes we require a long education to understand bad habits. It’s about time.
Joseph Robinette Biden is a keystone of the modern Democratic Party; and I would argue, he is the keystone. I’ve written mostly about Obama and Clinton and the other famous living statues of the Dem elite. But despite their past popularity, they’re poor representatives of their movement. They’re too famous, too well-known, too unusual to be exemplars of the Team Blue. But Biden isn’t. Whatever happened to the Clintons, or Obama, or the Carters, or the Kennedy family, or this or that politician, Biden remained. He’s been a national figure for over forty years. Whatever you want to call the Problem With Biden—and there are so many—it remains. Biden—gaffe-prone, crime-bill-pushing, Anita Hill-persecuting, Willie-Horton-hunting, free-hands Biden—is the spirit of his age.
That age is not this age. What is happening to him is normal—the review of a candidate for president. But what he represents is extreme. If Biden is called to account and made to step away from future power, then we will begin to dismantle what elected Donald Trump: history. Let’s take Biden’s record seriously. Let’s take what Biden has said seriously. Let’s take what Biden has done seriously. Let’s take what these women have said seriously. Let us call him to account. The hour’s getting late, and Biden shouldn’t run.
It’s about time.