Look, I’m voting for Joe Biden. I get why white racists and millionaires—and people who stand at the intersection of those two groups—are all-in for Donald Trump, but for the rest of us, self-preservation dictates that Biden is the better choice. Thursday night's dueling presidential town halls, which featured a belligerent Trump and a comparatively contemplative Biden, drove that all the way home. If I believed, at this late stage, that “undecided voters” were real, and not people with made-up minds in desperate need of attention, I cannot imagine how the contrast could have been any starker or the decision clearer.
That said, tonight’s event also reaffirmed how desperately we will need to hold Biden’s feet to the fire if he wins this thing. Again and again, the former vice president’s answers highlighted political points where he not only needs to be shoved, hard, leftward, but also just to do better.
I literally winced when Biden responded to a question about what he would say, besides “you ain’t Black,” to “young Black voters who see voting for you as further participation in a system that continues to not protect them?” There were a lot of places to start that answer (an apology and acknowledgement of what a bad idea it was to declare “you ain’t Black” would have been an obvious choice). Instead, Biden decided to talk about criminal justice—obviously, a particularly salient discussion we’re all having right now—but also a reminder that politicians, especially old white guys, seem to think that conversations about race (read: Black people) always relate to crime. He went on to rattle off a bunch of policies to address the racial wealth gap, but it was clear he had no idea how to talk to a young Black progressive voter about issues that might interest him (environmental racism, college debt forgiveness, for example).
Then there was his response to a question on his hindsight view of his 1994 Crime Bill. As he has over this election, Biden conceded that the legislation had been a mistake, an admission that probably deserves measured recognition. But he also spent a fair amount of time spreading out the blame—noting that the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the bill at the time and going on about how the real problem was how the law was applied at the state level. At this point, the conversation about mass incarceration and racism in criminal justice has moved past this kind of waffling. Just take the L, my guy. Let’s work from there.
Later, Biden affirmed that he still believes “that more cops mean less crimes.” We now know that while the lion’s share of the 1994 crime bill went to cash for cops, only 1.3 percent of the crime decline from 1993 to to 2000 could be attributed to the additional officers it paid for. It’s dunderheaded at this point to keep suggesting that the solution to our problems is throwing more police at them, and more cash at the police. I know there are readers who will roll their eyes and think, “He has to say that stuff to get elected,” but there’s also value in being honest about past mistakes and normalizing the facts about how policing fails. Even Biden’s running mate, the one-time self-identified “top cop” of California, has recently backed off this position.
“Part of what has been upside down in policing policy in America, is that we have confused having safe communities with hiring more cops on the street, as though that is the way to achieve safe communities,” Harris said back in June, “when in fact, the real way to achieve safe and healthy communities is to invest in those communities.”
And there was the moment when Biden, as he’s done before, suggested that the best way for cops to de-escalate situations is to pull out their weapons, aim, and “shoot ‘em in the leg.” Which is definitely not how de-escalation works, and a talking point he’s been using for months and that his team should have him retire, stat.
There were times where Biden hit the mark, for sure. A very quick and incomplete roundup: He talked about the fact that transgender folks of color, especially Black trans women, need to be protected. He talked specifically about funding historically Black colleges and universities. He recognized that every police officer who stands by and says nothing about bad cops is a problem. And—if only by comparison to Trump’s counter-programmed rave-fest—he discussed COVID-19 the way a sane person would.
Again, I’m voting for Biden, without question. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize where there are problems with his stances, or where his political outlook is essentially the same old centrist proactive-fear-of-prompting-a-backlash-with-too-much-progressivism that got us here in the first place. I’m not naive.
I did not expect for Biden, who we are all well acquainted with by now, to take to the town hall stage tonight and offer up a true progressive vision. But I think we should be prepared to press him for more, and for better, when he’s elected. Fingers crossed.