When Vice President Biden said at a dinner with Delaware Democrats last weekend that he has “the most progressive record of anybody running,” he made news because he’s not quite running yet.
But what grabbed me was the echo of another presidential candidate, Gary Hart, who dared reporters in 1988 to “follow me around, I don’t care” as they looked into rumors of his alleged womanizing. They did follow him around, and he did care.
If Biden gets into the 2020 race, the media will examine his record to see if it lives up to his boast. There’s a long paper trail: 30 years in the Senate, eight years in the White House as vice president, and two failed presidential campaigns, including that 1988 run cut short by his own plagiarism scandal.
But to the present, I put the question of whether Biden is the most progressive candidate in the field to Jim Kessler with Third Way, who spent decades working on Capitol Hill. “Of course not,” he said. “But he’s always been a solid mainstream Democrat who was able to get a lot of things done.”
There’s the rub, Biden’s boast is about his record of accomplishment, and how it stands up against the rest of the Democratic field, not where he fits ideologically on the scale of democratic socialist to proud capitalist.
On guns, he was instrumental in the passage of the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban through the Senate in 1994. In 1990, he introduced and sponsored the Violence Against Women Act, which will have its 25th anniversary this September. It challenged entrenched attitudes about domestic abuse as a “family matter,” along with the prevailing sentiment that victims of sexual abuse brought it on themselves.
Biden brought in scores of survivors to tell their stories and the bill finally passed in September ’94, criminalizing behavior that in the past had been tolerated. Biden calls it “my proudest legislative achievement.”
On the Clinton-era crime bill, Biden, as chairman of the judiciary committee, pushed through a number of positive programs to prevent crime, including opening community centers on the weekends to give teenagers a place to hang out that wasn’t the streets. Republicans ridiculed it as “midnight basketball.”
If Biden becomes a candidate, he will be on the defensive about the punitive aspects of the ’94 crime bill that led to the excessive incarceration of minorities today. Likewise, his negative comments 44 years ago about busing to achieve school integration won’t sit well with today’s progressive activists.
Words and actions can be put in the context of the times, but there are some voters, especially women, who will never forgive Biden for how he handled Anita Hill and her sexual harassment complaint against Clarence Thomas. Biden didn’t allow corroborating witnesses to tell their stories to support Hill’s claim. And he, together with the Democratic leadership, declined to filibuster the nomination, allowing Thomas to win confirmation with 52 votes, including 11 from Democrats.
He also got his wars wrong, opposing the first Gulf War that succeeded in 1991 in removing Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Then, as chairman of the foreign relations committee, he supported the authorization for the use of force against Iraq, justifying an invasion that was based on faulty intelligence.
As vice president during the Obama years, Biden was actively involved in the passing of the Affordable Care Act and hugely influential in shaping the stimulus package, which helped pull the economy out of the Great Recession with traditional liberal Keynesian borrowed money to build infrastructure and invest in sustainable energy.
Economist Jared Bernstein, who worked in the White House on Biden’s staff, said the vice president did a lot of the “spade work” on Dodd-Frank, legislation that reined in Wall Street. He recognized the need to restrain the financial community even as his home state of Delaware has such lax corporate regulations that 60 percent of U.S. publicly traded companies are registered there.
There is one area where Biden has more credibility than the other candidates, in part because he’s been at it longer, and now that Ohio’s Sherrod Brown is not running. “He’s always been very supportive of labor unions,” says Bernstein. During the Obama years, “He was the one to go to the AFL -CIO meetings and the crowd would be in the palm of his hand. If you believe collective bargaining is a key platform in a progressive agenda, he has more of a case to make than the others.”
Polls show voters want leaders who can work with the other side. “He works with anybody,” says Kessler. “The Democratic primary electorate is far more open to people like Joe Biden and others like him than the online activists,” who view compromises as sell-outs. Biden served in a Senate that was more clubby and respectful of friendships than today’s tribal warfare. At the Delaware dinner where he came close to announcing his candidacy, he extolled “Return Day,” a Delaware tradition where at the end of an election, winners and losers literally bury a hatchet and ride together in horse-drawn buggies to symbolize unity.
During the 2018 midterms, Biden was in Michigan at an event and gave Republican Rep. Fred Upton a favorable shout-out, which the Upton campaign turned into a commercial that helped him win the race, and that cost his Democratic challenger the seat. In the Senate, Biden was such a good colleague to Republican Strom Thurmond when they served together on the Judiciary committee, that Thurmond’s widow had Biden deliver the eulogy at Thurmond’s funeral.
In a letter sent to supporters by Ted Kaufman, Biden’s former chief of staff, in October 2015 when Biden considered running against Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Kaufman promised an “optimistic campaign. A campaign from the heart. A campaign consistent with his values, our values, and the values of the American people. And I think it’s fair to say, knowing him as we all do, that it won’t be a scripted affair—after all it’s Joe.”
Kaufman said then that the rationale for Biden’s candidacy is “his burning conviction that we need to fundamentally change the balance in our economy and the political structure to restore the ability of the middle class to get ahead.”
Biden finally chose not to run that year, a decision he wrestled with as he mourned the death of his son Beau. He has said since that he regrets not entering the race; he thinks he would have won.
There has been no significant change between the Biden then and the Biden now. The question is how much the electorate has changed.
If he gets in the race, we’ll find out soon enough.