Biden Can Work With Bigots, But Don’t We Want Someone Who Can BEAT Them?

Ken AshfordDemocrats, Election 2020Leave a Comment

Joseph R. Biden Jr., defending himself on Tuesday night against suggestions that he is too “old fashioned” for today’s Democratic Party, invoked two Southern segregationist senators by name as he fondly recalled the “civility” of the Senate in the 1970s and 1980s.

Speaking at a fund-raiser at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, Mr. Biden, 76, stressed the need to “be able to reach consensus under our system,” and cast his decades in the Senate as a time of relative comity. His remarks come as some in his party say that Mr. Biden is too focused on overtures to the right as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination.

At the event, Mr. Biden noted that he served with the late Senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both Democrats who were staunch opponents of desegregation. Mr. Eastland was the powerful chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Mr. Biden entered the chamber in 1973.

“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Mr. Biden said, slipping briefly into a Southern accent, according to a pool report from the fund-raiser. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”

He called Mr. Talmadge “one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys.”

“Well guess what?” Mr. Biden continued. “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”

And there in a nutshell is Biden’s problem: his naivety. You cannot get things done with these people. This is not the Senate he served in. The Republicans have gone full-bore racist and/or racist-enabling. And they cheat and lie. They need to be called out, exposed, and BEAT.

Jon Chait nails it:

At first blush, Biden’s segregationist riff is disturbing. When you poke below the surface, gets even more disturbing. It suggests that he has not grasped any of the tectonic changes in American politics, and that he is equipped neither for the campaign nor the presidency.

American politics has grown more polarized because the unusual and precarious conditions of the 20th century have disappeared. Politics in the 19th century was deeply polarized around the linked issues of issues of race and big government (we fought a Civil War, remember.) But after Reconstruction was crushed, the Republican Party abandoned its commitment to African-American equality and activist government, while the Democratic Party eventually adopted those identities. In the decades while the Republicans were moving right and the Democrats were moving left, there was a long period in which the parties overlapped. During that time, bipartisanship was the norm.

Biden came of political age during the period when polarization had reached its historic nadir:

That’s the era Biden grew up in and recalls fondly. It has disappeared for reasons that may be lamentable, but are grounded in large, immutable forces of ideology and self-interest. Today’s partisan division reflects the same elemental conflicts between Yankee socially progressive advocates of energetic central government and Southern “strict constructionist” defenders of the existing social hierarchy that divided the political system of the 19th century.

What’s more, modern leaders have learned that the old conventional wisdom that voters would punish them for failing to get along is false. As Mitch McConnell has bluntly explained, persuadable voters do not pay close attention to policy details. If they see leaders in both parties getting along, they will assume things are going well, and — this is the crucial detail — they will consequently reward the party in power. If they see a nasty partisan fight, they will assume Washington is failing, and reward the opposition. To ask the opposing party to compromise with the majority party is to ask it to undermine its own political interest.

Biden either fails to grasp this dynamic, or believes he can overpower it with sheer charm. “Folks, I believe one of the things I’m pretty good at is bringing people together,” Biden boasted of his time as vice-president. “Every time we had a trouble in the administration, who got sent to the Hill to settle it? Me. No, not a joke. Because I demonstrate respect for them.”

This account of Biden’s role in the Obama administration is very different than what I observed. Biden did play an important role in wooing three Republican senators to support the stimulus bill in 2009, a crucial accomplishment and a necessity, given that Democrats had 58 Senate seats at the time and adamantly refused to disable the filibuster. However, those three Republicans faced such intense backlash from the right that one of them, Arlen Specter, was driven out of the party altogether, and the other two, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, subsequently refused to support any health-care bill on any terms. The aftermath of the success was such that it could never be repeated.

Afterward, Republicans held their wall of total obstruction throughout Obama’s terms. On some relatively small matters where bipartisanship was needed just to keep the lights on, Biden did often play a role in sealing negotiations with the GOP. My understanding at the time was that Biden’s interventions were a form of kabuki, allowing Republicans to avoid the spectacle of negotiating with the hated Alinsky-ite secret-Muslim atheist socialist president. In any case, while the Obama administration produced a lot of historic reforms, his negotiations (other than the unrepeatable case of the stimulus) did not yield any of them. Biden’s deals concerned small-bore stuff.

Biden’s nostalgia for the good old days of backslapping, and his conviction that it can be revived through interpersonal charm, is a durable Washington myth. But Biden’s habit of invoking his friendship with segregationists to illustrate it is particularly dense. For one thing, the example doesn’t actually support the point he’s trying to make. Biden is attempting to tout his ability to work across the aisle, but he’s citing friendships with members of his own party. And yes, as Biden often points out, he had important ideological and generational differences with the old segregationist Democrats of the Deep South. But the differences weren’t that profound — as Biden often points out, Delaware was a slave state, and its white population long retained the attitudes about race and criminal justice more in line with the South than the North. There were divides, but bridging divides within your own partyis not actually a monumental achievement.

For another, by citing segregationists, he is revealing the very reason the bipartisanship he longs for can’t return. The era of bipartisanship was built on suppressing racial conflict. The white South could only be cajoled into a coalition that supported bigger government by preventing African Americans from voting and, at times, outright denying them the benefits of government altogether. He’s invoking the most unappealing aspect of the bipartisanship era. You can argue that forging American consensus was worth the cost of suppressing racial conflict, but actually highlighting the grotesque moral costs of that era is a bizarre way to advertise it.

Does Biden believe the nonsense he is peddling? I think he does. And maybe many Americans agree. But the most motivated non-Trump voters do not, and Biden is scarily out of touch. We cannot return to the old days, even if they are as halcyon as Biden thinks they are. Because these are NOT the good ol’ days. Not anymore.

UPDATE: Biden’s approach to this campaign may explain why Warren is rising in the polls. She seems to be positioned to attract moderates put off by Biden’s naivete.