Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. We discuss how Joe Biden has empowered Republicans at every turn, often even taking the reins for a right-wing agenda, a record that may become a serious liability in the 2020 general election.
In Yesterday’s Man: A Case Against Joe Biden, you make the case that Joe Biden has been a key architect of the Democratic Party’s rightward evolution, accelerating the end of the liberal New Deal order and aiding the political takeover of the radical right. In what way has Biden done this?
Branko Marcetic (BM): While Biden started his political career as something of an ambivalent New Deal liberal — a word he was always reluctant to be associated with — by 1978 and certainly Reagan’s inauguration three years later, he had shifted right to become a fiscally conservative Democrat whose priorities were attacking the deficit, bringing down spending, and rolling back the size and involvement of the federal government, among other things.
One way he shifted things was to push the Democratic Party to become more conservative and tailor its message to the kind of white, conservative voters Reagan and other Republicans were winning. He toured with the Democratic Leadership Council lecturing Democrats to focus on the “middle class” — by which he meant white, conservative suburbanites — and not “special interests” and “interest groups” — which referred to the various diverse constituencies of the party.
The other is his work with Republicans and conservatives to advance their efforts to roll back the New Deal order. His role in mass incarceration was one part of this, constituting one half of a counterrevolution against the gains of the civil rights movement (even if that’s not what Biden was consciously doing). The other was on the courts: as a member, and later chairman, of the Judiciary Committee, Biden presided over and played a role in letting through hard-right justices to the Supreme Court, including Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy (who is far from the moderate he’s now painted as).
The list of Republican-led measures Biden played a role in is a long list: Reagan’s 1981 budget, a major milestone in rolling back the postwar liberal order; Reagan’s tax cuts; NAFTA; welfare reform; Clinton’s budget-balancing, which drastically cut back government spending and federal employment; the repeal of Glass-Steagall; his bankruptcy bill; and even a measure like the Iraq War. All of these things hurt Democratic standing with its core base of voters, undermined union power, increased political disengagement and anger among voters plunged into hardship, and created the long-term conditions for Trump and the Right to establish dominance in US politics.
What prompted his own shift from starting as an ambivalent New Deal liberal to effectively a key figure in pushing for austerity, deregulation and privatization? Further, can you expand on his push for the bankruptcy bill?
BM: Biden’s first re-election campaign coincided with a rightward turn in the country, one that came about not just thanks to a decades-long conservative movement, but because of responses to stagflation, the rise in crime during the 1960s, and other crises of this era.
In 1978, the year Biden runs his first re-election campaign, California passes the anti-tax Proposition 13, the start of the “taxpayers revolt” that sweeps the country and culminates in the Reagan revolution. The Wilmington Morning News suggests this is the “year of the conservative.” With his own longshot 1972 upset in the back of his mind, Biden lurches to the right to combat his Republican opponent. He runs as a fiscal conservative, calls for a cap on government spending and so forth, and literally tells audiences he has identical views on the size and role of government, regulations etc. as the Republican he’s facing off against. Biden wins by a comfortable margin, and despite his rightward lurch, he maintains the support of unions, white liberals, and black voters. I argue the lesson he takes away from this is that he can always count on the support of Democratic voters no matter how much he distances himself from their principles, as long as his opponent is a Republican, and he basically runs this same campaign in every election after this.
Biden pushed the bankruptcy bill really at the behest of credit card companies in Delaware, particularly MBNA, his biggest donor who also happened to hire his son (and later pay him a monthly consulting fee). Credit card debt had exploded in the United States through the 1990s, and companies like these were frustrated that Americans could expunge their debts relatively easily under bankruptcy law. From the end of the 1990s until it passed in 2005, Biden pushed this bankruptcy bill which aimed to reverse it, which was opposed by many Democrats, including, eventually, Barack Obama. After several failures, he finally succeeded in getting it passed under George W. Bush, thanks to the support of him and Senate Republicans. Among other things, it imposed a means test on families trying to file for bankruptcy and imposed a host of bureaucratic hoops that made the process more difficult. One bankruptcy judge called it “ the most poorly written piece of legislation that I or anyone else has ever seen.”
This reflects an uncomfortable truth of Biden’s boast that he can reach across the aisle and work to “get things done” in Congress: Biden’s greatest legislative accomplishments have been conservative and business-friendly legislation that was backed by Republicans and hurt working Americans. The bankruptcy bill is just one of those.
You mention he maintained the support of unions, white liberals and black voters despite pushing a right-wing agenda. The bankruptcy bill has been devastating for many of the same constituencies. Is it simply a failure of media, or triumph of PR that Biden enjoys the reputation of being “Middle-Class Joe” to this day?
BM: In some ways, they’re the same thing. What’s remarkable about media coverage of Biden before about 2015 is that aside from a few things — usually his 1994 crime bill, which until that year was considered by the press his great triumph — there was next to no detailed coverage of his record and history, aside from platitudes. Even after Biden helped lead the march to the Iraq War, and then put forward a disastrous partition plan for the country that every expert said was ignorant and dangerous, he was still considered a “foreign policy expert” by the press and other Washington insiders.
Biden’s “Middle-Class Joe” reputation is very smart branding, and something he’s always leaned into, from the fact that he was genuinely one of the least wealthy people in the Senate, to his famous use of Amtrak to travel to Washington. Combined with a media landscape that was markedly more to the right than it is now (again Biden’s crime bill was considered his leading accomplishment and routinely cited as a positive before 2008, whereas it’s now the opposite), it let Biden skate by. Remember, too, that Biden has benefited from Obama’s sheen. When Obama announced him as his running mate in Springfield in 2008, he declared him a champion for America’s middle class, even though they had been on opposite sides on Biden’s bankruptcy bill.
Let’s dive into Biden’s record on immigration. With Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and border policies that break existing asylum laws and human rights standards, what record can candidate Joe Biden point to that would make the case that he would be able to “restore the soul of the country” as he often says?
BM: I’m not really sure what record he can really point to. Anyone can easily find a clip of Biden from 2006 boasting that “unlike most Democrats … I voted for 700 miles of fence.” As Obama’s vice president, Biden was fully complicit in that administration’s treatment of immigrants, warning during the 2014 wave of migrant children fleeing to the United States that they should “be aware of what awaits them.” A 2014 lawsuit found these children were physically and sexually abused, denied medical treatment, and even forced to drink water from the toilet. Biden also asked migrants’ home countries to discourage them from migrating and pledged more money for the region’s corrupt, abusive security forces whose violence was driving people northward. In one of last year’s Democratic debates, Biden refused to disavow the Obama administration’s record on immigration, despite the fact that it involved not just mass deportations — separating families in the process and creating untold numbers of orphans — but family separation at the border and putting children in cages. When challenged by an immigrant rights activist over this record, Biden’s response has been to tell him to “vote for Trump.”
This is Biden’s strategy of simply trying to out-Republican the Republicans made manifest. As the Right in the United States becomes more extreme, xenophobic, and outright abusive, Biden’s strategy will be, as it always has been, to simply adopt marginally less extreme policies, regardless of the level of human rights abuses they entail. This isn’t even to mention Biden’s role in driving this migration from Central and South America through projects like Plan Colombia — which as recently as 2018 he pointed to as a model for future efforts — or his votes throughout the 90s to create the deportation powers that Obama and now Trump have used. It is hard to look at this record and claim with a straight face Biden would make a dramatic break from Trump.
Can you expand on his votes throughout the 90s to create the deportation powers that Obama and now Trump have used, and the role he played?
BM: Perhaps the most significant was the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IRIRA), a sprawling bill which expanded the list of crimes for which immigrants (including those with residency) could be deported, funneled money into the immigrant carceral system, and made it tougher to get legal status while making it easier to deport migrants. The concept of “criminal alienhood” didn’t exist until this and other laws. This law also established the power to deputize local police as ICE agents.
Another major one was AEDPA in 1996, an anti-terrorism bill pushed by Biden and Republicans after the Timothy McVeigh attack. AEDPA mandates the mandatory detention of immigrants — again, including permanent residents — if they’re convicted of even minor drug crimes, put into place fast-track deportations, and expanded indefinite detention to some non-citizens. One immigration attorney at the time warned it would let even legal residents with kids and partners get deported for something as minor as writing a bad check.
Then there’s Biden’s 1994 crime bill, which created new immigration crimes and put yet more money into immigrant incarceration. And welfare reform, which (and many don’t realize this) Biden was one of the leading figures in pushing, made many immigrants ineligible for government assistance for five years.
It’s important to note that laws like these were a direct result of the tough-on-crime policies pushed by Biden during the 1980s. The explosion in the prison population led to widespread prison overcrowding, and making it easier to deport immigrants who had committed crimes was one solution proposed to deal with this.
The 1994 crime bill is one of Biden’s most famous legislative achievements. Can you give us an idea of how Biden generated support for policies that today are rightly acknowledged as ruthlessly punitive against African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants?
BM: This was the age of crime-and-drug hysteria, a panic cooked up in no small part by politicians like Biden whose playbook was to adopt the policy program of right-wing Republicans. As he privately advised Clinton, the Democrats needed to “seize control of the issue by upping the ante.” In this time, posturing as the toughest, most merciless warrior against these things was politically the path of least resistance, something Biden was an expert on.
It was thus relatively easy to get buy-in from conservatives (who favored these policies anyway) and scared Democrats on bills like the 1994 crime bill, though there were still big roadblocks: sometimes Biden went too far in his anti-crime-and-drug crusading for even Republicans like Reagan and Giuliani; other times, Republicans either wanted to deny Democrats a win on these issues or opposed gun control measures inserted. In any case, there’s a reason Biden has succeeded to overcome Republican opposition on what is essentially Republican legislation, and has consistently failed to get Republicans to sign on to progressive legislation (see: the Obama era).
Let’s discuss those attempts at passing progressive legislation. Biden often says he has the ability to get things done by working with Republicans. Was this not the case for policy programs not already favored by Republicans?
BM: Biden’s greatest bipartisan triumphs — the crime bills of the 1980s and 1990s, welfare reform (though his version didn’t end up passing), the Iraq War and the partition plan he subsequently cooked up for the country, the bankruptcy bill — were all in the service of right-wing goals broadly favored by Republicans. It’s significant Biden had to wait for George W. Bush, a Republican president, to finally pass his bankruptcy bill. Even his Violence Against Women Act was only passed by being tucked into the 1994 crime bill.
Meanwhile, when trying to pass progressive legislation — a task that is, at least theoretically, still meant to be the goal of the Democratic Party, particularly its liberal members — Biden has failed to use his relationship with Senators and 36 years of wheeling and dealing to get it done. This was thought by team Obama to be one of Biden’s strengths as a vice president. Yet not a single Republican voted for Obamacare (which Biden urged Obama to abandon), and he couldn’t even get conservative Democrats to sign on to the pro-union card-check legislation, dooming it to failure. Tasked with negotiating with Mitch McConnell and other Congressional Republicans over deep spending cuts, Biden failed to put up much of any resistance, giving in to Republican demands so easily that Harry Reid eventually asked Obama never to let Biden deal with McConnell alone again.
Biden will most certainly get things done with Republicans if he becomes president — they just likely won’t be things that most Democratic voters will be happy about.
Biden has been campaigning on building on Obamacare and providing a public option. Can you expand on his attempts to abandon Obamacare, and your thoughts on his promise of the public option?
BM: Aside from very early on in his career, Biden has never shown much enthusiasm for reforming the US health sector, even boasting in the 1990s that he had resisted Clinton’s attempts to get him to support his effort. He vowed as early as 1978 to fight the establishment of a national health insurance program, and by the 1990s, he had received more than $150,000 from health insurance companies over 15 years. So when Obamacare stalled in Obama’s first term, Biden (along with Rahm Emanuel) urged Obama to abandon it, worrying that it would, like Clinton’s failure on health care reform, kneecap the administration. History tells us who was right on this one.
I see little evidence that Biden will put up any kind of concerted fight to get even a public option passed, and not just because nothing in his history suggests he will. Who is Biden getting his money from in this election? Among others, the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries, the very same ones who launched a well-funded campaign against that same public option idea under Obama, and using much of the same rhetoric that Biden is now using to attack Medicare for All. Who in their right mind believes these industries are so heavily investing in a candidate if they really believe he’ll threaten their profit margins?
That brings up my final question. Upon hearing histories of politicians like you have laid out, supporters often dismiss them by saying “that was in the past,” or “they have evolved.” The common refrain is that indeed said politician simply sways with the political winds of the time, and hence, they will sway with the winds of today too. Using Joe Biden as an example, what is wrong with this line of thinking?
BM: The fact that every establishment politician has cravenly adjusted their principles in order to cling to power is hardly a ringing endorsement, and is exactly why so many people are disgusted with politics. Secondly, while it’s true all politicians evolve — Bernie Sanders has become more progressive on the environment, criminal justice, and even foreign policy over time, for instance — Biden’s stances are less genuine evolutions (though I will grant you I’m sure has genuinely shifted his thinking on certain social issues) and more calculated shifts to stay in power. Over and over in his career, Biden tells different audiences opposite things, and puts on and takes off political personas. Thirdly, while it’s true most politicians keep a revolving catalogue of principles, Sanders’ success shows it is possible to remain remarkably consistent in the lion’s share of your beliefs and still survive as a politician for a long time.
If we can’t trust a leader to hold to their principles even when it’s inconvenient, how can we trust them to stand with working people, to stand against the world’s most powerful interests, and to do the right thing when we hand them extraordinary powers of an office like the US presidency? Biden’s career is a lesson in the wages of such shape-shifting: a long, successful political career, trailed by a path of other people’s misery.