Authors note: Portions of this piece have run previously on the site. The content is updated to reflect circumstances in August 2020.
The recently completed Democratic National Convention highlighted the Joe Biden I remember – compassionate, caring, feisty and magnanimous.
Below I’ll detail Biden’s generally progressive legislative history. However first, as MAGA Republicans have sought to slander and mis-characterize Biden, they’ve oddly had some help from some vocal progressives. Let’s dissect this problem.
Perusing my Twitter timeline the last ten days, I (and others) saw far too many ill-informed and stereotypical tweets from self-proclaimed progressives. Don’t believe me? Just search the Hashtag #NeverBiden and you’ll see many familiar social media accounts, left overs from Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020.
The thing is Sanders himself has closed ranks with Biden and actually likes the former Vice President. Sanders like few others has been able to articulate the dangers of four more years of Donald Trump. The dangers for American institutions, the dangers for the US’ global standing, the danger for the established norms of this country, the dangers for everyone.
Yet some progressives, who represented die-in-the-wool Sanders supporters in 2016 and 2020 now question his decisions and even say he stopped leading the movement the second he dropped out and enthusiastically endorsed Joe Biden.
Questions for progressives not backing Biden:
1- Do progressives have a grander world view? Do they know or care anything about geopolitics beyond lazt stereotypes? Do they realize how different having Biden than Trump would be on this score? Or do they simply parrot the tired argument that Obama and Biden are war-mongerers and Trump hasn’t started a war? Reality is Trump hasn’t started a war, because his views are effectively in alliance with those illiberal forces we typically go to war with to defend our values! I didn’t agree with many of the Obama military interventions (particularly Libya) but in hindsight I’d rather be actively defending liberal values than disengaging from such a thing as we’ve done under Trump.
2- Do progressives feel attracted to cults of personality? It always appeared to me that a large contingent of those backing Bernie Sanders were attracted to whatever personality cult he had created? Since Sanders has employed practicality in abandoning this nonsense, now are you more attracted to Trump and his authoritarian-styled personalty cult than to Biden, a humble long-time public servant whose levels of compassion and humanity are rare in today’s political world? Y’all like the saying “not me, us.” Well this is MUCH bigger than any of us individually. Western democracy is about to fall of a cliff and we’re quibbling over who did what in 1985? Really?
3- Do many progressives forget about COVID-19? We are going through the worst pandemic in this country in over a century and our biggest test as a nation since World War II. Donald Trump failed miserably and whatever your views about Joe Biden and the Democratic Party in February were, by late-March those thoughts should have been parked for the greater good. Yes, some Democrats dropped the ball on this pandemic (especially a few local officials here in Florida), but not Joe Biden. In fact, he was the first American politician of any stature to alert our country to the danger, something he did in January. If COVID-19 didn’t change your attitudes I do not know what possibly could.
4- Do progressives have an nonredeemable disdain for religion and people of faith? I am beginning to wonder about this, as my consistent lauding of Biden’s Catholic faith gets some pretty scary push-back. I am a secular person who is non-religious. However, most Americans are people of faith, including many minorities. Exhibiting a disdain for religion means you can never build a popular majority. Period.
2020 is not 2016 or 2004 or 1996
So, progressives, like it or not, Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee for President in 2020. Whether those who claim to believe in social and economic justice like the fact he’s the only person that can defeat Donald Trump, the reality is just this – only his election can save this nation and by extension the world from the United States being the leading light for authoritarian fascism and not liberal democracy. The stakes could not be higher.
Donald Trump’s America has aligned the US with authoritarian dictatorships, Islamists and anti-Semites instead of the our traditional network of alliances with western democracies. He’s sacrificed the US’ global leadership during a worldwide pandemic. He’s put his personal relationship with dictators over the shared liberal values we have with our allies. I could go on and on, and if some progressives feel somehow Biden and Trump are the same, heaven help them.
No Presidential election in modern American history has meant this much. The only one that comes close is 1980 and that went badly wrong for our side (though in fairness, many didn’t realize this at the time). 1932 would be the last one that went right of this magnitude.
Joe Biden is NOT Bill or Hillary Clinton
Joe Biden is unlike the Clinton family, truly progressive in his instincts and has a record of nearly 50 years to back up that claim. He spoke out forcefully against apartheid at a time many American leaders saw South Africa as a Cold War ally and the African National Congress and imprisoned Nelson Mandela as socialist, allies of the Soviet Union.
On the much talked about Crime Bill of 1994, yes, Biden did author it. But the context of that bill was this :
1- Democrats like Biden were anxious to get an all-encompassing Assault Weapons Ban passed.
2- Yes Democrats put more cops on the street but the GOP alternative was to build more prisons.
3- Criminal Justice law changes pushed by Biden were SIGNIFICANTLY less than what Republicans in the Congress led by Florida Representative and future state Attorney General Bill McCollum wanted.
To use this legislation as some sort of evidence that Biden is a bad guy, Trump-like yet not take into consideration the context of the time or the debate is disingenuous to say the least or perhaps deliberate sabotage by a group of folks who simply do not want him to win.
Still that is not enough for too many activists on the left.
I had hoped those who kept fighting the good fight for progressive principles following Bernie Sanders withdrawal would be respectful in their critiques. But many simply haven’t been and seem to forget we’re in the middle of a global pandemic – in fact a few behave like victimized narcissists, who hold a patent on what is the truth and behave like their credibility can be unchallenged. The self righteous nature of some influences on the left, is likely an act or an act of narcissism. These individuals must always be complaining, always be screaming, always be right and everyone else wrong, corrupt or compromised.
Sometimes former Sanders supporters behave like Jacobins in Revolutionary France. Agree with them 99% but cross them once and they’ll have your head chopped off. But the Democratic establishment is even worse. They demand complete conformity and hysterical cries of Russia did it, while implying everything Trump tweets could end the republic as we know it. Failure to agree with this means you’re hurting the party and country.
In the midst of a pandemic which has had disproportionate impact on the United States and Florida as well recent protests over police brutality and racism, some influences on the left want to continue to pretend that Biden is the same President Donald Trump.
I am a progressive but feel distant from the movement recently. We’ve had two shots to win the Democratic nomination and lost. Now it’s time to unite the country. Any fights over policy and ideology can be saved for when Joe Biden is President.
Joe Biden’s real appeal
Once again I would stress so much of , this election is about white working class voters, largely Catholic in Rust Belt and Upper Midwest. We must also ensure heavy African-American turnout in the cities of that region and females in the suburbs of that region. That’s it. Period. That’s the Election. Either Biden wins these votes or Trump keeps these votes. The winner wins the Election. End of story.
Anyway back to Biden.
The reputation of Biden as a centrist seems to have been cemented by being Barack Obama’s Vice President. I’ve said time and again I am disturbed by many of Obama’s foreign policy decisions but other like the opening of Cuba and the Iran, were enlightened. I agree we had a real issue with Obama’s administrations’ unwillingness to properly enforce antitrust laws on big business. But think about this. Would you rather have Obama or Trump? That question is easy to answer and in the case of Biden he has an extensive record beyond just being Obama’s VP.
The Real Joe Biden
Biden in the Senate was never any sort of mushy moderate like Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Bob Kerrey and so many others that he served with or was around. Those votes and stands that now look conservative were to the left at the time. I can even defend the constant out of context commentary he gave on Social Security and Medicare in 1995- a time when the Democratic Party itself we feared might go out of existence after the jolt of the 1994 Election and Newt Gingrich’s crusade against government spending. Biden’s proposals and thoughts were to the left – the playing field was on the right and we as a party felt we needed to give some ground on entitlements. That’s why Biden spoke the way he did in 1995, in clips now widely circulating on Twitter.
The implication he is somehow similar to the Clinton’s and Lieberman’s of the world is not only incorrect – it’s an indication how hysterical the left has become. I personally regret my own role in feeding this sort of hysteria in the past on the pages of this website or my Twitter feed – I stand by what I say but did not mean to to apply to Biden personally or 2020 in general. My critiques about the Democratic establishment, CNN and MSNBC in the past remain valid and my belief. But those should not be conflated into think Biden is some sort of centrist even if he says he is and they promote him as such.
In fact, Biden was long a leading liberal. Perhaps sitting in 2020, making judgement about votes in 1980, bills sponsored in 1990 or speeches given on the floor in 1995, without any sort of perspective on the times and the atmosphere in the Senate it is easy to say “he wasn’t one of us.” Well that sort of selective memory and cherry-picking of facts might explain why the Democrats as a whole are so bad at defining their message, or winning elections. That might also explain why younger millennial’s never exposed to Biden’s best days have no idea about him besides being an “Obama guy”. Biden’s record is generally left of where Obama’s ended up being. As Vice President he backed the Administration but my view is he may have done things differently particularly on immigration and foreign interventions if he had been President instead. For starters he may not have made Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, which was one of the root causes of Obama’s hawkishness in my estimation.
So here is the true Joe Biden as I have observed him through the years. Yes he has some bad votes on financial regulation (MBNA is based in Delaware) and mixed record on reproductive choice which was no different from Democratic leaders of the era such as Dick Gephardt, David Bonior, Harry Reid and others. The 2002 Iraq War vote was unfortunate and something I opposed at the time, but considering how many liberal Democrats in both chambers cast the same vote, it’s tough to single Biden out on it. This is especially true given Biden in 2006 had in my view, the ONLY realistic plan in my opinion by a Democrat or Republican to get out of the war and create a situation where the region would not continue to fall deeper and deeper into sectarian violence.
I also do not like the way he treated Anita Hill, but seems to have grown from that rather sad chapter in his legislative career which was now almost 30 years ago. The Hill episode was a sorry tale, and Biden wasn’t alone in the crime. But it is something he’s had to own up for and largely inexcusable. But people make mistakes, I bet if we pried deeper into the record of those taking shots at Biden we’d find similar lapses in judgement.
In spite of Iraq, Hill and MBNA I think he has so much more of his record was positive. His Senate votes were closer to established liberal lions like Howard Metzenbaum and Ted Kennedy than conservative Democrats like David Boren, Jim Exon or Ben Nighthorse Campbell (who switched parties in 1995). Biden was a liberal, period. Was he Paul Wellstone? No, but he was probably closer in spirit to Wellstone than he was to Bill Clinton if I am perfectly honest. Biden was NEVER associated with the “third way,” DLC politics of Clinton, Joe Lieberman or Dave McCurdy. It’s important progressives knowing Biden will be the Democratic standard bearer keep him to the left, where instinctively on many issues he resides.
I personally watched in the Senate gallery in 1996, Biden give a speech defending Social Security – yes he made reference to efforts to work with Chuck Grassley to cap spending in the 1980’s – but in the context of that discussion and one the previous year he was trying to establish credibility for opposing GOP cuts. Biden fought GOP attempts to raid the Social Security trust fund to protect the program for future generations in that period even if it meant on the surface giving some ground. The idea he wants to cut Social Security has been taken completely out of perspective – the program may have been gutted completely in that period.
Biden first came to my attention as young boy obsessed with the news in the 1980’s because he was one of the loudest voices condemning the Reagan Administration’s softness of the Apartheid South African government. He even went to South Africa to try and meet Nelson Mandela (Biden’s embellishment of this claiming incorrectly he was arrested doesn’t take away the fact that he was an anti-apartheid champion) . I do worry though that with the current number of Republican foreign policy hawks of that era, now part of the Democrats efforts to defeat Donald Trump that Biden will become softer on these sorts of humanitarian matters and challenging right-wing dictatorships. So progressives need to make sure he stays true to his values.
He went directly after Robert Bork, the most dangerous Supreme Court nominee of my lifetime (including the likes of Scalia, Gorsuch, etc which should tell you how bad Bork was) to the point of killing his nomination. Biden paid for this stand when his health declined right after and he was accused of plagiarism driving him out of the 1988 Presidential race. Make no mistake about it – the plagiarism charge stemmed from the early days of the right-wing propaganda machine (which would dominate politics in the 1990’s) as revenge for his killing of the Bork nomination which resulted in the much more pragmatic Anthony Kennedy ending up on the court.
He was then prime sponsor of the Assault Weapons Ban and carried the Brady Bill through the Senate against intense opposition. The oft-cited and misinterpreted Crime Bill he sponsored was considered liberal at the time. Just check the voting record – the VAST majority of left-leaning Democrats voted for the bill. The VAST majority.
Biden also showed leadership on getting President Clinton’s tax increases through the Senate, ending the Bush tax cuts, pushing legislation on Climate Change before it was on most people’s radar and backing serious Campaign Finance Reform.
Throughout the 1990’s Biden regularly fought Jesse Helms and the reactionary wing of the GOP on issues of foreign aid, humanitarian assistance and US military engagements abroad. In 1999, right in the middle of the period Helms and the GOP were trying to run a foreign policy out of the Senate that bucked the Clinton Administration, Biden was ranked by National Journal, the single most liberal member of the Senate on foreign affairs.
During that period, Biden supported the important actions in the Balkans, opposed by isolationist Republicans who now have become MAGA-hate wearing officials. These action saved Muslims in the region from total slaughter at the hands of the Serbs.
Throughout the 1990’s Biden’s record tended to be to the left on social issues, with the exception of his support for the Hyde Amendment (which was at the time supported by other members of the Democratic leadership) and his wishy-washy stance on other abortion restrictions. On foreign policy, he tended to stick to the Democratic line and support multilateral efforts, the sort of alliance building abandoned by George W. Bush and rejected completely by Donald Trump. At the time his leadership on foreign affairs was critical to pushing back against the radicalization of the right on international policy and the extreme push toward unilateralism.
In the 1990’s and Bush II years, Biden often aggressively clashed with Republicans on these issues. Understanding this requires trying to get a grasp on foreign policy as the complex set of times it is, not just reflexively saying “Biden voted for the Iraq War he is a neo-conservative.” But in this era nuance and actual evaluation of these complex issues seems to be lacking, allowing other Democrats and their media allies to misrepresent Biden’s very positive record on foreign affairs.
Practicality is something many of the more vocal elements on the Democratic left seem to be lacking these days. But even more lacking is context- Joe Biden’s 36-year Senate record is being dissected as if those 36 years were all served in the world the new millennium has created, with today’s political and social standards. I for one have been offended by this drumbeat of selective memory bordering on outright ignorance without any sort of context.
For those unhappy with the drift of the Democrats toward identity politics, Biden’s working class Roman Catholic background can help buck the trend and help in the state I reference above that matter the most.
While some of Biden’s votes in the Senate look conservative in the lens of 2019, they certainly weren’t in the lens of 1983, 1993 or 2003. Context as stated several times in this piece is severely lacking.
In a world where politicians including some champions of leftist economics enrich themselves, Biden stands as a politician that hasn’t gotten filthy rich. He’s not enriching himself making the speeches in front of Wall Street forms that Hillary Clinton did for example. He’s remained a regular guy, or as much of one as a long-standing high-level office holder can be.
So the bottom line is this – Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee and one with a more progressive long-term record than any Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. Only he can stop the US’ drift toward a further embrace of authoritarianism, rejection of science, non-combating of a pandemic and all of the shady fascist-styled corruption and governance MAGA Trumpism gives us. If you want to be an open enabler of that, then by all means vote third party of for Trump. If you want an America that reflects its best values again, vote for Joe Biden and his running-mate Kamala Harris. We can have the battle about how that best America looks once Biden is in office.