“Vote for the most conservative candidate who can win.” More than a half-century ago, that was William F. Buckley’s message to antsy Republicans who preferred more conservative candidates. It was practical if unromantic advice that ultimately took root. “Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line,” goes the current political wisdom. It is but one reason Republicans continue to fleece Democrats in elections. But who said winning isn’t romantic?
Democrats seem to have finally gotten the message: electability matters. It is, arguably, the only thing that matters. Imagine a world in which we are not yet halfway through Trump’s presidency, and you will understand why electability should be one of your primary concerns. The Democratic Primary is, by definition, not a good measure of viability in the general election, especially when it comes to swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. I ask you, is Joe Biden not guaranteed to win Pennsylvania by merely existing? Does any other candidate get you 20 electoral votes right out of the gate? You win elections not with the polity you wish you had, but the polity you have. (Oh dear, it seems I can’t stop quoting Republicans!)
But, say progressives, does he lean far enough left? Can this elderly, cis-gendered, heterosexual white male be trusted to lead a party as diverse as ours? I should say so. And I say so emphatically.
Biden was the co-sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act (the other co-sponsor was Orin Hatch, a Republican from Utah). He helped push through the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. One of his first actions in Congress was extending the Voting Rights Act. He has been denied communion because of his pro-choice views on abortion. And if for nothing more than the historical record, let us make one thing clear: When, in the name of political pragmatism, Barack Obama was dragging his feet on publicly supporting marriage equality, it was Joe Biden who lit a fire under the former president’s behind. While North Carolina was debating — and would ultimately go on to pass — a prohibition of gay marriage, it was Joe Biden who went on “Meet the Press” to endorse marriage equality, a significant departure from the White House.
“Look, I am Vice President of the United States of America,” he said. “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights and all the civil liberties.”
Three days later, the political pressure was so unbearable that Barack Obama became the first sitting president to endorse same-sex marriage. And if you don’t believe that where the president stands affects the country, I invite you to revisit the last three years of American life.
That’s the main difference between Joe Biden and the other primary contestants. It is the difference between future tense and past tense. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg would do things. Joe Biden has done things. (One must be kind to Amy Klobuchar, who has done quite a bit in her own right. Joe Biden, however, has done more.)
In fairness, many of Biden’s decisions haven’t aged well, among them being his treatment of Anita Hill, his authorship of the 1994 crime bill (specifically its sentencing and enforcement provisions), his lack of support for busing, and his amiability with segregationists.
It deserves to be said: There is no excuse for the way he treated Anita Hill. But concerning everything else, a healthy dose of political nuance is relevant.
Many leaders in the black community both supported and advocated for the crime bill as a way to curb violence in their communities. It didn’t work, but there is no reason to punish Joe Biden in particular. (Incidentally, the crime bill also included the Violence Against Women’s Act, mentioned above, as well as provisions for funding community policing.)
On busing, Biden wasn’t out of step with the black community either, and this columnist can’t help but to notice that no one (not even Kamala Harris herself!) supports busing as a way of ameliorating existing inequality in our school districts. (For white liberals in particular, I invite you to read Farah Stockman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning commentary which touches on this subject. Of particular interest to you should be “Did busing slow the city’s desegregation?” and “In schools, can separate be equal?”)
On his working with segregationists, Biden has a defender worth listening to, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who endorsed the vice president this week. “Where would I be today if, when I got elected to Congress back in 1992, I refused to work with J. Strom Thurmond, an avowed segregationist, trying to get things done in my community?” Clyburn asked. “... I can’t tell you on how many things I worked with Strom Thurmond since I’ve been here.”
It is not merely the job of a progressive politician to work with those with whom he disagrees, it is his responsibility. It’s why we put them in the fight. Progress means getting things done. Getting things done means sometimes doing things you’d rather not. Otherwise, we are King Lear screaming into the wind while Mitch McConnell lies next to us, poking fun.
Speaking of Mitch McConnell, Biden is the only candidate who has a working — and successful — relationship with the man. Whenever McConnell and Obama reached an impasse, both men reached out to Joe Biden to help bridge the divide. Together, the men managed to avoid a government shutdown. Together they raised the debt limit. Biden even got McConnell to raise taxes and increase unemployment benefits. And when Beau Biden, Joe Biden’s son, died in 2015, the New York Times reports that “Mr. McConnell was the only Senate Republican to attend his funeral.”
Democrats, here’s the deal: For the past three years, we have been complaining that Donald Trump is destroying everything we’ve come to love about America, accomplishments we achieved through a combination of activism and pragmatism, an awkward dance of pressure from the outside and political maneuverings on the inside.
Both sides have not been above reproach (does anyone remember when the feminist movement expelled black women and allowed eugenicists into their ranks?). But for longer than I have been alive, Joe Biden has been our man on the inside, the one pushing the policies for which we agitate. We’ve accomplished quite a bit together.
Let’s roll with him for another four years.