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2020 race: Joe Biden will never give up on the system

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“Any day of the week you can read or hear about the lamentable state of our nation’s politics, about our bitter and partisan party divisions, about the regrettable coarseness of the discourse,” wrote Joe Biden in his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep. “I don’t deny it, but from inside the arena none of it feels irreversible or fatal.”

From inside the arena. These four words are the key to understanding Joe Biden. There is no major figure in modern American politics who has been in the arena as long as Biden. He was elected to the Senate in 1972, at the age of 29. He remained in the Senate until 2009, when, at age 66, he left to serve as Barack Obama’s vice president. That, too, was an office thick with senatorial duties, deals, and relationships. It wasn’t until 2017, when Biden was in his 70s, that he was truly severed from the daily workings of the US Senate.

Long experience inside the political system leaves many embittered. But it has left Biden optimistic. His book, which accompanied his 2008 campaign for the presidency, is a love letter to his decades in the Senate, thick with kindnesses remembered and friendships memorialized. I have rarely read a workplace discussed so fondly. I have never seen a political institution sketched so kindly. It’s an affection that infuses his politics even today.

Senator-elect Joe Biden and wife Nelia cut his 30th birthday cake in 1972. She would die in a car crash shortly thereafter.
Bettmann Archive

“The system’s worked pretty damn well,” Biden says. “It’s called the Constitution. It says you have to get a consensus to get anything done.” Biden knows something, or thinks he knows something, the cynics don’t. Consensus is possible. Compromise is admirable. The Senate is composed of 100 complex, decent individuals, most of whom are susceptible to his charms. And what’s true for the Senate is true across American politics. It’s only by seeing the humanity of our political opponents — be they Republicans or Dixiecrat segregationists — that we can bridge our political divides.

To understand Biden’s confidence in this, you need to understand the unique experience he’s had in the Senate. Biden’s career began in tragedy, and his colleagues have seen him through grief, humiliation, and convalescence. The names that pockmark landmark legislation and dot our history books were his friends, and in seeing his vulnerability, they revealed theirs. The Senate isn’t just an institution to Joe Biden. It’s a home.

Months after Biden’s election to the Senate in 1972, his wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash. His eldest son, Beau, was left in a full-body cast, and his younger son, Hunter, has head injuries. Biden wanted to resign his seat. But Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, wouldn’t hear of it.

“Mansfield would not give up on me,” Biden recalls. “He kept calling to check on me. He reminded me that he had put me on the Democratic Steering Committee, the group that chose the committee selections, which was unheard of for a freshman senator at that time. There was a fight brewing over a new slot on Finance, and he needed my help. I really did not care.”

But Mansfield kept calling. He called every day. “He was trying so hard to engage me in something outside that hospital room,” Biden says. And eventually, it worked. He convinced Biden to give him six months. If Biden found the Senate hollow, if he couldn’t grieve and parent and heal within its confines, he could resign. Biden agreed. Six months.

Senator Joseph Biden takes the oath of office from the U.S. Senate’s secretary, Frank Valeo, with his father-in-law Robert Hunter and son Joseph Beau Biden at his side, in Beau’s hospital room, on January 06, 1973.

Biden takes the oath of office from the Senate’s secretary, Frank Valeo, with his father-in-law Robert Hunter and son Beau Biden, from Beau’s hospital room, on January 6, 1973.
Bettmann Archive

When Biden got to the Senate, he wasn’t just another first-termer. He was defined by grief, not by politics, and the institution closed ranks around him. “Mansfield asked me to come by his office at least once a week to see how I was handling my Senate duties,” Biden writes. “He tried to make it seem like he did this with all the freshmen senators, but I knew better. He was taking my pulse.”

It wasn’t just Mansfield. Ted Kennedy insisted that Biden become his regular gym buddy. Hubert Humphrey planned him a surprise vacation. A group of senators who hosted regular Wednesday night dinners forced Biden to attend, just to make sure he was getting out of the house. “I can never forget the friendship of Tom and Barbara Eagleton, Fritz and Peatsy Hollings, Ted and Ann Stevens, Bill and Dolly Saxbe, Frank and Bethune Church, and Stuart Symington, who had just lost his own wife,” Biden says. “When I look back, I realize how lucky I was to work in a place where so many people went out of their way to watch over me.”

The tragedy that marked Biden’s entrance into the Senate was not the last crisis he would undergo while serving in the chamber. In 1988, Biden was running for president and chairing the Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. Michael Dukakis’s campaign leaked video of Biden repeating a speech from British politician Neil Kinnock without credit. Biden had credited Kinnock at other times, but that day, at that time, he hadn’t.

Biden was branded a plagiarist, and withdrew from the race in shame. Then news broke of a law school hearing after Biden had improperly footnoted sources. As the scandal threatened to engulf both his career and the Bork hearings, Biden hastily called a meeting of the Judiciary Committee and offered to step down as chair.

“There was silence, and for a moment, in the space of that quiet, I felt lost,” Biden recalls. “For the first time I wondered if I’d lost the confidence of my colleagues on the committee. The ranking Republican spoke first. ‘Absolutely not,’ Sen. Strom Thurmond said. ‘You’re my chairman.’” Thurmond’s support was affirmed by the rest of the committee members, both Republicans and Democrats. The show of solidarity, coming as it did in the teeth of public humiliation, meant the world to Biden. “That was probably the most personally gratifying hour I had ever had in the United States Senate,” he says.

Sen. Strom Thurmond and Sen. Joseph Biden during the Robert Bork Hearings.

Sens. Strom Thurmond and Biden during the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination hearings.
Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

A few months later, Biden collapsed in a hotel room. Doctors found an aneurysm bleeding into his brain. Scans revealed a second on the other side of his skull. Biden needed a series of dangerous surgeries to save his life, and there was a good chance he’d die on the operating table, or emerge with permanent loss of faculties.

As he painfully, slowly recuperated, his colleagues were there for him again. They called daily, even though his wife wouldn’t put the calls through. Finally, Ted Kennedy simply showed up in Delaware and demanded to see Biden. He brought with him a painting of an Irish stag, with the words, “To my Irish Chairman,” written on it.

When Biden reentered the chamber, his colleagues passed a resolution welcoming him back. “The only time I got choked up was after the tributes on the floor of the Senate,” Biden says. “The Senate had been like a second home to me for more than fifteen years, and it felt good to be home.”

But sometimes, the inside of an institution can deceive you as to its true nature. It can lead you to explain away the compromises and abuses, to ignore the larger forces constraining their decisions. When you work every day with individuals, when you hear their rationalizations and sympathize with their decisions, you can lose sight of the structures shaping their behavior. To that end, I want to relay another story Biden tells, because it perfectly encapsulates the tension between the political and personal interpretations of the Senate.

“Jesse Helms, the Republican from North Carolina, drove me crazy at first,” he writes. “Jesse was elected the same year I was, running against Communists, minorities, homosexuals, Martin Luther King, and anybody else who was diminishing what he saw as the God-given prerogatives of white men.”

Biden complained to Mansfield, only to be cut off by his mentor. “Listen, Joe,” he told me. “Everybody who is here has something. The people who elected them saw something good about them.” Helms had adopted a child with cerebral palsy after seeing his plea in a local newspaper, Mansfield said. “Your job here is to find the good things in your colleagues — the things their state saw — and not focus on the bad.” It was, Biden says, “the single most important piece of advice I got in my career.”

But Jesse Helms wasn’t elected because he had adopted a child with cerebral palsy. He was elected because he ran against “Communists, minorities, homosexuals, Martin Luther King, and anybody else who was diminishing what he saw as the God-given prerogatives of white men.” Helms’s white identity politics wasn’t incidental to his appeal; it was the substance of his appeal. To their colleagues, politicians may be defined by their personal kindnesses, but to the country, they are defined and judged by their politics.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright greets Sen. Jesse Helms, R-NC (left) the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and committee member Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), before testifying on Capitol Hill on October 7, 1999.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright greets Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on October 7, 1999. At center is committee member Biden.
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Biden has lived a life inside the Senate. He sees the chamber as an emergent property of 100 individuals, every one of them more complex and nuanced and sympathetic than the partisan cut-outs we see on cable news. To him, that is the deep truth revealed by his decades of experience, the hidden knowledge that will let him make American politics work again.

“Some of these people are saying. ‘Biden just doesn’t get it,’” he said in his announcement speech. “You can’t work with Republicans anymore. That’s not the way it works anymore. Well, folks, I’m going to say something outrageous. I know how to make government work — not because I’ve talked or tweeted about it, but because I’ve done it. I’ve worked across the aisle to reach consensus. To help make government work in the past. I can do that again with your help.”

This is a central divide in the Democratic primary: Biden believes the system is sound, and his experience and relationships will let him restore its functionality. The candidates he’s running against do not have his experience in the Senate, and many of them see a broken institution in need of structural reform. “Any decisions that are based on an assumption of good faith by Republicans in the Senate will be defeated,” Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana mayor and 2020 hopeful, told me.

So this, then is the question: Has Biden’s experience taught him how American politics can work, or deceived him as to why it doesn’t?

The lesson of the segregationists

Last week, Biden set off a furor in the campaign by riffing on his work with southern segregationists in a fundraiser. “You have to be able to reach consensus under our system — our constitutional system of separation of powers,” he said. This is where Biden turned to the segregationists:

“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Mr. Biden said, briefly channeling the late Mississippi senator’s Southern drawl. Mr. Biden said of Mr. Eastland, “He never called me boy, he always called me son.” Mr. Biden then brought up a deceased Georgia senator, “a guy like Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys. Well guess what? 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.”

It’s a tone-deaf riff — the “he always called me son” line is particularly cringeworthy — that makes more sense if you’ve read Biden’s book, where he talks about Eastland, Talmadge, and other segregationists at length, and where the role they play in his morality tale is clearer.

Eastland is mentioned 24 times in Promises to Keep. He initially appears as a villain. Biden is arguing for public funding of elections, and his Democratic colleagues are silent. It’s Eastland who finally speaks up. “They tell me you’re the youngest man in the history of America ever elected to the U.S. Senate,” Eastland said. “Y’all keep making speeches like you made today, and you gonna be the youngest one-term senator in the history of America.”

The thing is, Eastland had power. He “was probably as far apart from me on civil rights as any man in the Senate,” Biden writes, but he was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, where Biden was desperate to serve. So Biden began cozying up to him. Asking him questions. Flattering him. Eventually, Biden’s personal diplomacy worked. “At the end of my first term, Eastland gave me a spot on Judiciary,” Biden says, “he also offered to come to Delaware for my next campaign. ‘I’ll campaign for ya or against ya, Joe. Whichever way you think helps you the most.’”

Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr., Deconcini, Charles MC C. Mathias Jr., Howard M. Metzenbaum and Thurmond, during the Sen. Judiciary Comm. hearing on Chief Justice nominee William H. Rehnquist, on July 01, 1986.

Thurmond (lower right) and Biden, with Sens. Dennis DeConcini, Charles M.C. Mathias, and Howard M. Metzenbaum, during a Judiciary Committee hearing on Supreme Court nominee William H. Rehnquist, on July 1, 1986.
Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Biden tells the story of Eastland to make a point about the Senate he knew. It is a place where two men as far apart on core issues as he and Eastland could come to respect each other, even work with each other. Biden’s recollections are suffused with respect for the pluralistic dimension of the body: He isn’t there to judge his colleagues, he’s there to work with them, and the stories he tells glorify the times when he did.

This is both the strength and weakness of Biden’s approach to politics: It is relentlessly personal, built atop relationships and flattery and phone calls. But there isn’t a hint of structural analysis to be found. What he misses is the context of his relationship with Eastland. And in missing that context, he draws the wrong lesson.

The story of Biden and Eastland’s relationship is the story of the mid-20th century US Senate in miniature. Eastland was a conservative and a segregationist, but he was, like Biden, a Democrat. The existence of these conservative Southern Democrats — the Dixiecrats — was the fundamental fact of Congress in the mid-20th century.

The Southern Democratic Party was an institution unto itself. As the political scientist V.O. Key Jr. observed, “the one-party system of the South is an institution with an odd dual personality. In state politics the Democratic party is no party at all but a multiplicity of factions struggling for office. In national politics, on the contrary, the party is the Solid South; it is, or at least has been, the instrument for the conduct of the ‘foreign relations’ of the South with the rest of the nation.”

The Dixiecrats had hegemonic control of the South. They ran it as an authoritarian state built to sustain a violent racial hierarchy. And they protected their autonomy by currying favor with, and amassing power in, the national Democratic Party.

For Southern Dixiecrats, good relationships with the broader Democratic Party were the currency of Southern power. So long as they had seniority and allies, they could protect the South. The moment they didn’t, they were endangered.

By the time Biden got to Congress, the Civil Rights Act had passed, and the realignment of the South from Dixiecrat to Republican was beginning. But it would take decades for the Dixiecrats to die out. In Biden’s day, the Southerners still had the seniority, they still wanted allies, and they were still, crucially, Democrats. If you wanted to succeed as a Senate Democrat in 1973, you needed their help.

Biden understood all this. “Southern Democrats chaired a majority of the standing committees and all the most important ones,” he writes. He goes on to tell a story in which James Stennis, the segregationist senator from Mississippi, wandered into the Senate dining room, only to find all the chairs taken. Biden quickly assessed the situation:

“Mr. Chairman, I’m finished,” I told him as I rose to leave. “Please take my seat.” And I left before I could finish eating. Stennis must have figured it out. That afternoon a Senate page delivered a sealed envelope from Stennis’s office. In the envelope was an embossed note card: “Your kindness did not go unnoticed,” he’d written in his own hand, “and will be remembered.”

It was a savvy move, and Biden is proud enough to recall it decades later. In the Senate of that time, courtesies like that were how you got ahead. But he mistakes the comity of the era as personal when it was structural. As the political scientist Sam Rosenfeld writes, “the civility was an effect rather than a cause of the bipartisanship.” The Democratic Party included conservatives and liberals, and the Republican Party did the same. That made coalitions easy to build, and good relations followed. This was a high point in split-ticket voting, an era in which party affiliation was loose and political identities were weak. It had its charms.

But in extolling its virtues, Biden ignores its horrors. This civility was built atop a boneyard. The coalitional politics of the US Senate gave outsize power to unreconstructed racists. I don’t criticize Biden for cozying up to Stennis. But I do fault him for missing the larger picture, which is that it was shameful that he had to cozy up to Stennis; it reflected the fact that the Senate gave Southern racists outsize power, with deadly results.

Biden isn’t trying to defend the segregationists’ racial opinions when he tells these stories. But what he sees as a virtuous era of compromise reflects a shameful period in our history, and in the institution in which he served. The Southern Dixiecrats had the power to slow-walk civil rights legislation, and they wielded that power cunningly, ferociously, and with a smile.

The Civil Rights Act being enacted by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964.

The Civil Rights Act being enacted by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Biden could cut deals with Eastland because it was in Eastland’s interest to cut deals with him. Eastland’s power — his committee chairmanship — came from remaining a Democrat in good standing. If he didn’t cut deals and build relationships with young bucks like Biden, his influence was over. This was the strategy and the structure of the Dixiecrat bloc.

Biden wasn’t a master legislator at age 30, he was one piece in a much larger game, a game that was ending even if the players didn’t yet know it. That is not a knock on him. We are almost all pawns of the larger forces that order our worlds. What’s important is to be aware of that fact, to not get so caught up in our individual stories that we lose sight of the structures that shape us.

The Republicans of today may be the inheritors of the Dixiecrats’ seats, but they have adopted an entirely different strategy. It is not in McConnell’s interest to cut true deals with Biden. Here again, Biden is a pawn in the politics of his era, not the master. The problem is he doesn’t seem to realize it.

The myth of Biden’s dealmaking

Joe Biden is running for president in 2020, not 1976. It is his theory of the future, not his recollections of the past, that matter most. And so it’s the very next paragraph of the pool report that set off the Eastland controversy that deserves attention.

“Folks, I believe one of the things I’m pretty good at is bringing people together. 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 idea Mitch McConnell and I are buddies? Mitch McConnell is really a tough nut. But it’s real simple. We went up, the members were going to close down the government on New Year’s Day, I went up, I got him and I said, ‘OK, we’ll make a deal. You raise taxes $650 billion dollars on the top 1 percent — you guys — and we’ll keep the tax cut under $250,000.’ More than I wanted, less than he wanted. We got it done. I can give you 50 examples.”

“So folks, sometimes it’s brass knuckles. You’ve got to fight hard and stay with principle and not move on it. I’m not bad at that. The Affordable Care Act, we didn’t have a single solitary vote from the opposition.” But Mr. Biden noted that on the Recovery Act, he was able to get three Republican votes. “Presidents have to be able to persuade a little bit. In that milieu, I’m not that bad. I’m not bad. The point being, we can do these things. It’s all within our wheelhouse.”

A few points on this. A lot of Democratsincluding Harry Reid — are still angry about the deal Biden cut on the tax cliff back in 2012, as there’s a good argument that it would have been better to let the tax cuts expire and force Republicans to come to the table in the aftermath. I don’t want to adjudicate that debate here.

President Obama Delivers State Of The Union Address

Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell arrive on Capitol Hill on February 12, 2013.
Photo by Charles Dharapak-Pool/Getty Images

The bigger issue with Biden’s recollections is that he seems confused about the role he really played. Biden didn’t create these deals. He was a vessel for them. When McConnell knew he needed to make a deal with Obama but didn’t want the blowback of negotiating with the person his base hated most, Biden acted as the go-between. That’s a valuable role, and Biden was well-suited to it. But if Biden is president, then he’ll be the guy McConnell’s base hates most.

In the year’s since the Dixiecrats fell, America’s political parties have polarized. There are no more liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats in Congress. We have sorted by race, religion, geography, ideology, identity, and culture. Our feelings towards our own parties have held relatively steady, but our contempt for the other side has increased dramatically. There are few deals to be had because it’s rarely in the other party’s interest to make a deal. Bipartisanship is irrational. Gridlock is the result.

The problem, as so many have observed, is that we have polarized parties in a system that requires compromise. One possible answer to that is to somehow reduce the polarization of the parties. Another is to make the system less reliant on compromise, so polarized majorities can govern.

This is where your theory of the case really matters. Biden’s career has convinced him that compromise is possible, and that he has an almost unique ability to work with senators of all ideological persuasions. I can see why he looks across the Senate and sees people rather than partisans, why he posits his experience and approach as an antidote to polarization. But I worry his personal experience has misled him. There is really no evidence that he can overcome the bitter polarization of this period.

Democratic presidential candidate, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks during his campaign kickoff rally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 18, 2019.

Biden speaks during his presidential campaign kickoff rally in Philadelphia on May 18, 2019.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The stimulus passed, barely, but when Democrats needed to go back to the well to get more as the economy continued to worsen, Republicans rebuffed them — Biden included. The Affordable Care Act incorporated Republican ideas but, as Biden notes, didn’t receive a single Republican vote (and far from Biden proving his mettle in that fight, he was among the administration voices counseling Obama against comprehensive health reform). Merrick Garland was a compromise nominee for the Supreme Court, but he couldn’t get a hearing. The bipartisan deals that did happen came amid cliffs, crises, and shutdowns — they were evidence of dysfunction, not consensus.

On the margin, Biden may be the candidate with the best chance of getting legislation through the system as it exists today. If McConnell is the majority leader, if 51 Democrats are still subject to the whims of the filibuster, he might be able to squeeze a bit more out of his former colleagues than his competitors can. But that would be a small-bore, incremental presidency.

There is a case to be made for Biden on these grounds. Perhaps the dreams of systemic reform are simply that — dreams. Republicans are likely to hold the Senate majority in 2020. Even if Democrats win back the gavel, it’s unlikely they will mobilize behind divisive procedural reforms when they could pass tangible policy improving people’s lives. Joe Biden may be too rooted in the way the Senate used to work, but at least he is rooted in the Senate itself, rather than in fantasy.

But if you believe that the problems of American politics have passed from the personal to the structural, this is cold comfort. A president with less recollection of how legislating worked in past eras may be freer to imagine the reforms necessary to make it work in the future. Biden is probably the candidate least likely to prioritize ambitious reform of the system. In seeing the humanity of his colleagues so clearly, he has lost sight of the structure that surrounds them; 45 years of personal kindnesses, and a career built in the age of mixed parties, can do a lot to obscure the overarching power of polarization.

In his book, Biden reflects on an argument he had with Hubert Humphrey over public housing. Biden thinks the policy has been an obvious failure, but he tries to empathize with Humphrey’s position. “He’d been fighting for fair housing, social welfare, and racial equality since the early forties, when those causes were often lonely ones,” Biden realizes. “He didn’t back down when they called him a traitor to his race or soft on Communism. His idea of who he was was formed in that fight.”

Biden’s idea of who he is was formed in the more collegial Congress of the late 20th century. It was formed amidst the kindnesses of his colleagues, inside an institution that began as a workplace and, in his worst moments, became a home. He’s never going to give up on it, because it never gave up on him.

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