As Democratic voters begin to consider who to make their standard-bearer in the 2020 election, Joe Biden has held an early, commanding lead in the polls, fueled by the belief that he’s the best Democrat to take on Donald Trump. The former vice president spent the closing weeks of the 2018 midterms in what Politico called a “working class whisperer tour” to the midwestern states that Trump carried. Emphasizing his Scranton, Pennsylvania, roots, Biden styled himself in stop after stop as “Middle-Class Joe,” savoring praise from fellow Democrats as the “kind of guy you could have a beer with.”
This version of “folksy Joe” even touted himself as “labor from belt buckle to shoe buckle.” There’s only one problem with this carefully cultivated image: Joe Biden’s entire career.
In more than four decades of public service, Biden has enthusiastically championed policies favored by financial elites, forging alliances with Wall Street and the political right to notch legislative victories that ran counter to the populist ideas that now animate his party. If he declares for the presidency, Biden will face a Democratic electorate that has moved on from his brand of politics.
Feuding With Ted Kennedy
Biden first came to the nation’s capital in 1973 as the junior senator from Delaware, one of the few bright spots for Democrats in a disastrous 1972 election. Like most new members of Congress, he exercised little influence in his early years. At 30, he was barely eligible for Senate service, even younger than Ted Kennedy had been when he took over his brother’s Senate seat in 1962. An inexperienced Biden looked up to Kennedy, revering him almost as an older sibling.
But as Kennedy ascended the Democratic Party ranks, the two men clashed over the party’s economic agenda.
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“When the Senator from Massachusetts moved up to the chairmanship of the judiciary committee this year, the hearts of antitrust activists beat faster,” The New York Times noted in 1979. Kennedy had his sights on a sweeping piece of legislation that would block corporate mergers based on the total size of the resulting company ― even if the company was a conglomerate of unrelated businesses, and the merger did not increase a firm’s share of business in a particular market.
But Kennedy almost immediately ran into problems with Biden. When Coca-Cola urged Congress to exempt the soft drink industry from these antitrust regulations, Biden joined Republicans to pass such a bill over the objections of Kennedy and Department of Justice antitrust expert Ky Ewing, who concluded that the bill was “special interest legislation” with “no evidence” to support it.
Antitrust law was an early salvo in what became a quarter-century struggle to shift the Democratic Party’s base of support away from organized labor toward large corporations. The Biden-Kennedy split carried symbolic connotations beyond the policy implications of their individual votes. Where Kennedy wanted to use the Judiciary Committee to continue the old New Deal-era attack on corporate power, Biden became an advocate for corporate interests that had previously been associated with the Republican Party.
As Biden fought Kennedy on the Coca-Cola bill, he was also trying to thwart a Kennedy effort that would have empowered consumers to sue over a broader swath of antitrust violations. In 1977, the Supreme Court issued a controversial ruling that only those who directly purchased products could sue companies for antitrust violations. That meant that manufacturers who sold their goods through wholesalers could only be sued by the wholesalers, not consumers.
Kennedy prepared a bill that would have reversed the court’s decision, but Biden, in the words of The New York Times, “vexed” him by siding with Republicans. Biden was going out on a limb by bucking leadership. Only two of the committee’s 10 Democrats opposed Kennedy on the bill, and the other was Howell Heflin, a conservative Democrat from Alabama. The bill narrowly made it out of committee after Kennedy made some desperate last-minute concessions to win over Republican Sen. Charles Mathias (R-Md.), but the bill never got a floor vote. Kennedy’s broader antitrust ambitions died with it.
Biden wasn’t a lone wolf. President Jimmy Carter and many of the younger Democrats who filed into Washington after Watergate were eager to break with the liberal orthodoxy that had dominated their party’s thinking since the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even Kennedy had successfully pressed Carter to deregulate the airline industry in 1978, beating Ronald Reagan to the era of deregulation by nearly three years.
“A lot of us sit around thinking up ways to vote conservative just so we don’t come out with a liberal rating,” Biden told Washingtonian in 1974. “When it comes to civil rights and civil liberties, I’m a liberal but that’s it. I’m really quite conservative on most other issues.”
If Biden wanted low marks from liberal groups, he got them. By 1978, Americans for Democratic Action, the preeminent liberal watchdog group of the time, gave Biden a score of just 50, lower than its ratings for some Republicans. Kennedy typically scored in the 90s.
Biden’s ratings recovered in the 1980s, fueled by a liberal foreign policy record. But on domestic policy ― from school integration to tax policy ― he was functionally allied with the Reagan administration.
He voted for a landmark Reagan tax bill that slashed the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent and exempted many wealthy families from the estate tax on unearned inheritances, a measure that cost the federal government an estimated $83 billion in annual revenue. He then called for a spending freeze on Social Security in order to reduce the deficits that tax law helped to create.
“While this program is severe,” Biden said on the Senate floor, “it is the only proposal that will halt the upward spiral of deficits,” which supposedly threatened “an economic and political crisis of extraordinary proportions” within 18 months.
By the time Biden first ran for president in 1987, he had adopted much of Reagan’s anti-government message in his pitch to Democratic voters.
“Government can do many things, but in the final analysis, government can act little more than as a catalyst,” Biden said on the stump. “We must demand more of ourselves … our managers, our workers, our consumers are needed to change their attitudes in order to revitalize this society.”
A Soldier For The Clinton Revolution
Biden dropped out of the 1988 presidential race after just a few months, unable to deal with a speechwriting plagiarism scandal that today seems quaint. But his ideas would make their way to the presidency in the persona of Bill Clinton. “I was one of those guys in 1987 who tried to run on a platform that Clinton basically ran on in 1992,” Biden told National Journal in 2001. He dismissed criticisms of the Clinton years as empty “class warfare and populism.”
One of the central planks of that platform was welfare reform ― a policy that exacerbated severe poverty by kicking people off of public assistance if they didn’t get a job. The plan ignored the constraints facing most poor families, who often didn’t have access to transportation needed to hold down a job, had small children to care for, or simply couldn’t find work (a particularly serious problem during a recession). The 1996 welfare reform vote divided the party ― 23 Senate Democrats voted against it and 23 voted for it, including Biden. Clinton signed it into law with support from a unified Republican Party.
Biden was a steadfast supporter of an economic agenda that caused economic inequality to skyrocket during the Clinton years. While the poor and middle class made modest gains as a percentage of their income, a pay increase of 2.5 percent wasn’t terribly meaningful for people who didn’t make much money to begin with. The fortunes of the rich, by contrast, swelled as Clinton cut taxes on capital gains from real estate and financial investments. While Clinton’s 1993 budget raised the top income tax rate from 36 percent to 39.6 percent, the economic gains from his 1997 tax cut were heavily concentrated among the rich. As a result, the top 1 percent’s share of the national income grew dramatically. Biden voted for all of it.
At the same time, landmark banking deregulation further concentrated the nation’s wealth in the hands of a few big players. Biden voted for the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking Act, which allowed banks to expand across state lines. He voted to repeal Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that barred traditional commercial banks from engaging in risky, high-flying securities trades. These laws encouraged Wall Street mega-mergers that created too big to fail and too big to manage behemoths like Citigroup and Wells Fargo. He voted to bar federal or state supervision of credit default swaps, which later became become ”financial weapons of mass destruction″ during the 2008 financial crisis.
The Democratic Party’s Changing Face
These were not controversial votes in the 1990s, a time when Democrats were happy to accept anything that looked like a policy victory over an unhinged Republican opposition. Only three senators opposed Clinton’s 1997 tax cut, and just eight opposed the repeal of Glass-Steagall. But the Wall Street crash discredited the entire agenda. In 2016, Biden himself called his vote to repeal Glass-Steagall the biggest regret of his career.
Biden also spent roughly a decade pursuing an overhaul of American bankruptcy law to discourage debt-strapped households from discharging their financial obligations in court. As then-academic Elizabeth Warren warned at the time, Biden’s bankruptcy law boosted revenues for credit card companies at the expense of families struggling with job losses and medical bills. Unlike the Clinton-era deregulation, the bankruptcy bill was unpopular with Senate Democrats, who voted against it 31 to 14.
Biden partially atoned in the Obama years, intervening to get presidential support to prohibit banks that benefit from taxpayer perks from speculating with risky securities. But Obama also dispatched Biden to try to ink a “grand bargain” with the House GOP in which Democrats would accept long-term cuts to Social Security in exchange for modest tax increases on the rich. Like just about everything Biden supported in his congressional career, that measure enjoyed tremendous support with centrist elites in both parties.
Biden’s regular Joe credibility is based entirely on his personal background, as someone who grew up working class and speaks with the rough masculinity that Washington interprets as authenticity. But his politics have always relied on elite assumptions about the economy: Deficits are bad, deregulation is smart and the government is at best a clumsy steward of economic prosperity.
Biden struggled to shake off this thinking once it was discredited by the financial crisis, but Democratic Party voters did not. Today, the unapologetic liberalism that Biden began to turn against in the 1970s is so resurgent that its proponents sometimes even call themselves ”democratic socialists.” All of the policy energy in the party has moved past conventional thinking of even the Obama years ― from a Green New Deal that shrugs off questions about deficits, to Medicare for All to various attacks on the political power of the billionaire class. Biden’s record is out of step with the party’s current priorities.
Will that matter to Democratic primary voters?
“I don’t think the issues mean a great deal in terms of whether you win or lose,” Biden told Washingtonian back in 1974. “I think the issues are merely a vehicle to portray your intellectual capacity to the voters . . . a vehicle by which the voters will determine your honesty and candor.”
He’ll have another opportunity to test that theory in 2020.