Joe Biden’s almost-certain decision to jump into the 2020 presidential race means that the top three candidates for the White House in 2020 are all white men over the age of 75—Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump.
There’s something wrong with this picture in a political era defined by #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and a massive backlash against the White Man’s Last Stand presidency of Donald Trump.
And the problem is bigger than the optics of race and gender.
Biden’s coziness with the financial industry—especially his support for a 2005 bankruptcy bill that made it harder for ordinary people to get out of crushing debt and easier for big banks to profit from predatory lending—puts him on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party.
Biden’s not-very-progressive record is actually a huge mismatch for the current political moment.
Biden told a group of supporters in Delaware that “I have the most progressive record of anybody running.” But Biden’s not-very-progressive record is actually a huge mismatch for the current political moment.
A lot of the ghosts in Biden’s past are the consequence of a long, long career in politics: his eulogy for Southern segregationist Strom Thurmond; his warning, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, about “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale,” taking credit for a crime law that exacerbated mass incarceration; his dismissive treatment of Anita Hill; his support for the Iraq War.
But age is not the only factor. In the 1960s, Bernie Sanders joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped lead in a sit-in to desegregate student housing at the University of Chicago.
In 1973, Hillary Clinton went undercover in Alabama, working with Marian Wright Edelman to expose tax-exempt “segregation academies” set up so that white children could avoid going to school with black children.
Here’s an excerpt from a 1975 interview with Biden The Week dug out of the Congressional record:
“The new integration plans being offered are really just quota-systems to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school. That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with; what it says is, ‘in order for your child with curly black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son. That’s racist!’”
Biden’s biggest problem in the primary is likely to be Elizabeth Warren, who is bound to shine a bright light on Biden’s cozy relationship with—and considerable campaign donations from—the financial industry.
Warren has a lot of credibility. Like Biden, she makes a pitch to blue-collar voters that they deserve a champion.
But Warren is the real thing. In a CNN town hall in Jackson, Mississippi, she made news by declaring that the Electoral College should be eliminated, along with laws designed to make it harder for poor people, people of color, and young people to vote. She gave a powerful account of her own life story, connecting it to the struggles of working-class Americans as a group. And she talked about her plans for expanding access to health care and combating corporate crime and income inequality that clearly stakes out the progressive wing of the Democratic Party—what her supporters call the Warren Wing.
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Who can forget the Senate hearing when Warren skewered Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan who, Warren pointed out, got rich urging Wells Fargo employees to open fake accounts for customers and then covered it up? “At best you were incompetent; at worst you were complicit. Either way, you should be fired,” she told Sloan.
In the 2020 primary, Biden will have to deal with Warren face-to-face.
I predict another moment like the Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton debate, when Sanders called out Hillary for taking money from Goldman Sachs, and pointed out that big donors don’t hand out big money without expecting something in return. Only it will be Elizabeth Warren putting the screws to Biden this time.
Biden brushed back “the New Left” and extolled bipartisanship to an enthusiastic crowd at a fundraiser in Delaware—you know, the state that mails you your credit card statements? Biden, as a long-time, powerful Senator from the state that helps banks skirt consumer protections, counts among his friends many executives in the financial industry. MBNA America Bank, his largest contributor, lobbied him, successfully, to support the 2005 bankruptcy bill that made it harder for recession-battered consumers to seek bankruptcy and allowed banks to collect high interest rates on their debts.
Elizabeth Warren criticized Biden for that vote at the time, as The New York Times has pointed out.
The Times quoted Warren’s 2014 book, A Fighting Chance: “The Senate was evenly split between the two parties, but one of the bill’s lead sponsors was Democratic powerhouse Joe Biden, and right behind him were plenty of other Democrats offering to help. Never mind that the country was sunk in an ugly recession and millions of families were struggling—the banking industry pressed forward and Congress obliged.”
Biden, who defends his friendliness with Republicans including Strom Thurmond, John McCain, and Mike Pence, as a healthy sign of civility and bipartisanship—comes from an era when the good old boys got together and made policy.
And that’s exactly what the next election is likely to be about. Not, as Biden says, about voters longing for a return to the days when we all got along, but a new generation’s demand for a powerful brushback of the good-old-boys’ network and everything that comes with it: sexism, racism, self-dealing, a rigged system, and an increasingly out-of-it elite that doesn’t worry much about inequality and sees coziness with an in-group of powerful men as a good thing.
Either another candidate will overcome Biden’s early lead and win the primary, or he will advance to the general election having been damaged by the process.
Either way, Biden will have to deal with the “Warren Wing” of the party—progressive voters who want a candidate who will fight the power. They are demanding that the person who runs against Trump address our climate emergency, regulate predatory banks, make college and health care available to everyone, and end special favors for the elites. They do not want an affable, get-along centrist.
They want big, bold progressive change.