Joe Biden’s glaring absence from the California Democratic Party convention has thrown a national spotlight on his eagerness to detour around the party’s progressive base. While dodging an overt clash for now, Biden is on a collision course with grassroots Democrats across the country who are learning more about his actual record and don’t like it.
Inside the statewide convention in San Francisco over the weekend, I spoke with hundreds of delegates about Biden while leafletting with information on his record. I was struck by the frequent intensity of distrust and even animosity; within seconds, after glancing at his name and photo at the top of the flyer, many delegates launched into some form of denunciation.
I often heard delegates bring up shameful milestones in Biden’s political history—especially his opposition to busing for school desegregation, treatment of Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas hearings, leading role in passage of the 1994 crime bill, career-long services to corporate elites, and powerful support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It may have been a dumb tactical move for Biden to stay away from the convention. Its 3,400 delegates included core Democratic activists and leaders from around the state. Even some of the pro-Biden delegates said they were miffed that he wasn’t showing up—in contrast to the 14 presidential candidates who accepted invitations to address the convention. (Biden chose to be in Ohio instead, speaking at a Human Rights Campaign gala in support of LGBTQ rights.)
Nationwide, Biden generated headlines like this one in USA Today: “Biden Faces Stiff Criticism from Democrats for Skipping California Convention.” Interviewed for that news story, I said: “He was not going to be very popular at this convention, but his refusal to show up only reinforces the idea that he’s an elitist and he is more interested in collecting big checks in California than being in genuine touch with grassroots activists and people who care about the Democratic Party’s future.”
Yet if Biden had shown up, it’s quite likely he would have been met with a storm of protest on the convention floor. That’s because so many of the state’s Democratic delegates are vocally opposed to the root causes and effects of institutionalized racism, war, systemic assaults on the environment and overall corporate power.
Looking ahead, Biden will strive to avoid, as much as possible, any uncontrolled situation that could disrupt his pose as an advocate for the middle class and the poor. He least needs wide circulation of accurate information about his political record.
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I worked with a few other delegates to blanket the convention with a RootsAction flyer that included some revealing quotes from Biden and facts about his record. We got some pushback from people who didn’t like seeing distribution of such critical material. But many more said that they appreciated it.
Polls show that Biden has little support among young people. Many share the basic outlook of a 19-year-old Sanders supporter at the convention, Yvette Flores, who told Bloomberg News: “Everything he stands for is against the interests of the working class and young Democrats.”
While a dozen of the presidential contenders who spoke were unimpressive or worse, two were far and away the progressive standouts.
Bernie Sanders (whom I actively support) delivered a cogent and fiery speech on Sunday. “There is a debate among presidential candidates who have spoken to you here in this room—and those who have chosen for whatever reason not to be in this room—about the best way forward," he said. “In my view, we will not defeat Donald Trump unless we bring excitement and energy into the campaign, and unless we give millions of working people and young people a reason to vote and a reason to believe that politics is relevant to their lives.” And: “We have got to make it clear that when the future of the planet is at stake there is no middle ground.”
The other great speech came from Elizabeth Warren, who also deftly skewered Biden along the way. “Big problems call for big solutions,” she said. “And some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges. If they dream, they dream small. Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses.” Warren added: “Here’s the thing. When a candidate tells you about all the things that aren't possible, about how political calculations come first . . . they’re telling you something very important—they are telling you that they will not fight for you.”
Her reference to the distant Joe Biden was crystal clear.