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Will Joe Biden Be a Rerun of 2016 Tragedy?

As a throwback to the Clintonite 1990s, Biden says he feels the pain of victims but won’t name many villains. That approach no longer works—and actually plays into the hands of demagogues like Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden works the grill at the Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry on September 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Seventeen of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and more than 12,000 of their supporters made an appearance at the event. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden works the grill at the Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry on September 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

You might ask what it takes to remember
When you know that you’ve seen it before
           —Jackson Browne, “Lives in the Balance”

Joe Biden is a throwback to an earlier time. Much of it could be called “the Clintonite era”— when Democratic presidential contenders openly cozied up to the wealthy by appearing at one high-dollar fundraising event after another. A time when they served up (consultant-approved) language about “feeling the pain” of “working families” . . . without identifying any corporate villains or transformative policies to fix the rigged system.  

Donald Trump’s victory seemed to put a catastrophic end to that era in November 2016. Unfortunately, Biden and the Democratic establishment still haven’t gotten the memo. 

Party leaders continue to believe that a Democrat can win the White House by catering to corporate donors and eagerly cashing their fat checks.  Leading Democrats keep throwing their endorsements at Biden—as he spends day and night glad-handing the 1 percent at top-dollar fundraisers.   

Wake-up alert to Democrats: Donald Trump may well be the most effective faux-populist in our country’s history. He was that in 2016, when he won “Rust Belt” swing states. And he remains that today for millions of voters—despite his barrage of policies favoring the rich and powerful.

Like Hillary Clinton in 2016 (with her Wall Street connections and well-paid speeches), Biden would be a perfect target in 2020 for Trump’s pretend-populism. Steve Bannon is gone, but Trump’s campaign team will make sure every swing state-voter knows about Biden’s record in the Senate serving big banks and credit card companies, as well as his 1993 vote to approve the disastrous NAFTA trade deal.

If there’s a single word that explains why Clinton lost Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in 2016, it’s not “Russia” or “Comey.” It’s probably not “misogyny.” Most likely, that word is “NAFTA.” Biden supported NAFTA, alongside most Republicans and a minority of Democrats in Congress.

In recent months, when I’ve publicly discussed Biden’s long record of corporatism, some Democrats have complained that I’m “helping the Trump campaign”—as if that campaign has not already catalogued every Biden vote and quote that a populist charlatan like Trump can exploit.

In continuing to rally behind Biden, Democratic leaders seem compelled to relive the tragic 2016 defeat—as if trapped in a recurring bad dream. In fairness to Hillary Clinton, she was a far more informed candidate in 2016 than Biden is now and a far better debater, with campaign rhetoric and policies far more substantive than Biden’s (a low bar).

The developing Biden nightmare became more vivid to me last week when I started tracking his series of high-dollar fundraisers, as described by individual pool reporters the Biden campaign allows into each “finance event.” Here’s the beginning of Thursday’s report by Tina Sfondeles of the Chicago Sun-Times on a lavish lunch gathering:

At the first of three Chicago fundraisers, Joe Biden stopped by a luncheon at the residence of billionaire real estate and casino magnate Neil Bluhm, also co-hosted by GCM Grosvenor CEO Michael Sacks—who was not present due to a death in the family—and real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom. The fundraiser was in a sprawling 65th floor residence full of original art, including a Lichtenstein in the kitchen. Biden was introduced by Bluhm, who told his high-profile guests that both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders “don’t represent the Democratic Party” that he supports. Bluhm said Biden “has the best chance of defeating Trump.”

Here’s the final paragraph:

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Tickets to the fundraiser were $1,000 a piece, or $2,800 for a ticket which included a photo with Biden. There were less than 100 guests in attendance.

In between the first and last paragraphs, the Sun-Times reporter recounts that Biden served up 22 minutes of his standard stump-speech, decrying “our standing in the world” and worrying about “the soul of this country.” It’s the kind of stale rhetoric guaranteed not to offend billionaires.

And unlikely to inspire many voters.

Lesson #1 from the 2016 catastrophe: In a time of anxiety, anger and rampant economic inequality, the candidate of status quo corporatism can be defeated by one spouting anti-elite populism, even a con artist like Trump.

Lesson #2: Without bold campaign proposals aimed at unrigging “the rigged economy,” a Democratic candidate will lose white working-class voters—and, more importantly, will fail to energize the base: voters of color and youth. For proof, check out Clinton’s low voter-turnout in cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, and the number of young voters who stayed home or went third-party.

It’s no surprise that Neil Bluhm, one of Biden’s billionaire supporters, fears Warren and Sanders. They are the two candidates in the race with the most low-dollar donors and most energized activists, with crowds rallying behind their candidates’ specific plans to address inequality, college affordability, debt, healthcare and climate . . . with programs paid for by increasing taxes on the wealthy.

Higher taxes on billionaires may mean fewer Lichtenstein paintings in Mr. Bluhm’s luxury condo.  

As a throwback to the Clintonite 1990s, Biden says he feels the pain of victims but won’t name many villains. That approach no longer works—and actually plays into the hands of demagogues like Trump. 

So do remarks like the one Biden made to the Brookings Institution last year: “I love Bernie, but I’m not Bernie Sanders. I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason why we’re in trouble. . . The folks at the top aren’t bad guys.”

Let me be clear: Despite current polls showing Biden, Warren and Sanders each beating Trump in hypothetical match-ups, I can’t say for certain that the progressive populism of Warren or Sanders would defeat Trump in 2020.

But I’m convinced that either Warren or Sanders would fare better against Trump than a candidate like Biden, who is easily tied to moneyed elites and a blatantly unfair status quo. We’ve seen that movie before and it ended in the 2016 disaster.

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen was associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media - and a cofounder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is here: http://jeffcohen.org

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