It was always certain that Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was going to try to appeal to Democratic voters who feel the party has moved too far left. Biden, it was presumed, would aim for Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s brand of inclusive uplift, in which affluent coastal professionals, recent immigrants and Midwestern union workers find common ground on a platform of social tolerance and robust but responsible entitlement spending, then make (or attempt to make) governing compromises with reasonable Republicans. In other words, he’d be running a campaign that resembled Hillary Clinton’s from 2016, but with the added benefit of Uncle Joe–style relatability to working-class voters.
On a lot of issues, that’s what’s happened. To the extent that he’s discussed them, Biden’s economic policy commitments to such proposals as a $15 minimum wage and the elimination of employer-mandated arbitration agreements are in line with mainstream 2019 liberalism. Earlier in June, he reversed his support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being spent on abortions; he now says the prohibition should be repealed. On those points, he’s moving with the crowd, like centrist politicians do.
On other subjects, though, Biden has eschewed Obama and Clinton-style rhetoric about charging, together, into the future and has instead stubbornly promised to keep conditions as they are, or to pull them backward—a tendency displayed by two particular comments he made on Tuesday night during a high-dollar fundraiser at New York City’s Carlyle Hotel.
First, in the course of explaining how he would handle White House-Capitol relations, Biden complimented himself for getting along nicely with two Senate white supremacists in the 1970s. From the pool report:
Mr. Biden then recalled his time serving in the Senate. “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.”
Biden’s said the same thing about Eastland before—a curious talking point to repeat. Highlighting one’s affectionate personal relationship with an old Southern racist who called some people “boy” does not seem like something that is going to appeal to any parts of the current Democratic Party coalition, even the older and more moderate ones.
Then Biden told the room of wealthy donors that if they helped him become president, he would make sure that the government only took as little of their money as was necessary to prevent a literal revolution:
By the way, you know, remember I got in trouble with some of the people on my team, on the Democratic side, because I said, ‘You know what I’ve found is rich people are just as patriotic as poor people.’ Not a joke. I mean, we may not want to demonize anybody who has made money. The truth of the matter is, you all, you all know, you all know in your gut what has to be done. We can disagree in the margins but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change. Because when we have income inequality as large as we have in the United States today, it brews and ferments political discord and basic revolution. Not a joke. Not a joke. I’m not [inaudible] revolution. But not a joke. It allows demagogues to step in and say the reason where we are is because of the other, the other. You’re not the other. I need you very badly. I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down.
Now, Barack Obama was on friendly terms with a lot of Wall Street figures. He also annoyed them frequently by doing things like passing a huge financial regulation bill and pointing out that their “reckless” abdication of responsibility caused the 2007–08 economic crash. As far as I know, he didn’t tell them in front of a reporter that he needed their support “very badly” and that “nothing would fundamentally change” about their socioeconomic primacy if he were elected.
The former vice president’s approach here is not just about rhetoric and interpersonal affect. This year he’s taken substantive, and antiquated, positions on both race and economics by defending his 1994 crime bill, which extended prison sentences, and his corporate-friendly 2005 bankruptcy bill, which made getting out of debt more difficult. Both of those laws are remnants of eras when mainstream Democratic attitudes on racial issues and economic regulations were different than they are now, and it probably would barely even have registered if Biden had done some interviews in which he talked about how his positions on them had “evolved.” Instead, he’s dug in.
Biden’s won a few more races for office than I have, so maybe he knows something I don’t about the current electorate’s fondness for segregation and concentrated wealth. (He’s certainly still leading comfortably in the polls.) But I do know that announcing, at the Carlyle hotel, that you’re going to protect America’s economic status quo—and praising the grotesque racial status quo of the past—isn’t so much finding a middle ground as it is refusing to move from the ground you’ve been on for years. And isn’t there a word for that?
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