The problem with Joe Biden’s ‘chummy’ politics | Nathan Robinson

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You can be the best friend of everyone in Washington, or you can move the country towards justice. But you cant do both

This week, Joe Biden attracted controversy after waxing nostalgic about working alongside segregationists in the Senate. After Cory Booker suggested Biden should apologize, Biden replied, Apologize for what? and insisted there wasnt a racist bone in his body. Biden made it clear that he has no regrets.

It wasnt the first time Biden has offered fond memories of Dixiecrat colleagues. He has consistently cited the era of racists like Strom Thurmond and James Eastland as a time of greater unity and civility that we could learn lessons from. Back then, he has said, the political system worked. Biden gave a warm and effusive eulogy for Thurmond at his 2003 funeral, saying it he had been honored to work with a man who once declared that the nigger race would never be admitted to Southern institutions.

Thurmond himself said that he had no regrets about his racist history, but Biden called him a special man of grace and humility. Biden infamously worked with James Eastland on anti-busing legislation. Eastland was even worse than Thurmond. He degraded black soldiers who fought Hitler as physically and morally incompetent and said that racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth and the law of God.

It might be surprising to hear Biden talk this way about figures who spent their lives trying to deny black citizens their basic rights. But from the time of his arrival in the Senate in 1973, Biden has held a romanticized view of Washington politics, one in which clashes of political interests are mere friendly disagreements between people who are all fundamentally good. This view has allowed Biden to treat white supremacists as his friends. He has expressed nostalgia for the time when the Senate consisted almost entirely of white men who resolved their problems civilly over a meal.

In an excellentsummary of Bidens career in Harpers, Andrew Cockburn calls Biden the high priest of the doctrine that our legislative problems derive merely from superficial disagreements, rather than fundamental differences over matters of principle, the sort who believes political divisions can be settled by men endowed with statesmanlike vision and goodwill. Biden constantly talks about the need to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart. He has distinguished himself from the partisan Democrats by saying that he doesnt think we should look on Republicans as our enemies.

Indeed, his commitment to bipartisanship stretches so far that Biden has been willing to help Republicans defeat their Democratic opponents. Biden once accepted $200,000 to give a speech in support of Republican Fred Upton, who was in a difficult fight against a Democratic challenger.

Biden has told a story that explains his willingness to cross the aisle and maintain close relations with repulsive political figures. Once upon a time, he thought Jesse Helms (another vicious segregationist) was a bad person for opposing an early version of the Americans With Disabilities Act. He assumed Helms didnt care about disabled people. But then he found out that Helms himself had adopted a disabled son. Since then, Biden said:

Never once have I questioned another mans or womans motive. Because when you question a mans motive, when you say theyre acting out of greed, theyre in the pocket of an interest group, et cetera, its awful hard to reach consensus. Its awful hard having to reach across the table and shake hands.

Nothing better captures the philosophy of the Washington insider. It explains why Biden made a perfect vice-president for Barack Obama. Obamas political approach was similarly based on the idea that our differences are minor compared to our similarities, and together we could set aside partisanship to privatize the school system and cut social security.

To a certain extent, this philosophy works Bill Clinton did manage to get his agenda passed, because his agenda was crime control, welfare reduction, the defense of marriage. and bank deregulation. But while it eliminates division it also abandons the entire fight necessary to advance progressive change. You can be everybody in Washingtons best buddy, or you can move the country toward justice, but you cannot do both. This is because there are powerful political figures standing in the way of justice, and the steps you need to take are going to alienate them. Bidens career is best understood as what happens when a person who is not actively evil decides to prioritize chumminess and conformity over taking difficult moral stands.

From the very start, Biden was making indefensible compromises and standing up for what was wrong. In the 1970s, as Asher Smith has documented, Biden opposed efforts to racially integrate the American school system. He lamented that busing has been an issue that has been in the hands of the racists, and we liberals have rejected because if George Wallace is for it, it must be bad. Biden proudly said that by breaking with other members of his party on the issue, Ive made it if not respectable Ive made it reasonable for longstanding liberals to begin to raise the questions Ive been the first to raise in the liberal community here on the [Senate] floor.

In the 1980s, Biden became a tough on crime Democrat. He wrote the first version of the notorious Clinton crime bill, even encouraging Clinton to maintain crime as a Democratic initiative. Biden unblushingly cited his and Thurmonds leading role in enacting laws allowing for the execution of drug dealers convicted of homicide, and expanding the practice of civil asset forfeiture, law enforcements plunder of property belonging to people suspected of crimes, even if they are neither charged nor convicted. He warned of predators on our streets that were beyond hope of rehabilitation and simply needed to be cordoned off from the rest of society.

Biden was deeply proud of his role in cracking down on crime; a staffer recalling him saying: Whenever people hear the words drugs and crime, I want them to think Joe Biden.

Biden with Obama at a presidential rally in August 2008. Photograph: M. Spencer Green/AP

Unfortunately, Bidens DC chumminess has characterized his entire career. He has long declined to take morally necessary stands that might alienate powerful people, preferring to be friends with everybody. This is only possible, of course, because Biden has rarely had to encounter the people outside that everybody the Iraqis blown to pieces thanks to his Iraq war vote, the children thrown in prison thanks to his crime bill.

The problem here is not Bidens bipartisanship. Sometimes you have to work with people whose values you find repellent. Finding points of common interest is basic political political pragmatism (see, for example, the bipartisan Yemen resolution shepherded through the Senate by Bernie Sanders). The problem comes when you get so close to the powerful, and spend so long around them, that you cease to be disgusted by disgusting things. At this point, friendliness just means a lack of moral seriousness. To be chummy with banks is to be cruel to bankrupt debtors. To be chummy with Mike Pence is to be cruel to LGBT people. There come times when you have to take a stand, when you have to give your answer to that old labor question: Which Side Are You On?

Biden has made it clear that he doesnt want to think in terms of sides. He tuts, Folks, thats not who we are when he gets criticized for saying anything nice about a Republican. Appeals to unity are always dishonest, however, because they are always selective. Can you unify the fossil fuel companies whose profits depend on destruction with the people who will actually suffer the consequences? It always turns out that somebody is excluded from consideration. In Bidens case, while he speaks lovingly about the patriotism of the rich, hes nothing but contemptuous for indebted millennials:

The younger generation now tells me how tough things are give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it, give me a break.

Ultimately, the Biden approach to politics is a bankrupt one. If youre all smiles and flattery, you are not really committed to a set of progressive political values. As Biden himself recently said to a room full of wealthy people, nothing would fundamentally change if he was elected.

But we do not need leaders who want to be everybodys friend, we need leaders who know who their friends are and in whose interest power needs to be exercised. You cant be everybodys chum.

  • Nathan Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs, where a longer version of this article originally appeared

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