Tom Clause is not the kind of person you'd expect to give up his Friday night to hear a speech from former Vice President Joe Biden.
Clause attended the 2016 Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.). He says he "wholeheartedly" supports progressive health care and gun control policies that would typically steer him toward supporting Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) when Iowans caucus on February 3 in the nation's first presidential nominating contest.
But if Biden is going to become the 46th president of the United States next year—or, for that matter, if he's going to at least avoid a potentially disastrous defeat in Iowa—it will likely be due to people like Clause.
"My own personal beliefs are more progressive. But that doesn't mean I'm going to vote for the most progressive candidate if we can't unite behind that person," Clause, a 74-year-old architect from Winterset, Iowa, tells Reason. Nearby, Biden is shaking hands and taking selfies with a dwindling crowd at the Madison County Fairgrounds, about 45 minutes southwest of Des Moines. "I really want to find somebody that the American electorate can follow, that we can unite behind. This tribalism that we've got going now is just nuts."
Biden argues that the lifetime he spent in the U.S. Senate, an institution that values deliberation and consensus-building above all else, holds the key to understanding how to put our broken politics back together. This isn't something Biden has stumbled onto out of convenience on the campaign trail. It's a narrative that intentionally positions Biden as the guy fighting not just President Donald Trump and the conservative populists, but the progressive wing of his own party.
"Some of these people are saying 'Biden just doesn't get it. You can't work with Republicans anymore. That's not the way it works anymore,'" Biden said on a sunny day in May as he announced his candidacy to a cheering crowd in Philadelphia. "I know how to make government work—not because I've talked or tweeted about it, but because I've done it. I've worked across the aisle to reach consensus, to help make government work in the past. I can do that again with your help."
It's true that Biden is a centrist in the sense that he's an anti-tribalist politician driven by a desire to build consensus—but his career also serves as a reminder that even when politics works, it doesn't deliver optimum outcomes. Indeed, Biden has been a fixture in Democratic politics for decades because of his ability to deliver some of the most significant, bipartisan federal policies of the past few decades, from the PATRIOT Act to the "tough on crime" policies of the 1990s. He played a central role in building a political consensus that voters on both sides of the partisan divide have been rejecting in recent years, and now he's promising to do more of the same: pitching tax and health care policies that can be described as "moderate" only in relation to the rest of the Democratic primary contest, which is characterized by progressive one-ups—fiscal reality be damned.
If nothing else, Biden is a reminder of the Democratic Party's trajectory over the last half century, and a symbol of the policy baggage that its establishment carries with it today. And Biden's pleasant-sounding, centrist appeals to consensus and getting along can mask a darker reality: that bipartisan politics comes with plenty of downsides.
The Kid From Scranton, the Senator From Delaware
If you know anything about the life of Joe Biden, it's probably that he was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Biden was not yet 11 years old when his family left the working-class city in the coal-laden northeastern corner of the Keystone State so his father could seek better job prospects in Claymont, Delaware, but Scranton continues to play an outsized role in Biden's political persona. Even now, 66 years after he moved away, Biden calls Scranton "my home" in one current campaign ad in which he talks about the "values" the city "instilled in me."
Today, Biden is worth an estimated $9 million and owns two homes valued at over $4 million each, according to Forbes. But the narrative about Biden as a middle-class guy from coal country sticks.
The story was never fully accurate. By the time Biden made his first run for Senate in 1972, he had graduated from the University of Delaware (in 1965), matriculated through Syracuse University School of Law (in 1968), passed the Delaware bar exam (in 1969), and won his first political election to the town council in New Castle, Delaware, in 1970. In between all that, he'd married his college girlfriend, Neilia Hunter, whom he'd met on a spring break trip to the Bahamas. In his 2007 memoir, Biden claims he struck up a poolside conversation with Neilia after flipping a coin with a buddy to decide which of two girls they would approach. By 1972, the couple had two sons, Beau and Hunter, and a daughter, Naomi.
That was also the year Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate, a full decade before Pete Buttigieg—the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and one of Biden's top rivals for the Democratic nomination—was even born.
Biden's victory in the 1972 Senate race helped establish his outsider, underdog brand. He'd been approached in mid-1971 by two party elders who encouraged Biden to run against Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, a two-term incumbent Republican senator and former governor.
In a 2008 interview with NPR, Biden's longtime friend and former chief of staff Ted Kaufman said he dismissed Biden's 1972 campaign, even though he was working for it. "I really don't think you have much of a chance," Kaufman recalled telling Biden at the time. Boggs was well-known, and incumbent President Richard Nixon was cruising towards a landslide re-election. The campaign faced long odds.
Biden had no money and few staff beyond immediate family and close friends. His age meant he was only barely viable as a candidate. Senators must be 30 years old, and Biden wouldn't hit his third decade until a few weeks after the election—but just in time to be inaugurated in January 1973.
And yet, despite the fact that Nixon carried Delaware by 20 points in 1972, Biden won by about 3,000 votes. He'd campaigned hard, pressing the flesh and looking voters in the eye. He'd prioritized civil rights, ending the Vietnam War, and stressed that Boggs was too old to continue representing Delaware effectively.
The stunning victory was soon matched by a staggering loss: On December 18, 1972, Biden's wife and 1-year-old daughter were killed when their station wagon was struck by a tractor trailer. When Biden was sworn in as the fifth youngest senator in U.S. history less than a month later, the ceremony took place in the hospital room where 4-year-old Beau was still healing from a broken leg suffered in the accident. "We had a number of plans, Neilia and I, for the swearing-in day," Biden said, according to an Associated Press report from the day. "My children were to have been with us on that day. I felt I should be sworn in with my children today."
Presidential Aspirations Undone
If it seems like Joseph Biden has been a fixture in Democratic Party politics for forever, it's because he has. Biden's current presidential campaign is his third. Each campaign is separated by more than a decade, and the first two were marked by early stumbles that derailed promising beginnings.
Biden had already spent well over a decade in the Senate when he ran for president for the first time in 1988—and yet, at just 44 years old, he was still regarded as an upstart who, if elected, would have been the third-youngest president in American history at the time.
His campaign collapsed in September 1987, months before the Iowa caucuses, when The New York Times reported that Biden had, during his closing statement of an August 23 debate at the Iowa State Fair, lifted several passages from a campaign speech given in May of that same year by a leader of the British Labour Party. On September 23, Biden called a press conference inside the U.S. Capitol and announced that he was withdrawing due to the fervor created by the plagiarism scandal.
"I've done some dumb things, and I'll do dumb things again," he said. "There will be other presidential campaigns. And I'll be there. I'll be there. There will be other opportunities. There will be other battles in other places, other times. And I'll be there."
Biden flirted with running for president on several occasions in the 1990s and early 2000s, but wouldn't officially toss his hat in the ring again until 2008. There were no major scandals, but his campaign never took off, and Biden dropped out after a disappointing fifth-place finish in Iowa. He would win a consolation prize 11 months later, when he was elected as Barack Obama's vice president.
This time around, Biden is running as a consensus builder who can unite a country polarized by Trump on the one hand, and the Democrats' rising socialist faction on the other.
"The fact of the matter is that you have to elect someone who could bring the country together. Get Democrats and Republicans and work together again," Biden said at a recent fundraiser in New York City. "Now if you conclude, as some of my opponents—all good people—think that that's not possible then you might as well give up."
Many Biden supporters seem to believe that is the candidate's strongest quality. Outside a Biden campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa state Rep. Bruce Hunter (D–Des Moines), a longtime Biden supporter who also backed the failed 2008 campaign, sums it up: "I think Joe has—moreso than any other candidate in there right now—the experience and the inner moxie, or whatever you want to call it, to actually unite this country."
But the experience argument cuts both ways. Unlike in 1972 and 1988, Biden is no longer the youthful figure promising a better future for the Democratic Party and America at large. Now, he's saddled with legislative and political baggage that comes from spending decades at the forefront of Democratic policymaking, where Biden pressed for legislation now widely, and appropriately, reviled.
The Crime Bill
"We have predators on our streets," Biden warned in a 1993 speech on the Senate floor, a day before the chamber would vote to overhaul the federal criminal justice system.
Biden was defending the Senate bill's harsh "three strike" rule, which imposed life sentences for anyone convicted of a violent felony if they had two prior offenses on their record—including drug crimes. For Biden, prison was the only surefire way to avoid an inevitable tragedy. The government must keep potential criminals away from "my mother, your husband, our families," he said. "We have no choice but to take them out of society."
"If we don't," he said, "They will, or a portion of them, will become the predators 15 years from now."
Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he led the fight for the crime bill, but its passage was the product of a bipartisan consensus. Only four members of the Senate voted against it, and support in the House was so overwhelming that it passed with only a voice vote. President Bill Clinton signed it into law in September 1994.
By 2000, violent crime in America had fallen about 30 percent. But the decline was already underway before the bill passed. And the bill came with a tremendous cost.
In the 15 years after the law's passage, the number of federal prisoners doubled. The law encouraged states to impose similar "three strike" rules for non-federal offenses, which only added to the wave of lockups. The bill also cut funding for inmates to pursue college degrees while behind bars, created the federal sex offender registry, and added dozens of offenses to the list of crimes for which an inmate could be put to death.
Today, the 1994 crime bill is viewed critically by lawmakers and interest groups on both sides of the partisan divide. Even Trump, a Republican president who campaigned with a law and order message, has gone along with piecemeal reforms aimed at reducing incarceration rates.
Yet Biden has struggled to adapt. When he ran for president 11 years ago, he was unwilling to issue a mea culpa for his leadership in passing the 1994 crime bill and related pieces of legislation. "I knew more people would be locked up across the board," he told The New York Times in 2008. "I acknowledged that, but I also said it would drive down crime."
This time around, Biden has faced harsh criticism from fellow Democrats. At a debate in August, Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) slammed Biden's support for tough-on-crime policies that Booker, a native of Newark, said "destroyed communities like mine."
In response to critics, Biden has either denied that the 1994 bill was the true cause of mass incarceration, blaming states for following Congress' example, or dodged questions about his vocal support for the measure by claiming Democrats have been "conditioned" to think the bill was bad when it actually wasn't. A Biden spokesperson suggested to CNN that his "strong rhetoric" was merely in response to Republican critiques that he had been too soft on crime.
Biden is running as a throwback to an earlier era when members of Congress worked across the aisle to get big things done. But the crime bill and its consequences are a reminder of how fraught that approach could be.
Disastrous Consequences of Biden's Centrism
Despite Biden's rhetoric about centrism and consensus, his career is littered with situations where he championed expansions of government, often with bipartisan support, that eventually produced disastrous consequences. That was a track record already well established by the time the 1994 crime bill passed.
Ten years earlier, newly installed as the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden worked closely with Dixiecrat-turned-Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to craft the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. The bill established mandatory minimums for many drug offenses and effectively created the modern civil asset forfeiture system that has since been regularly abused by law enforcement to seize cash, cars, homes, and other valuables from individuals who are often never charged with a crime.
Earlier this year, Biden called his efforts to pass that bill "a big mistake."
But it was the sort of mistake he made frequently. In 1986, Biden co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, spurred by a moral panic over several high-profile deaths caused by cocaine. The bill added more mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes—including the now-infamous provision requiring a five-year prison term for anyone possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powdered cocaine. That massive discrepancy "unjustly and disproportionately" penalized African Americans and poor communities, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a 2006 report on the law. "With regard to crack, more than 80% of the defendants sentenced for crack offenses are African American," the ACLU found, despite the fact that a majority of cocaine users are white or Hispanic.
This too was an exercise in consensus-building. It passed the Republican-controlled Senate with just two "nay" votes, and easily cleared the Democratic-controlled House.
He also co-sponsored a follow-up bill—the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, because the name was too good not to use it twice—that bolstered prison sentences for drug possession crimes and established the Office of National Drug Control Policy, effectively creating an internal lobbying organization to defend the drug war against critics.
"Every major crime bill since 1976 that's come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the State of Delaware: Joe Biden," Biden said on the Senate floor in 1993.
Having cranked up America's war on drugs, Biden soon transitioned to doing the same for the war on terror.
He played a key role in passing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which effectively "gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus" by making it more difficult for federal inmates to challenge that they were wrongly convicted. Biden was one of five senators to serve on the conference committee that shaped the bill into its final form—and it passed both chambers of Congress with broad bipartisan support.
Parts of the bill that got left on the committee room floor were revived a few years later for the next major, bipartisan effort at sacking Americans' civil liberties. "I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing. And the bill [Attorney General] John Ashcroft sent up was my bill," Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bragged to The New Republic in 2001. That bill was the PATRIOT Act.
And when America's war on terror turned into a series of ill-advised overseas military excursions, Biden again played a crucial role from a prominent Senate perch—this time as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On March 13, 2003, just weeks before the invasion of Iraq was launched, Biden delivered a nearly hourlong speech that grappled with the seriousness of the war President George W. Bush wanted Congress to authorize. In the end, he gave his assent, saying that the United States "has a special, unilateral capacity, and indeed obligation, to lead in implementing its convictions."
Ever the believer in consensus, Biden voted for the war because he believed that "congressional unity in threatening war would compel sufficient international resolve as to somehow compel Saddam's peaceful disarmament," wrote The Daily Beast's Spencer Ackerman in a detailed examination of Biden's record on Iraq and his defenses of the vote in the years since.
In attempting to find common ground, Biden now admits he may have conceded too much. In an interview with NPR earlier this year, Biden said he had a "commitment" from Bush that the authorization to use military force was only necessary to allow for more effective diplomacy.
The mistake, he told NPR, was trusting Bush. Biden's mistake, in other words, was his reflexive instinct for consensus.
Once a Centrist, Always a Centrist?
But while Biden's record during his tenure in the Senate is that of a consensus-seeking centrist, his campaign for the White House this year has veered farther to the left. Biden's stump speeches are chock full of promises to use federal power to address every problem.
At a campaign event in Winterset, Iowa, in late November, a woman notes that the town—with a population of 5,200 and within easy driving distance of Des Moines—has only a single OB-GYN doctor. How would a President Joe Biden make sure there are more, she wants to know. Biden isn't willing to commit to personally assigning specific doctors to rural towns, but he assures the crowd that he would propose spending $100 million to open more rural health clinics and would push for tax breaks that encourage doctors to relocate. There's never so much as a suggestion that a problem might be better solved by state or local officials, much less by loosening the thicket of health care industry rules and regulations that have created shortages in the supply of rural doctors.
For Biden, no problem is too small to warrant federal attention. "There is so much we can do, without spending a lot of money, to revive small towns," Biden says in response to a question about poorly-paved roads. But if small towns in Iowa are dependent on the goodwill of the occupant of the Oval Office, they are probably in worse shape than most residents would think.
It's not just campaign trail talk. Biden's recently unveiled tax proposal, released in early December, is far more progressive than anything Congress has considered in decades. He wants to hike the corporate income tax rate from 21 to 28 percent, and raise the top individual income tax rate from 37 to 39.6 percent. He would cap the number of deductions wealthy individuals could claim, and would make investment income subject to the same tax status as earned income for individuals making over $1 million annually (right now, capital gains are taxed at a lower rate).
It's certainly not as dramatic a proposal as what Warren and Sanders have pitched, but Biden is still calling for a whopping $3.2 trillion in tax increases over the next 10 years, more than double what Hillary Clinton proposed as a presidential candidate in 2016. As longtime progressive commentator Paul Waldman wrote in The Washington Post, Biden's plan "would have been considered radical, certainly too much for Barack Obama to have signed into law, or in some cases even suggested."
When it comes to health care policy—one area where Biden is most likely to be attacked by progressives for challenging the notion that a single-payer or Medicare for All model is affordable or workable—his views can be called "moderate" only in relation to what some of his opponents are proposing.
Biden wants to preserve most of the Affordable Care Act, the passage of which he calls "the proudest moment" of his political career—and which he was caught by a hot mic describing as "a big fucking deal" when Obama signed it in 2010.
But he's also pushing past it. His proposal calls for letting all Americans buy into Medicare if they choose, effectively recreating the "public option" that was originally supposed to be part of the ACA, but was scrapped during the legislative process. Under what he usually calls "The Biden Plan," anyone who likes their private insurance will be able to keep their private insurance, he promises.
Biden's shift to the left reveals something important about the current Democratic field: Biden's strength as a politician has long been to find the popular middle ground in Democratic Party politics. He's the party's human weather vane. Now, even running as a moderate, his campaign has moved notably to the left of the party's most recent nominee. Yet this shift has also created some tension with Biden's consensus-driven, deal-making persona. It's hard to occupy the middle ground when the rest of your party is retreating from it.
The Limits of Civility
In his epic poem "The Cure at Troy," Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote that "History says don't hope on this side of the grave; but, then once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme."
Joe Biden loves that line from that poem. He's quoted it in commencement addresses and in an official statement from the Office of the Vice President memorializing Nelson Mandela. He invokes those words on the campaign trail, in both his memoirs, and—a bit weirdly—in speeches to South Korean diplomats and Israeli lobbyists. Perhaps he dips into that well so often because those lines seem to fit Biden's ethos: fatalist, tinged by tragedy, yet optimistic anyway.
And Biden is optimistic. In an age of brutal partisanship, he's promising to be the one guy who can work with both sides.
In the early days of the Obama administration, Biden did exactly that. Freshly plucked from the Senate to the executive branch, Biden called upon his old relationships to help build support for the stimulus package, and unsuccessfully courted Republican support for health care reform. Even where there were disagreements, Republican senators and their staffs generally preferred working with Biden than the White House, says Brian Riedl, a former staffer for Sen. Rob Portman (R–Ohio).
But as the partisan battle lines hardened, even Biden's bonhomie wasn't enough. Obamacare passed without a single GOP vote. The Senate repeatedly stopped up Obama-era policy goals and a Supreme Court appointment. Biden was the Obama administration's top cheerleader for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, a 12-nation pact meant to balance the growing influence of China in Asian markets. Congressional support for the deal collapsed amid the 2016 presidential race, when Trump's protectionist views overwhelmed the Republican Party. Nothing about politics in 2019 suggests that partisan animus will pass soon.
Biden tells voters he will puncture that reality, but he also seems to know it's beyond his power to change.
"At the end of the last year of the [Obama] administration, I decided to go up to the private senators' dining room just to sit and have lunch with some of my Republican friends and my Democratic friends," he recalls in the pages of Tim Alberta's 2019 book American Carnage, which covers the rise of Republican populism during the 2010s. "And as I walked in—I realized it doesn't exist anymore. There's no place for Republican senators and Democratic senators to sit down and eat together." He was being literal. The private dining room that used to be shared by senators, regardless of political affiliation, is gone.
One can picture him practically brought to his knees, like Charlton Heston glimpsing the destroyed Statue of Liberty. "What the hell has happened, man?" he asks Alberta. "We've stopped talking to each other."
It's a lament that is quintessentially Biden, and one that sums up his place in American politics in 2019. In Promises To Keep, his 2007 memoir, Biden refers to the Senate as his "second home" and heaps praises on his colleagues as his senatorial brothers—and the Senate was almost entirely men at that time—who helped him cope with the overwhelming loss of his wife and daughter. It was the camaraderie and civility of the Senate—at least as it operated in the late 20th century—that gave Biden his deep appreciation for the importance of compromise and consensus.
Now the world he used to inhabit quite literally does not exist anymore.
It's difficult to imagine Biden, through nothing more than the power of his smile and personal commitment to finding common ground, convincing the current crop of Republican senators to back a multi-trillion-dollar tax increase. And if that leaves the next Democratic administration with the choice of doing nothing or embracing executive authority, where does that mean for Biden?
The Senate lifer isn't a go-it-alone leader who sets out to impose his programs at the expense of tradition or democratic norms. If his reverence for the procedural deliberations of the upper chamber and his commitment to consensus are truly his highest values, then his administration might result in an essentially frozen political environment anchored by partisan gridlock—and, perhaps, an ever so slightly less expansive presidency. Indeed, Biden has occasionally criticized his Democratic rivals for wanting to do too much by executive order. It's not exactly a full-throated defense of restricting executive power, but it is probably the most modest vision of the presidency in the Democratic field.
On the other hand, Biden has repeatedly led the way—or done his part to move things along—when there is a perceived moral crisis and the political elites manage to converge on what to do about it. After all, the consensus view is rarely, if ever, "Do nothing."
And as Biden likes to often remind us, history says don't hope.