Joe Biden is not a strong candidate.
Let’s stop focusing all our attention on him.
This is a mistake.
At the recent debate, Biden rambled aimlessly and often seemed confused. In a campaign where other candidates are putting forward bold suggestions, publishing detailed policy plans on everything from a family bill of rights (Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) to the establishment of civilian conservation corps (Senator Elizabeth Warren), Biden had nothing new to offer.
The animating tension within the democratic party is the contest between the progressive wing (embodied by expansive policies like the Green New Deal and rising political stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and centrist democrats, who have more modest ambitions for supporting working people. The candidate the party selects will tell us a lot about what the future of the democratic party will be.
But many commentators are skipping over that fundamental question and going right to discussing what a Biden vs Trump election might look like. By focusing only on Biden, we miss out on a huge range of policy innovations and thoughtful perspectives from people who have something new to offer the political conversation. A (false) narrative that Biden is the only candidate who can beat Trump has already taken root.
Firstly, let’s set aside the fact that the party insiders, pollsters and pundits who put forward this theory were the same people who thought Trump couldn’t win.
Secondly, there are many pathways to the White House. Democrats could (and should) focus on mobilising the vote by speaking to communities who are rarely centered in national political campaigns (i.e. anyone who isn’t white and cis male). Focusing on converting the narrow sliver of voters who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 is not the only path to election, nor should it warp the media narrative this early in the election cycle. We are, let’s not forget, 17 months away from polling day!
The so-called ‘electability’ argument is largely a fallacy. Electability is the amorphous idea put forward by the political press, consultants, donors and pollsters that is sometimes based on history, polling or money raised. More often, it’s a gut feeling put forward by a few which hardens into fact as the media grapples with the uncertainty of the moment. And let’s not forget that the ‘guts’ that are ‘felt' usually reside within people with more privilege and confidence in their own prognostications than the average voter. That is to say, people who are overwhelmingly wealthy, white and male.
Joe Biden is not a strong candidate. He has spent 44 of his 76 years in Washington. He would be the party’s second establishment candidate in a row. He is, without question, the candidate with the most electoral baggage.
Some highlights, or should I say lowlights:
On reproductive rights:
Speaking about access to abortion, he said “I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” In 1982, he voted to let states overturn Roe vs Wade.
On workplace sexual harassment:
In 1991, Biden chaired the US Senate Judiciary Committee during which Anita Hill testified that she had been sexually harassed by the nominee Clarence Thomas. Biden was initially reluctant to allow Hill testify, because he’d promised a Republican colleague in the Senate gym (!) that it would be a speedy confirmation. Biden refused to allow Hill’s colleagues, who would have corroborated her allegations, to testify. He didn’t intervene to stop the disrespectful questioning his colleagues (14 white men) subjected her to. He never apologised. “To this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us,” Biden said recently. A deft use of passive voice and the conditional tense to distance himself from the hearings that he was responsible for as committee chair.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because there were similar hearings surrounding the nomination of another conservative justice Brett Kavanagh last year. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Both men now sit on the Supreme Court where the 5-4 conservative majority will likely erode civil and reproductive rights throughout the US.
In 1988, Biden co-sponsored legislation that enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences, including higher sentences for the possession of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine. This legislation targeted poorer African-American and Latinx communities and contributed to the mass incarceration of black and brown people, especially men and boys.
He has praised segregationist senators. During the debate, he was rightly criticised by Senator Kamala Harris for his stance on ‘busing’, the policy of transporting young black students to neighbouring school districts following the landmark supreme court ruling which desegregated schools. He condescendingly described Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
On women’s rights:
Biden’s reputation for creepy, predatory behaviour towards women and girls is well documented. There is no doubt that he has behaved inappropriately. In response to several allegations against him, he made a twitter video insisting that he’s always tried to make a “human connection”. He promised to “be much more mindful” and went on to treat it as a campaign punchline. Nobody has equated his behaviour with serious sexual assault, but it does point to a dismissive, infantilising attitude towards women. Biden doesn’t seem to think this is a problem. He’s never apologised for making women feel repulsed and uncomfortable. On the contrary, he seems proud of his behaviour, spinning it into a rejection of politics that is “cold and antiseptic”. He addressed a female questioner at a campaign event as “kiddo”. At another campaign stop, K.C. Cayo recounted how he responded to a question on Hyde amendment:
“He leaned in very close to my face and started wagging his finger at me. He said, ‘Nobody has spoken about it, done more, or changed more than I have’. I can now make the connection between the man I saw and the man accused of harassment by multiple women. I saw a man capable of those things: A man who can’t take responsibility, who doesn’t respect women, and who gets in their personal space”
I could go on. Biden’s policies on race, reproductive rights and economic inequality radiate from his paternalistic core. This is his third attempt at the democratic nomination. He finished fifth in the Iowa Caucus in January 2008, garnering just 1% of the vote. There’s a reason he’s failed at this twice before. He is not a strong candidate. It’s a disservice to voters to focus on Biden to the exclusion of other, more thoughtful contenders.