Monday, April 8, 2019
Joe Biden then and now: What the candidacies and controversies of the former vice president tell us about today’s politics
Presidential elections in the United States come every four years, as you well know. But the presidential election process now is not an every four year experience, it is a permanent campaign. The presidential election cycle has now turned into a full-time preoccupation of American politics.
The reasons for this are many, one of the most of the reasons is the fact that the presidency has assumed ever increasing authority and power at the center of American politics. The stakes are simply much higher and thus the presidency becomes even more of an obsession in American politics.
But the other reason is that there is now an entire infrastructure of political campaigning. And one of the things to note is that over the last several presidential election cycles, the point at which a candidate has to be active, funded, engaged, and professionally staffed is now coming earlier and earlier. We've looked at the fact that there have been campaign announcements at the end of 2018 for a race that will not take place until 2020.
But this race is another issue. Americans tend to give less attention to the nomination races and much more attention to the general election. They really pay attention to the presidential election once it is a head-to-head contest between the Democratic and the Republican nominee.
But of course, most of the action right now is not towards the general election at all, it is towards the nomination process. The big prize that has to be won first is the prize for the Democratic presidential nomination. When you have an incumbent President eligible to elected for a second term, there is generally not a credible challenger from within the President's own party. That's likely to be the case for President Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020.
So right now, all the energy is on the Democratic side looking to the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Over the course of the next several weeks, we're going to be taking a look at the major candidates for the Democratic nomination. Every single one of them raises a host of worldview issues. Every one of them has a story, every one of them has a personality, every one of them represents certain policies and certain principles. We're going to be looking at those closely.
First up, the former Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. And not by accident, of course, for two reasons. Number one, according to almost every poll, he is, at least as of last week, the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. What makes that so interesting is that he actually hasn't announced that he's running yet. But that's the way the game is played. Everyone watching the former Vice President knows that he has been running for president ever since Barack Obama ended his term and thus, so did Joe Biden as President Obama's Vice President.
But this is leading to a host of complications for the former Vice President over the last several days. The second reason, of course, we are discussing Joe Biden is because he has been front page news, headline news, in almost every major media format over the last several days because of accusations coming from a number of women that he touched them inappropriately.
But before turning to the most recent controversy, let's remind ourselves of the general contour in the history of Joe Biden as a major American politician. The first thing we need to note is that he has a very long history. Joe Biden was born in 1942. If indeed he were to be elected president in the 2020 presidential election, he would be inaugurated as the oldest individual ever to take the oath of office. Whether or not that's likely is for political forecasters to tell us. But what is interesting is the fact that when you're looking at Joe Biden, you are looking at one of the most important political fixtures in the United States for now over 40 years.
Biden was born in 1942 in Pennsylvania, but when he was about age 10, the family moved to Delaware. And ever since then, Joe Biden and Delaware have been politically linked. He ran for the United States Senate and won in 1972, becoming the sixth youngest individual in American history ever to be elected to the United States Senate.
By the time Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, barely age 30, he had married his wife Neilia and together they had had three children, two boys, Beau and Hunter, and a little girl named Naomi. But even as he was elected in the fall of 1972, just about five weeks after his election and before he had taken office, his wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident. Both of the boys had also been in the car, but they survived the accident.
Thus, one of the youngest men ever elected to the United States Senate, lost his wife and his little girl and had his two sons injured and hospitalized before he could even take the oath of office. According to his biography, Joe Biden had considered then resigning, even before taking office. But he was persuaded to continue and to go on and assume his seat as a Senator by the then Majority Leader of the Senate, Mike Mansfield, the Democratic leader.
Thus, Biden entered the United States Senate at the end of 1972, a 30 year old, one of the youngest men ever elected to the Senate. But he entered the Senate in a different position than he had run for the office. He entered as a widower, who was a single parent raising two little boys, both of whom had been injured in the automobile accident that killed his wife and daughter.
In 1977, Biden married again. This time marrying Jill Jacobs, with whom he also had a daughter. He became a fixture in the United States Senate, re-elected several times to that office. He also had major influence, becoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, serving as chairman between 1987 and 1995. And as ranking member, meaning the senior Democratic member, between 1981 and '87, and 1995 and 1997. What should you note there? Well, those years included some of the most contentious battles for nominations of judges. And in particular, for justices to the United States Supreme Court.
Most importantly, he was chairman of the committee during the now infamous hearings for the confirmation of Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court. Bork had been nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Those particular committee hearings became so infamous that the name Bork became a verb. To destroy someone politically is now often simply summarized by the verb "to Bork." Someone who has been thus destroyed, politically destroyed, is said to have been "borked." That's what happened to Robert Bork and the Democratic leadership, primarily with Senator Joe Biden at the helm of that committee, intentionally, strategically destroyed Robert Bork in the one of the most intellectually dishonest episodes in the history of the United States Senate.
Biden was also chairman of the Judiciary Committee when President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the nation's highest court in 1991. Again, those hearings became infamous. Thomas was eventually confirmed, but it became one of the most contentious, and again, one of the most controversial hearings in American political history. More on that in just a moment.
During his time on the Judiciary Committee, Biden became infamous himself for his convoluted questions. He would talk so long when asking a question, that the person being asked, and frankly his colleagues in the Senate, could not follow the question. By the time he ended, it appeared that almost no one in the room knew what the question actually was, having to ask the chairman or the ranking member, Senator Biden, to summarize the question. Sometimes the committee simply moved on.
Biden would later also serve as chairman and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate and in foreign affairs, he was generally known as a liberal internationalist following the bi-partisan consensus, but in particular the Democratic party consensus that had emerged in the last years of the 20th century and into the 21st.
But, of course, Biden is best known for the eight years he served President Barack Obama as Vice President of the United States. This should remind us that he had twice run for the Democratic presidential nomination, he had considered it in other years, but he was a declared candidate in both 1988 and also in 2008.
In 1988, Biden was considered a rising star in the Democratic party. He was expected to be a genuine contender for the presidential nomination. But it wasn't to be. First of all because of a fundamental lack of political support on the campaign trail, but secondly because of a hugely embarrassing controversy. A controversy that centered in the issue of plagiarism, using someone else's words as one's own.
Biden did that, borrowing words directly from a personal story told by British politician Neil Kinnock, the Labor Party leader in the United Kingdom. It was eventually noted by reporters who had heard the Neil Kinnock speech and then heard the Biden speech, and understood that Biden had simply borrowed from, indeed stolen from, the speech given by the British politician. He had done so without any citation whatsoever, and the controversy became so large that Biden had to withdraw from the race. That was 1988.
He ran again for the Democratic presidential nomination in the year 2008, at the end of the second term of George W. Bush, but he failed to gain political support again. In the Iowa caucuses, he gained less than 1% of the delegate count, and that very night he withdrew.
He was eventually chosen by Barack Obama as his running mate, offering a kind of senior Democratic status to the very young presidential nominee. And when the ticket won, Biden became the 47th Vice President of the United States.
But in worldview analysis, the most important issue for our understanding is Joe Biden, then and now. Back when he was in the Senate, he was considered a liberal member of the Democratic caucus. His average rating by liberal organizations was about 80% over his lifetime in the Senate. Only about 13% by conservative organizations. What does that tell you? It tells you that generally he was an extremely reliable liberal vote. And he held to those positions.
But it's also important to recognize that at the same time, he was considered something of a centrist within the Democratic party. The Democratic party was considerably more liberal, especially on social, economic, and many other issues during the years that Joe Biden was in the Senate.
The 2020 presidential election: Beginning a worldview analysis
But that was then. The reality is that in the context of the Democratic nomination race for 2020, Joe Biden is by no means on the left wing. He isn't even near the left edge. He is, if anything, running as a moderate in today's resurgently liberal Democratic party. The party has moved to the left and it has left Joe Biden behind.
Several big lessons to learn here. For one thing, Joe Biden has a very long political history. Almost anyone these days with a long political history is going to have a long list of problems in the newly awoken Democratic party of 2019. One of the problems he has is on criminal justice reform. Joe Biden was for very serious criminal justice reform and that meant a tough on crime approach. He had actually accused President George H.W. Bush of being soft on crime and he pushed for legislation and became a major proponent of legislation leading to increased federal penalties. That's extremely controversial, if not disqualifying in today's Democratic party.
On abortion, you are looking at Joe Biden being eagerly pro-abortion now in the context of the 2019 Democratic party, but he also has a legislative history. That legislative history includes the fact that he supported a ban on partial birth abortions and there are other votes in which he will simply be considered not pro-abortion enough in 2020, as scary as that is.
On foreign policy, there is one huge problem for Joe Biden, and that is the fact that he voted in the Senate for the Congressional authorization for the Iraq War during the presidency of George W. Bush. Now just remember that in 2008, that same vote by then Senator Hillary Clinton was just about enough to give Barack Obama the advantage to defeat her for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. How is it that Joe Biden thinks it's going to be better now in a far more liberal Democratic party?
LGBTQ activists credit Joe Biden as Vice President with persuading then President Barack Obama to change his position and to affirm same-sex marriage. That's exactly what President Obama did, in 2008, he had run with a position against legalizing same-sex marriage. But just in time for the culture to turn, President Obama changed his position when he ran for re-election in 2012.
But in all these issues, as liberal as Joe Biden is, he is not liberal enough for today's Democratic party. And the other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, almost all of them, certainly the major figures considerably to his left, they are now seeking to destroy him, even before he can announce his presidential campaign.
And that brings us to the most recent headlines, several women accusing the former Vice President over the last several decades of touching them inappropriately. This is hardly news when you consider even the photographs and the video that have been available about Joe Biden over the last several decades.
Using his own terminology, the form Vice President has been and is what he describes as a tactile politician. He touches people, he touches them over and over again. He touches all kinds of people, young and old, and male and female. There have been political figures, men, as well as women, who have said that they felt awkward with this tactile approach taken by the former Vice President during the time he was Vice President and before that when he served in the United States Senate.
One of the interesting twists in this is that no one is accusing the former Vice President of sexual assault, but rather of inappropriate touching. This represents a sea change in American culture, it represents a massive change in the political culture that Joe Biden has experienced during the decades he has been in public office. He was not alone in being a tactile politician, back when he entered the Senate. But by the time he left office as Vice President, America had already begun to change. Photographs in newspapers and videos served on cable news, they offered up pictures of cringe worthy images of the Vice President or former Senate Biden touching someone.
But frankly, as legitimate as some of those concerns are about the former Vice President, the one thing to note is that the political energy behind this is really not about these accusations. It is about trying to destroy Joe Biden because he party's base wants to have a nominee considerably to his left. A younger nominee representing a new generational emphasis. Joe Biden is old news.
Several people have already leapt to tell him this. For example, Michelle Goldberg, writing a piece for The New York Times entitled, "The wrong time for Biden," says, "He's not a sexual predator, but he is out of touch." She concluded her article, "It's fair to ask whether he's the right leader for this moment. He is a product of his time, but that time is up," she said.
Biden's on the cover of the current edition of TIME Magazine with a photograph and then the words, "The test case: Boundaries in the age of Trump." The article is Nancy Gibbs.
Gibbs summarizes Biden's challenge with these words, "It remains an open question whether a party fielding a historically diverse group of candidates will pick a white man, who on inauguration day would be the oldest person ever to become president." He's too male, he's too pale, he's not liberal enough, he's been around too long.
Peggy Noonan, in a major piece that ran in the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, Noonan, of course, was famously the senior speech writer for the former President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, she ran a story with a headline, "If Biden runs, they'll tear him up."
Speaking of the controversy around Biden in the Democratic party, Noonan advised, "It's not going away, it will linger and more will come." She continued, "Democratic operatives do not fear you will win the nomination, they think you're too old, your time has passed, you're not where the energy or the base is or the money. But," she says, "they don't want you taking up oxygen the next six to ten months, as you sink in the polls."
Daniel Henninger, also writing in The Wall Street Journal, with a headline story, "Liberals are eating their own." Says, "Maybe Joe Biden really has overstayed his welcome. In simpler political times, the litmus test for being an acceptable Democrat was support for Roe v. Wade. The one certain thing we have learned about the politics of the modern Democratic party is that if are accused of having done, said, or written anything that violates an array of recently identified progressive values, you are disqualified from public life. You will be denounced and shunned."
Ross Douthat of The New York Times says that Joe Biden's problem is that he is on the wrong side of what he brilliantly calls the "Great Awokening" in the Democratic party.
The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal jumped in with a piece entitled, "Joe Biden's identity reckoning." And, of course, they're reckoning with the descent of the Democratic party into undiluted identity politics. They summarize, "He may have been Vice President, but he's old, white, male, and heterosexual. That's four strikes in today's Democratic party." As the board says, Biden is already being hazed for his past as an insufficiently "woke pale male."
And yet, as of this morning, it appears that Joe Biden is determined to run for the presidential nomination of the Democratic party. Which means we are in for an interesting ride. The worldview implications are massive, as is this discussion of Joe Biden. He is a very long tenured politician, which means there's a lot to talk about. He has a story, and that story demands our attention.
But the Democratic party has a story too and it's a story of moving aggressively and with accelerating speed to the left, past Joe Biden. Something that wouldn't have been imaginable, even just a decade ago. And the story is almost assuredly bigger than that, it's hard to imagine Barack Obama gaining on his positions and his story, the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. He is already being criticized by many of the Democratic candidates as being himself a part of the problem, out of date, even though it's political incorrect to say that directly.
Every major political contest is a battle of worldviews and ideas, and this one demands our attention at every single level. We'll be watching it together. The worldview profiles of the other major candidates will be shorter. Why? Because their political careers are considerably shorter. But that does not mean that the worldview issues are any less significant.
Politicians rarely admit that complex problems defy simple solutions—plastic bags, for example
But next, as we're thinking about the intersection of worldview and politics, sometimes the headlines don't seem that big. For example, New York state banned plastic bags as part of a budgetary and tax reform recently adopted by the state's government. They banned plastic bags statewide.
Jesse McKinley reporting for The Times tells us, "New York's ban, which would begin next March, would forbid stores from providing customers with single use plastic bags which are non-biodegradable and have been blamed for everything, from causing gruesome wildlife deaths to thwarting recycling efforts." Now, there's no doubt that there are genuine environmental concerns here. Christians, responsible as we understand in a Biblical mandate for both dominion and stewardship, should think intelligently about this challenge and should understand that we do have a responsibility to use what God has given us, but also to take good care of the earth. If there's an acceptable substitute for plastic bags, then we would conceivably be for it.
The problem is, as The New York Times and other major media pointed out, this kind of legislation, though representing something of a feel good bill, doesn't turn out perhaps to have much impact on the environment at all. As we're analyzing by worldview, one of the things we need to note here is that we all do things that make us feel better about ourselves. And that would include feeling better about our care and concern for the earth. And by this, we don't mean some kind of mere ecological concern, but of Biblical concern. We take pride in the fact that we would do things that are right and not the things that are wrong. But it isn't quite so simple.
The math sometimes points that it's a lot more complex than you might think. For example, the New York state law will forbid single use plastic bags and is going to encourage reusable bags. Again, that makes sense. You see these in stores all over the place. But are those reusable bags actually of less environmental or ecological concern? Well even The New York Times points out, probably not.
Brad Plumber writes, "A study found that an avid shopper would have to reuse his or her cotton bag 131 times before it had a smaller global warming impact than a lightweight plastic bag used only once." That's right, that was in The New York Times, a newspaper that appeared to be for this legislation, but after it's passed pointed out the math really doesn't add up.
Once again, this is not one of those earth shaking issues that will change the entire direction of American politics. But it does point to the fact that we had better watch carefully the kind of arguments that we're making, not only in public, but sometimes even to ourselves. It turns out that the ecological impact of making a reusable bag is vastly greater than making a disposable bag. That's not to argue for one or the other, it's just to say that the average person who feels better using a reusable bag probably doesn't know that that bag will have to be used 131 times to equal the ecological impact of using one use only plastic bags.
But the other issue raised by The New York Times in this piece by Brad Plumber is that the ecological impact of the bag is vastly outweighed, and this isn't even close, by whatever is in the bag. And you can probably count on the fact that the New York government is going to try to legislate about that too. Not only the bag, but what's in the bag.
But finally, as we're talking about plastic, The New York Times reported a story with the headline, "Solving the mystery of sleepy bright orange coastline hazard." The story is reported from London, but it has to do with Garfield Telephones, that is plastic telephones in the shape of the famous orange cat that had been washing up for nearly three decades on the shore of Brittany, on the French coast. The question is, why? How?
Well it turned out that the multitude of Garfield telephones were on a shipping container that fell off a ship in a storm about 30 years ago. And as the tides came in and came out, they tended to bring a few Garfield phones right to the French shoreline.
Some of the French people appeared to be disappointed that there was such a mundane explanation, it was far more interesting to think of some prank or something even more sinister undertaken by some individual or group that was setting Garfield afloat regularly for 30 years. It turns out, it's not that interesting. Just a shipping container that fell off.
But here's what is interesting, it turns out that there are 148 million of these giant shipping containers that travel by ship every single year on the oceans and seas of the world. 148 million of these giant containers. The New York Times tells us interestingly that over the last several years, at least 1500 of these giant containers have gone overboard in some kind of ship incident. That's also a huge number, but so far as it's known, only one of them contained Garfield telephones.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.