He has spent five decades trying to split the difference between the Democrats’ liberal and conservative camps. Now, he wants to bridge the divide that Donald Trump has widened.
There’s a term in Joe Biden’s home state for the brand of politics practised here: the Delaware Way. It refers to the idea that politicians of both parties, as well as private business, must work together for the greater good.
For some, the Way is one of Delaware’s best qualities – an invitation to consensus-building in a small state where everyone seems to know each other. For others, it’s little more than clubby cronyism, with elites cutting deals behind closed doors.
Either way, it’s the ethos that has defined Mr. Biden through nearly five decades in politics. He has consistently taken a calculating and cautious approach to governance, always trying to find the most moderate path. He has prioritized building personal relationships, fuelled by an innate deftness at empathizing with other people and seemingly driven by a sincere desire to be liked. And he has a long history of using government to advance the interests of big business.
Now, as the 77-year-old prepares to formally receive the Democratic nomination for president next week, this style will face the ultimate test. Mr. Biden is banking that his avuncular mien and conciliatory position can heal the national wounds wrought by Donald Trump’s incendiary politics. And he has doubled down on his centrism by passing over more progressive potential running mates in favour of Kamala Harris, a middle-of-the-road California senator.
He faces an unpopular incumbent and has consistently lead in the polls, making Mr. Biden’s third bid for the White House his to lose.
But the United States is at a tipping point. To save it from destruction by vast racial and income inequalities, an out-of-control pandemic and a shattered economy will require sweeping changes. The question is, can an incrementalist career politician intent on pleasing everyone seize this extraordinary moment and deliver the bold reforms the world’s most powerful country so desperately needs?
FROM SCRANTON TO THE SENATE
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., the eldest of Joe Biden Sr. and Jean Finnegan’s four children, was born in Scranton, a coal town in the hills of Pennsylvania. His once-wealthy father had fallen on hard times, and the family lived with Jean’s parents. When Joe was 10, Joe Sr. found work selling used cars in Delaware and moved his young brood. The Bidens bought a white split-level house in a postwar Wilmington subdivision and settled into their version of the 1950s American dream.
At his Catholic high school, Archmere Academy, Mr. Biden played football and made friends easily thanks to his extroverted personality. Classmate Robert Markel remembers the Biden home as the hangout for their social circle. In the basement, the boys listened to Brook Benton records. In the living room, Jean gave them advice on everything from school to girls. On weekends, they’d go to dances or sports games. Mr. Biden was a straight arrow who never drank or smoked, and told friends he was eyeing a career in politics.
The group frequented a diner called the Charcoal Pit, run by a rotund man nicknamed Char-Belly. One day, when they walked in with a Black classmate, the manager pulled Mr. Markel aside to tell him the restaurant’s “policy” was not to serve Black people. When a stunned Mr. Markel relayed this edict to the group, Mr. Biden was firm. “They’re not going to serve any of us,” he said and led his friends out the door. “That’s the way he was,” Mr. Markel says. “He just stood up and assumed leadership and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ ”
Mr. Biden’s most serious drawback was a stutter, which led classmates to call him “J-j-j-joe B-b-b-biden.” So, one summer, he spent hours reciting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry in the mirror to break the affliction.
After Archmere, Mr. Biden studied history and political science at the University of Delaware, followed by law school at Syracuse University in New York. Despite the activism flaring on college campuses, he was hardly a product of the counterculture. Mr. Biden would later recount that he wore a jacket and tie to class and didn’t take part in antiwar protests.
Instead, he tried to bridge the country’s divides on a personal level. In the summer of 1962, Mr. Biden sought a lifeguard job at Prices Run, an outdoor pool in a majority-Black area of Wilmington.
Dennis Williams, who frequented the pool that summer, says Mr. Biden won people over with an obvious desire to make friends. After his shift, he’d stick around for swimming races, to hang out at the local community centre or have dinner at the homes of people in the neighbourhood.
“Joe became one of us. After a while, the colour barrier went out the window,” Mr. Williams says.
After law school, Mr. Biden worked first in private practice, then became a public defender. Within two years, he made the leap to politics and won a seat on the county council in 1970.
In that first campaign, he was already assiduously steering a middle course between the Democrats’ liberal and conservative wings. He favoured building more affordable housing, for instance – but only 25 units at a time.
Mr. Biden had barely settled into the job when he decided, at the age of 29, to run for the Senate in 1972. Paul Kirk, then an aide to Senator Ted Kennedy, agreed to meet with Mr. Biden as he sought advice for the campaign. The young councillor, he says, hoped to fashion his political style after that of the Kennedys. And he could barely contain his excitement when he walked into Mr. Kennedy’s Capitol Hill office, with its expansive view down Constitution Avenue. “Whoa!” he exclaimed.
Mr. Biden won by 2,300 votes. But this victory was quickly tempered by tragedy. The month after the election, while Mr. Biden was in Washington hiring office staff, his wife, Neilia, took their three children shopping for a Christmas tree. A truck driver broadsided their station wagon as Neilia pulled out from a stop sign on a Delaware highway, killing her and their daughter, Naomi, and leaving sons Beau and Hunter with serious injuries. Mr. Biden was sworn in by the boys’ hospital bedside. Every day when the Senate adjourned, he’d drive or take an Amtrak train nearly two hours north to be with his children in Delaware.
In a wide-ranging interview in the spring of 1974, the Senate’s youngest member told Washingtonian magazine that his family “expects” him to one day become president. Then, he reminisced about sex with his late wife while holding up a photograph of her in a bikini. (“She looks better than a Playboy bunny,” he enthused.)
Mr. Biden also tried to distance himself from his party’s left. He supported the military draft and opposed legalizing marijuana. On Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that had legalized abortion the previous year, Mr. Biden opined that the Supreme Court “went too far.”
“When it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother,” the magazine quoted him as saying. “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
Mr. Biden’s political positions would change over the years – he is now pro-choice, for instance. And in 1977, he would marry again, this time to schoolteacher Jill Jacobs, with whom he has a daughter, Ashley. But his persona would remain pretty much as that interview depicted it: unfiltered to the point of gaffe-prone, while studiously hedging on hot-button issues.
THE POLITICAL JOURNEYMAN
Delaware has long evinced a corporatist political culture. A postage-stamp state of fewer than one million, it was once dominated by the du Pont family. Their chemical company was Delaware’s major employer, and the family’s scions were deeply embedded in government.
These days, Delaware’s economy functions as something of a domestic version of the Cayman Islands. The state is a tax haven with few regulations on business – including an easy incorporation process and secrecy rules that make it simple to hide the identities of company owners. It also has a Chancery Court specifically meant to handle commercial disputes. The place thrives on incorporating companies that do business elsewhere.
“The arrangement that Delaware has with corporate power and this concept of, ‘We can get political leaders and corporations in the same room and figure out what’s good for everyone’ often leaves out the actual people who are most affected by those decisions,” says Jessica Scarane, 34, who is challenging one of Delaware’s incumbent Democratic senators in next month’s primary.
As an example, she points to a state decision earlier this year to give Amazon US$4.5-million to build a new warehouse at a time when some local school boards were running out of money.
The Delaware Way’s symbiosis between business and government, and politics-by-relationship, were clearly in evidence during Mr. Biden’s 36 years in the Senate.
In the 1990s, he supported loosening regulations on banks with the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking Act and the Financial Services Modernization Act, which were beneficial for the banks and insurance companies based in his state. Both laws would later be blamed for the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession.
In 2005, Mr. Biden worked with Republicans on the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Act, which made it harder for Americans to declare bankruptcy and easier for creditors to squeeze money out of broke debtors. He even helped vote down Democratic amendments meant to soften the law, including one from Mr. Kennedy that would have protected people who go bankrupt because of medical bills.
During this time, credit card company MBNA was Delaware’s largest private employer, and its workers helped fund Mr. Biden’s campaigns. The company would also later hire his son Hunter.
Mr. Biden’s preference for bipartisan conciliation, meanwhile, showed early in the confirmation process for Robert Bork, a conservative federal judge nominated for the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1987.
As chairman of the judiciary committee, Mr. Biden was charged with running the hearings. The left virulently opposed Mr. Bork, who believed laws against racial segregation were unconstitutional and opposed the legal reasoning in Roe v. Wade. But Mr. Biden was at first hesitant to fight the nomination.
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor who advised Mr. Biden during the hearings, recalls that the senator felt Mr. Reagan should have some latitude in making court appointments.
“He entered the process somewhat reluctantly. He didn’t think the Senate should try to impose its own will on the President, and that the President should have some degree of deference,” Prof. Tribe says. “But the more he learned about Bork, the more he thought it would be damaging to the country for Bork to be on the Supreme Court. He came to that view over a period of time, and once he was convinced of that view, he was all in. The hesitation was gone.”
What particularly hit Mr. Biden was Mr. Bork’s opinion that Americans have no constitutional right to privacy. This position not only contradicted Roe v. Wade, but would also open the door to arbitrary police searches and allow conservative jurisdictions to ban the use of contraceptives.
Mr. Biden hunkered down at his home in Delaware to rehearse the hearings, with Prof. Tribe playing the part of Mr. Bork. That September, Mr. Biden confronted Mr. Bork during his committee appearance, using a series of legal articles the judge had previously written to paint him as a radical right-winger. The Senate rejected Mr. Bork’s nomination.
This high point, however, was swiftly followed by two lows. In the middle of the hearings, Mr. Biden had to drop out of the 1988 presidential race after it was discovered he used portions of speeches by Robert Kennedy and then-U.K. Labour leader Neil Kinnock without attribution, and lied about his university record. Shortly after, Mr. Biden had to undergo two risky surgeries to repair brain aneurysms.
Mr. Biden’s reputation in the Senate was that of a political journeyman. But his record does show some significant initiatives.
In 1990, sparked by the previous year’s Montreal Massacre, Mr. Biden decided he wanted to do something about violence against women. One day in a meeting, he pointed at Victoria Nourse, a lawyer for the judiciary committee, and asked her to craft a bill.
Prof. Nourse and Mr. Biden drew up the Violence Against Women Act, which imposed tougher penalties for domestic violence, put more money into prosecuting such crimes and made those convicted pay restitution to their victims. The bill became law in 1994.
Throughout the process, Mr. Biden spoke regularly with survivors of domestic violence, both in public hearings in Washington and privately in Delaware. People would even approach him on the train to share their stories.
“He was incredible. Biden listened to them in a way that I had not imagined,” says Prof. Nourse, who now teaches at Georgetown Law. “There is no man that I know of in as powerful a position who has ever worked so hard on something like this.”
At the same time as he was working on this Act, however, Mr. Biden was accused of mishandling sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas, nominated to the Supreme Court by George H.W. Bush in 1991.
At hearings with Mr. Thomas’s accuser, law professor Anita Hill, Mr. Biden allowed other senators to smear her character, failed to call two witnesses who could back up her accusations and gave Mr. Thomas the opportunity to testify both before and after her. Mr. Thomas was confirmed to the court.
One staffer who worked with Mr. Biden at the time says his mistake was trying too hard to be collegial with the Republicans, which led him to make concessions to Mr. Thomas.
Prof. Tribe, for his part, says Mr. Biden believed confirmation hearings should turn on questions about the judge’s legal work and was uncomfortable investigating personal misconduct.
“He found the whole thing really distasteful. He thought the main reasons for either confirming or not confirming someone like Thomas would have to do with the philosophy that he would bring to the court,” Prof. Tribe says.
Years later, one of Mr. Biden’s office employees from this time, Tara Reade, would accuse him of pushing her up against a wall in a Capitol Hill basement and penetrating her with his fingers in the spring of 1993. Mr. Biden has denied it. Three other former staffers, to whom Ms. Reade said she complained at the time, have said they did not receive any complaint. At least two of Ms. Reade’s friends, meanwhile, have told reporters she told them about the incident shortly after it occurred.
Mr. Biden ran for president a second time in 2008. The campaign never caught on, and he was hampered by cringe-worthy comments. In one interview, Mr. Biden described his rival Barack Obama as the first Black candidate to be “articulate and bright and clean.” Mr. Biden dropped out after polling at less than 1 per cent in the Iowa caucuses.
Still, Mr. Obama tapped him as running mate. Mr. Biden brought older, white, working-class Democrats to Mr. Obama’s voting coalition. His experience on the Senate’s foreign-relations committee made him an important adviser on national security. And the long-time legislator worked Congress to push through the Recovery Act, Mr. Obama’s stimulus package following the recession, and the Affordable Care Act, his signature health-care reform.
“He did all of the hard things up on the Hill,” says Prof. Nourse, who went back to work for Mr. Biden during his vice-presidency. “There is no more skilled person that I have ever seen or known of in history, other than Lyndon Johnson, when it comes to actually passing legislation than Joe Biden.”
On the home front, Mr. Biden’s life was again shaken in 2015. His eldest son, Beau, who had been attorney-general of Delaware and was eyeing a run for governor, died of a brain tumour. Mr. Biden would later say his grief over Beau’s death ultimately made him decide not to run for president in 2016.
THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
Early in the primaries, it looked as though Mr. Biden’s careful moderation and corporate friendliness might be his undoing.
Elizabeth Warren assailed him over the bankruptcy bill. Bernie Sanders attacked his attempt, during Mr. Obama’s first term, to make a budget deal with congressional Republicans that would have cut social security and Medicare. Ms. Harris floored him in one debate by bringing up his 1970s opposition to desegregation busing, a practice that saw white children attend schools in majority-Black neighbourhoods and vice-versa.
Mr. Biden also faced a rough ride for opposing federal funding of abortion in the 1980s, supporting mass incarceration to crack down on crime in the 1990s and voting to invade Iraq in 2003.
His tendency to put his foot in his mouth also came back to haunt him. In one much-viewed clip, Mr. Biden described how low-income parents could do better at raising their children. “Play the radio, make sure the television – excuse me – make sure you have the record player on at night, make sure that kids hear words.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, ransomed military aid to Ukraine in a bid to pressure Kyiv into investigating Hunter Biden’s work for Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma. The episode led to impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump, during which the President and his defenders barraged Mr. Biden with unfounded accusations that he’d been involved in improper dealings.
Mr. Biden lost the first three nominating contests. But he came back with a thumping victory in South Carolina and continued to rack up states until he’d forced every other candidate from the race. Mr. Biden’s triumph turned in part on playing up his connection with Mr. Obama to win Black voters. And it was anchored by a centrist pitch to independents and soft conservatives. In every stump speech, Mr. Biden talked about restoring America’s place in the world after Mr. Trump’s efforts to torch international alliances. The votes he lost on the left, he appeared to make up for in the centre.
“Trump has treated our allies like dirt. I’m supportive of NATO,” says Harry Pierson, a 71-year-old retired pharmacist and long-time Republican in Hampton, N.H., who backed Mr. Biden. “A moderate will attract more Republican voters who are fed up with Trump.”
Other supporters are drawn by Mr. Biden’s ability to connect. Thomasina Greene, 70, a retired radio host in Charleston, S.C., met the candidate at an event last September, then kept in touch with his campaign. When Ms. Greene’s mother died in December, she says, Mr. Biden sent flowers. “He is in tune with people. He’s an intent listener.”
Mr. Biden will try to replicate this formula in the general election. The Democratic platform, for instance, does not include single-payer health care, the left’s cornerstone policy but anathema to many centrist voters and corporate interests. Ms. Harris, meanwhile, will make history as the first Black woman on a presidential ticket, while hewing to the same brand of moderate politics as Mr. Biden.
Whether that will be enough to motivate voters, or fix a broken country if they win, remains to be seen. On the campaign trail, many progressives have said they wouldn’t even vote for a Democratic ticket headed by Mr. Biden – they’re so certain he would fail to take any sort of bold action in office, they argue it wouldn’t be worth defeating Mr. Trump. “With Biden, we would see complacency,” says James Woitas, a 22-year-old Oregonian who volunteered for Mr. Sanders.
But Mr. Biden’s old friend Dennis Williams – who went on to his own career in Delaware politics, as a state legislator and Wilmington’s mayor – contends that his style is actually an effective way to govern. Mr. Biden, he says, understands politics as the art of the possible.
“Biden does compromise,” he says. “If you don’t come to the middle of the road, you won’t get things done.”
The Globe and Mail, August 13, 2020