In a Tuesday fundraiser, former Vice President and frontrunner for the upcoming Democratic nomination uttered phrases that caught segments of the party by storm. His comments aimed at an audience of donors ready to hand over piles of fresh green cash, resources critically needed for a midwestern 2020 blitz. In statements transcribed by Atlantic writer Edward-Isaac Dovere, Biden reminisced of a more civil Senate, particularly regarding former segregationist and Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland. Additionally, reports say Biden intimated a southern drawl as he recalled having never been called “boy” but rather “son” by his then Congressional colleague.
The fracas soon following these privately said statements was overwhelming. Senator Cory Booker issued calls for an apology, immediately met with a likewise request from Joe. Senator Sanders joined the fray in a somewhat metered way, getting in a near yelling match with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle when she pressed the Vermont candidate on nuance. Senator Harris appeared hesitant to demand anything further, although expressing her displeasure with the quotes. Senator Coons from Delaware sidestepped the frenzy artfully as anyone, stating “Joe Biden speaks clearly.”
New York’s 14th district Representative Ocasio-Cortez perhaps got to the heart of the issue when she said in a morning tweet that turnout depression is a risk for 2020. She’s right. 2016 was a 20-year low for presidential politics. Across the board, total votes cast were down 9% from 2012, more so compared to 2008. The energy is beginning to turn in the party, as many are concerned that a still growing economy will buoy President Trump, free-to-roam as an ineffectual impeachment effort lead by House Judiciary Chairman Nadler fails to catch steam.
Where the controversy started to pick up speed was several hours before AOC’s Thursday post, when renowned author Ta-Nehisi Coates went on Democracy Now saying bluntly that “Joe Biden shouldn’t be president.” In Coates’s estimation, the words spoken by Biden revealed hidden affinities for a former Congressmen whose life’s work was spent opposing southern civil rights. The New York University Writer-in-Residence went on to point out Biden’s boastful opposition to racially integrated bussing in the Delaware school system; not to mention his tough-on-crime achievement exemplified in the 1994 Clinton crime bill.
With this in mind, the left-wing segment of the Democratic party is certainly rumbling, set in strident opposition to the former Vice President. His style seen as nothing more than a remnant of a bygone past, more Trumpian than progressive, and in-effect anathema to hardened activists. A middle of the road demeanor combined with sharpened-talk that lacks the policy-driven focus of reformers, who view the post-Obama landscape as ripe for opportunities in areas of prison reform, social justice, and climate change.
This disconnect between Biden-wing Democrats and reformers is stark. In the former camp is the notion of electability, that Biden’s VP experience, his branded name, and senatorial connections all give him advantages that other nominees lack. Considering the razor-thin margins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, it’s not all that bad a theory. Hillary Clinton had similar advantages. Her Senate career may have been uneventful, but name recognition along with her marriage to Bill was comparable — and there lies the problem. The latter camp believes strongly that much bolder lines need to be drawn, beyond establishmentarian wit. Any candidate sent into the 2020 shredder must bring with them a set of progressive policy values, even if the broader electorate thinks otherwise.
That said there’s a tonal shift happening in Democratic activist circles, and it will possibly leave Biden behind. Just recently Senator Elizabeth Warren has rocketed to second rank in futures markets, not matching polling data but close enough. In a flurry of updates, the Oklahoma born Senator from Massachusetts flooded her website with a range of policies addressing newly emerging sections of the party. Everything from presidential impeachment to debt relief for Puerto Rico is on her expanding agenda, and the message is getting out to voters. Warren is doing what Biden should have done when he announced his April entrance, which is reaching out on those positions the left-wing holds most dear. His late attempt at reversing his attitude on federal funding for abortion was executed poorly. Even today, there’s some confusion on his stance. Neither his website nor Twitter account mention the Hyde amendment.
The rejection of nostalgia plays a significant role in reactions to Biden’s recent mishaps. Throughout the last few decades, monumental demographic and cultural shifts have been underway. Ever since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the US has experienced new population flows from across the world. After the 1960s, a rise in female workforce participation has led to expanded political influence when considering all the myriad issues affecting women in corporate America. It’s predictable when Biden longs for yesteryears that younger demographics watch-on with disbelief — how could anyone ever look backwards?
Although Biden was Obama’s running mate through two electoral wins, Barack was the front of the ticket. The Illinois Senator brought a whole new image to then progressive politicking, running first against the Clinton machine and then a hapless McCain snoozefest. The coalition that formed around the ascendant campaign was nothing short of hope for a transformation, and all the change that would accompany. Biden has none of those assets going into 2020.
At best, Biden now faces an uphill battle. On June 27, he will contend with a bevy of candidates gunning for his supporters. Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, Yang, all preparing to contrast their ideal mandates with the rambling Delawarian. One has to foresee the leading party elder battling back and forth with issues he has since reversed, or defending remarks said in jest under times of duress. Joe is surely standing against an ideological upsurge, securing his rudder as the party moves leftward. If he cannot position his sail accordingly, the likes of others will soon reach his clip in the polls. All it takes is one divergent narrative to break the momentum.
In light of the pushback, Biden has never lost a proper head-to-head race. While a New Castle County Councilman, his 12% margin victory set a near forty year precedent of matchup wins. Only during primaries or intra-party dustups did his average trend towards zero; this might be scrambling his inner monologue. The next year of campaigning will be brutal, and the indications are elements of the Progressive-wing will chip away at every aspect of his career held dear since those days spent gazing out at the Delaware River, imagining his political future.
What remains for Biden is the same hope that catalyzed that 2008 campaign years ago, when his friend Barack asked him to join the most improbable political bet conventional wisdom could dream up. As the months pass by and the pressures build, Joe must figure out who will join him on his journey. But every day the walls begin to close in, with friends fading and challengers gaining new courage.
Back in Delaware, Biden was well known for hosting Amtrak employees for celebratory dinners. These types of cordial get-togethers became his way of giving back to a community that saw him travel those very tracks, eventually earning him a railway station named in his honor. There has to be a part of him that wishes for those years, back to that cafe-car small talk with constituents, riding an assured and well-laid path. On this trip, though, he’s facing a new crew, one that won’t wait for him to catch up, and in all likelihood might just leave the station without him.