“Almost no one I came across said they were going to vote because someone, anyone, but especially Joe Biden, had made their heart sing,” said Alex Wagner in The Atlantic. Joe Biden’s candidacy, she argued, is less about Joe Biden the person and more about the idea of Joe Biden. What the former vice president has done or is planning matters little when all people really want to do is send Donald Trump packing.
Defeating Trump is a moral imperative: something people around the world, even non-Americans like myself, care about deeply. But there is something relentlessly exhausting about defining a candidate solely based on who he is up against, rather than who he is. And it shows: news reports talk endlessly about the “enthusiasm gap” between Trump supporters and Biden supporters.
So I set myself a challenge today: to make the case for Joe Biden, but without invoking Donald Trump. Of course, the president’s specter will hang ominously in the background; in today’s world every other politician seems to remind everyone either of who Trump is or who Trump isn’t. And it might even feel like a redundant experiment, given how much this is less of an election than a referendum on the incumbent himself. But I think that what is desperately needed is a positive case for Biden and his candidacy, an argument that involves Biden the person and not just Biden the idea.
And at the very least, it’s a fun writing exercise. So here goes.
“I don’t know anybody who counts votes better than me in the Senate,” Joe Biden once bragged. It demonstrates the worldview of a man shaped by decades in Congress: not an ideologue but a bipartisan collaborator, someone who believes in compromise if that would help get the bigger picture done. Someone who deals with the the world as it is, not as he wants it to be.
In today’s hyper-partisan America, deal-making can seem like a dirty word. Compromise isn’t sexy, after all. But it was this approach that led to Biden being called by one Democratic majority leader as “the most effective senator, bar none.”
What did such effectiveness produce? One signature legislative achievement was the Violence Against Women Act, which has been critical in combating domestic violence and sexual assault crimes. The bill’s passage was not a given; Biden tried unsuccessfully in 1992 and 1993 to pass the bill, and only negotiations with Republican senators allowed the bill to go through in 1994.
As vice president, Biden’s talent for working across the aisle paid off. He was able to convince Republican senator Arlen Specter to switch parties, talking to him fourteen times over ten weeks. Specter provided the critical 60th vote that allowed the Affordable Care Act to pass. He convinced three Republicans to vote for the 2009 stimulus bill
Biden also facilitated the passage of Dodd-Frank, which reformed the financial regulatory system in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and led multiple negotiations that averted budget crises.
It is often said that the dream of bipartisan legislation is dead in Mitch McConnell’s Congress, a place where polarization and obstruction is rife and bills go to die. But what is the alternative? The Democrats may not win the Senate back in 2020, even if Biden wins the presidency (although with him the chances are as good as it gets.) Any Democratic administration would still need to convince moderate Republicans and red-state Democrats if it hopes to pass any legislation. And if there’s someone who could convince a senator like Joe Manchin, who wouldn’t even commit to endorsing the Democratic nominee, it would be Joe Biden.
This is not to say that Biden’s record is unvarnished. Anyone who has spent half a century at the forefront of politics, especially one so legislatively productive, will have accumulated a long record, both good and bad. Biden’s judgement has failed him at points throughout his career: the Anita Hill hearings, for one. Or some of his stances from decades past, such as the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act of 1994, no longer chime well with modern Democrat sentiment.
But the Biden of the 1990s is not the Biden of 2020. Any objective examination of his platform indicates that he will be the most progressive president in history. His healthcare plan is not Medicare for All, but it will still build significantly on Obamacare. He has adopted Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan and a part of Bernie Sanders’ free college plan. In the wake of the pandemic, he is now planning for an “FDR-sized presidency.” And even if Biden is not yet progressive enough for some, it’s likely he will listen: his climate change policy task force is chaired both by his ideological soulmate John Kerry and leftwing firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Biden’s agenda is plenty progressive. And he’s also pragmatic enough to perhaps get it done.
Biden’s experience in government goes beyond merely producing legislation. As vice president, Biden was actively engaged — no mean feat, given that the vice presidency has been lamented as “not worth a bucket of warm piss” in the past.
In Biden, the Democrats have a nominee with deep experience in managing an economic recovery. President Obama tasked him with the supervision of how the 2009 stimulus was used, and Biden worked rigorously to ensure that it was effectively spent, traveling up and down the country and convening numerous meetings with the Cabinet and various agencies. His chief of staff reported that only 1% of the $800 billion stimulus was ever attributed to waste or fraud, as Biden blocked 260 projects that seemed like political pork or had been proposed by sketchy contractors.
If there was a time when experience in managing an economic recovery is relevant, now is it. Indeed, given that the economic free-fall from this pandemic is even more severe than the Great Recession, it would be comforting to know that the president in charge knows what he’s doing.
As a former vice president and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden also has unparalleled foreign policy experience. He was known to have tended relationships with world leaders that Obama never warmed up to, for example, and was the administration’s point person for the Western hemisphere. The president delegated large chunks of foreign policy to him. He famously told Biden, for example, “Joe, you do Iraq.”
And most importantly, Biden would be ready on day one as president. When Obama approached him to be vice president, Biden’s one condition was “to be in the room” for every critical decision that Obama took. Obama’s aides also recall that Biden’s contributions were important, as the vice president often played devil’s advocate and sought to discourage groupthink.
In these testing times, having a tested president would be no bad thing.
What Biden is best known for, however, may not be any single accomplishment but his character.
There are many stories that demonstrate his integrity, such as when in his first senate election donors refused to give to him after he honestly told them he wasn’t for lowering the capital gains tax, even though his campaign was out of money and he had to mortgage his home a second time to keep it going.
But the trait that he is most famous for is his fortitude.
Biden was first elected to the Senate at 29, a candidate with little name recognition and even less money who unexpectedly overcame a 30-point deficit in the polls to defeat the Republican incumbent. But not long after this exhilarating moment, his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash and his two sons wounded. At first it seemed like the grief-struck Biden might never take his seat at all, and he later wrote about having suicidal thoughts. Only after much persuasion was Biden sworn into the Senate by his sons’ hospital beds.
In 2015, his son Beau Biden, lost his battle to brain cancer. Beau was a rising star in Delaware politics and in his prime. The vice president, who called Beau his “soul,” was utterly devastated. He had been toying with running for president in 2016, but concluded that he was in no mental state to do so.
Grief has been a prominent part of Biden’s life. But even as his life has been marred by tragedy, he has also shown an ability to do just that get back up, time and time again. “My dad always said, champ, when you get knocked down, you get back up,” Biden recalled at a debate. In Promise Me, Dad, he wrote: ““The pain had seemed unbearable in the beginning, and it took me a long time to heal, but I did survive the punishing ordeal.”
There are also the smaller instances that demonstrate his strength of spirit. Take his debilitating childhood stutter, which he overcame painstakingly. Or even his presidential campaign in 1987, which had a promising start but ended ignominiously with a strange plagiarism scandal and followed closely by Biden collapsing in a hotel from a brain aneurysm.
It may be these episodes of tragedy that has given Biden his sense of empathy. His campaign rallies have often turned into counseling sessions as people line up to tell him about their life, as he listens and offers advice from his own travails. Listen to him counsel Cindy McCain when her father was diagnosed with the same brain cancer that Beau had. Or how he addresses the question of using faith to deal with grief.
This ability to listen, a trait often lacking in politicians, translates well to governance. “When you disagree, he’ll listen,” Elizabeth Warren, who has often come into conflict with Biden in the past, says. “And not just listen, but really hear you, and treat you with respect no matter where you’re coming from.” Republicans can also testify to Biden’s character. As Lindsey Graham says: “The bottom line is if you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, then probably, you’ve got a problem…what’s not to like?”
In the midst of a pandemic, where at the time of this writing almost one hundred thousand Americans have died and many more are suffering from economic hardship, perhaps what is most needed is an emphatic president who listens and connects, and who has shown his own personal resilience. His combination of skills and experiences, along with his character, means Joe Biden is a man who can meet this moment.
And there it is. A positive case for Joe Biden, without mentioning Trump.