Say, aren’t you glad we don’t need to go to caucuses or polling places this year?
Almost two weeks ago, when Washington primary ballots were mailed, I noted that Bernie Sanders was my strong second choice to Elizabeth Warren – and cautioned people to not mail in ballots until after Super Tuesday, because several candidates would likely drop out, including, possibly, Warren. Now, we’re three days from voting next Tuesday in Washington’s Democratic presidential primary on March 10, and Warren is out. But I never dreamed that almost all of them would quit, or that Joe Biden would lead in earned delegates, or that the only serious candidates left standing are Sanders and Biden. (Sorry, Tulsi fans – her two delegates thus far are a joke.) Within the Democratic Party, the contrast between Sanders and Biden couldn’t be starker.
I’m aligned with Sanders on almost all of his policy priorities. But my highest priority is to unseat Donald Trump. Without that, this is likely progressives’ last chance in a generation or more to get those priorities into policy. A second Trump term could well be the end of the American experiment in democracy, flawed as it has been.
Either Sanders or Biden could beat Trump – or either could lose to him. All three have enormous weaknesses and strengths as general election candidates. And I have several concerns about Bernie:
1) The whole electibility premise of the Sanders campaign has been that he’d turn out millions of new voters. But in the first 19 elections, the numbers simply aren’t there. Turnout has often been flat or down from 2016 in his target demographics. Sanders has hugely enthusiastic volunteers, and his organization has run the best campaign this year. He’s getting a much larger share of the Latinx vote this year, thanks to a very sophisticated field operation. But with the possible exception of Arizona and Florida, that wouldn’t help him in the fall.
2) Winning the White House is critical – but so is winning the Senate, keeping control of the House, and taking back state legislatures ahead of 2020 Census redistricting. (And how well is that April 1 census going to function in the middle of an epidemic?) Sanders has some fans among the suburban women who swung the House in 2018 – but most of them voted for Biden last Tuesday. It’s an open question as to whether Sanders can develop coattails for downballot races.
3) Sanders is laser-focused on discussing his core economic issues. In his interview with Rachel Maddow on Wednesday, he pivoted back to his economic message on almost every question. But issues usually don’t win elections – most voters don’t pay that close attention. Perceived values and likeability are what the vast majority of voters focus on.
Maddow’s interview Thursday night with Elizabeth Warren brought the likeability factor into full focus. Warren laughed, smiled, revealed personal details, and at least came off more like your friendly older neighbor than a brilliant, wonky Harvard law professor turned politician. What you see is what you get, but what does Sanders do to relax? (If anything…) How did he come into his politics as a young person? I’m not sure Sanders’ relentless focus on ideology translates well to people who don’t share his ideology and/or his focus on policy.
Before Barack Obama, the last sitting senator to be elected President was JFK – and both of them oozed charisma. In the interim, the list of sitting senators who got the nomination but lost is long: Kerry, Dole, going back to McGovern. Legislators work on policy for a living. It doesn’t necessarily make for an attractive candidate.
Of course, former Senators turned VP have an even worse record: Gore, Mondale, Humphrey. A week ago, Biden’s campaign was dead, with poor finishes in the first three contests, anemic fundraising, and campaign and debate performances that looked like he was tired and old.
Biden’s a new man after South Carolina – more energetic, more engaging, friendlier, much more animated. That Joe Biden could kick Trump’s ass. But we’ve only seen that Biden for one week. Can he make it last eight months, let alone four years after that? Or will he revert to the nursing home relative you feel sorry for when you visit? Five words: “Lying dog-faced pony soldier.”
So they’ve both got electibility issues, as does Trump, of course. But on policy – for those of us who actually care about such things – there is no comparison. Voters also want to know what values a politician has. Trump’s values – his narcissism, cruelty, bigotry, and personal greed on full public display for five years now – should disqualify him from any public office, anywhere, ever. Sanders’ values have been consistent and empathetic for all 40 years of his public life. And, of course, any senator who serves long enough is going to have votes that don’t look good in retrospect. But what are Biden’s values? His association with Barack Obama may be helping him with African-Americans, but his 36 prior years in the Senate, including serious civil rights problems, anti-consumer actions, and his hawkish chairing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, show a lengthy record that should turn any progressive’s stomach.
Meet Joe Biden’s Senate Record
* As Kamala Harris memorably pointed out in a debate last summer, Biden fiercely opposed school busing for desegregation. In 1975 he worked with Sen Jesse Helms (R-Antebellum South) to pass an anti-busing amendment that would end the collection of racial data on students, thus making it impossible for courts to order busing to end school segregation. In doing so, he specifically hoped his vote would inspire other Democrats to follow suit.
* In 1976, Biden voted for a bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-KKK) that forbade the use of federal funds to transport students outside their [segregated] school districts, and the following year teamed up with segregationist James Eastland (D-Wrong Side of History) to pass a bill that would close loopholes in Byrd’s law. The federal Civil Rights Commission at the time noted that “the enactment of the Eagleton-Biden bill would be an actual violation, on the part of the Federal Government, of the 5th Amendment and Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act].” It might be helpful to remember, as context, that Biden’s home state of Delaware is actually south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
* Biden’s first campaign for president in 1987 imploded after he was caught in an Aug. 1987 debate in Iowa plagiarizing a speech given by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. The resulting uproar intensified when he was also found to have previously lifted riffs from Sen. Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and 1968 Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey. It also emerged that he had been accused of plagiarism in law school, that he misrepresented his college record to the media, and that he’d falsely claimed to have marched in the Civil Rights Movement. He quickly withdrew from the race.
* As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, Biden was merciless in his hostile questioning of Prof. Anita Hill, who claimed that she had been sexually harassed while working for Clarence Thomas, then nominated to the Supreme Court. He also blocked testimony by a second accuser, Angela Wright, who wanted to corroborate Hill’s charges. Thomas was confirmed, and the rest was history.
* Biden, as chair of the Judiciary Committee, was bitterly critical of the actions of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr during the Clinton impeachment in 1998 – and later helped craft the bill that took away the position, replacing it with a law that made Special Counsels such as Robert Mueller answerable to political appointees. That certainly worked out well…
* Biden was a committed drug warrior. He wrote the bill that created the position of “Drug Czar,” which oversaw the aggressive prosecution of mostly non-white drug users imprisoned, with often lengthy terms for nonviolent offenses. He also introduced a bill that would have cracked down on raves, and worked to crack down on ecstasy use.
* And then there is foreign policy, Biden’s self-proclaimed area of expertise. As the influential chair after 1997 of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden never met a war or military budget he didn’t like, He supported the 1983 invasion of Grenada, U.S. efforts to fund fascistic “Contra” rebels in Nicaragua and prop up similarly fascistic and genocidal governments in El Salvador and Guatemala in their ’80s civil wars. the 1989-90 invasion of Panama, and the U.S.-led support for interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia during the 1990s Balkan Wars, which he has called his “proudest moment in public life.”
* As Senate Foreign relations Committee chair Biden also oversaw and supported U.S. military responses to 9/11, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – wars he would inherit 20 years later should he become president. As chair, he assembled a cast of witnesses who supported invading Iraq and who grossly misrepresented the intent, history and status of Saddam Hussein’s government, in line with Vice President Cheney’s disinformation efforts. By 2006 he (along with most Americans) decided that his vote in favor of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq was a mistake – but the damage from that vote is incalculable and ongoing. Instead, Biden supported partitioning Iraq into three new countries: the Kurdish north, and areas for the Sunni minority and Shiite majority. What authority the U.S. would have had to enforce that partition is anyone’s guess. Biden has also, predictably, been a fierce supporter of Israeli aggression in Palestine.
* Then there’s his corporate advocacy. His environmental record is mixed at best, largely due to the influence of Dow Chemical, based in Delaware. In the 2000s his nickname was “The Senator from MBNA,” an early credit card-only bank based in Delaware that was eventually bought by Bank of America. His efforts on behalf of usurious bankers – the interest on such cards was often over 20 percent – resulted in the 2005 passage of his Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which made it far harder for ordinary consumers to declare bankruptcy, but easier for businessmen like Donald Trump. In the Senate hearings for that bill, he notably clashed with an obscure Harvard Law professor opposed to the bill. That was the first national exposure for future senator Elizabeth Warren.
Biden has done some good things, too, such as promoting campaign finance reform, helping outlaw (for only ten years) a ban on assault weapons, and authoring the original Violence Against Women Act. He took over 10,000 votes in the Senate, and sided with Democrats on most of them.
Because he entered public office so early (he was elected to the U.S. Senate at age 30), Biden was often ranked as one of the Senate’s poorest members, not having wealth before entering politics. but he sure has cashed in since he left the vice presidency. In 2017-18 he earned about $15.6 million, mostly from speaking fees and money from his book publication. (By contrast, Sanders’ income for the same time period, largely from speaking fees, was about $1.7 million.) Biden’s current wealth hasn’t gotten much attention so far, given the far greater wealth of candidates like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. But he’s clearly a new member of the one percent – and he used his pro-corporate Senate history and connections to get there.
A Vote for Bernie Is Never Wasted
That’s the record of Joe Biden, one percenter who’s run two previous anemic campaigns for president (in 1998 and 2008, which he parlayed into becoming Obama’s vice president). Biden is now the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination this year. Looking at new polling in the remaining primary states – even in Washington, a new poll gives Biden a slight lead – it’s hard to see how Sanders can catch him, but he will have ample ideological ammunition to draw from. Most of Biden’s noxious history hasn’t even surfaced yet in the campaign.
Biden is still light years better than Trump, which underscores just how dangerous Trump is. But a vote for Sanders is a vote for his priorities, and a vote to buoy his campaign and what he stands for. Every extra delegate gives Sanders more leverage at this summer’s nominating convention. And if Biden stumbles into one of his famous “gaffes,” or reverts to the “confused old man” persona of the first nine months of his campaign, Sanders will be in better position to step in.
At minimum, a vote for Sanders is a vote for the vast movement behind him, which is gaining valuable electoral experience in his campaign. Sanders’ 2016 campaign spawned a number of former staff and volunteers who have won local offices since then. That’s even more likely after 2020. That builds a core of mostly young, motivated activists who are better-positioned to challenge the ossified leadership of the Democratic Party. And there’s always the chance Bernie could win this year. Given Biden’s track record above – and there’s more for Sanders to use against him – Biden’s nomination is no sure thing.
Mail your ballot by Tuesday, March 10. Remember to check the “Yes, I’m a Democrat” box – Washington, unlike many states, does not keep voter affiliation records, so that’s not a long-term commitment -and then vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders for President.