I first “met” Joe Biden a long time ago. Then 33, he was the nation’s youngest U.S. Senator, and the featured speaker at the Idaho Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. I was a student at the University of Idaho, where my major, unsurprisingly, was political science.
As Chair of the U of I Campus Democrats, I organized a mid-winter road trip for members of our group to drive to Boise to attend this flagship event. We traveled, as college students must, on a budget, finding places to sleep at homes of local party people.
One of my heroes, the late Senator Frank Church, introduced the freshman senator from Delaware, noting that this newcomer to “the nation’s most exclusive club” was occasionally mistaken for a page, much as Church himself had been when he was first elected to the Senate at the ripe age of 33.
Biden more than impressed; his speech was electric. Idaho Democrats, who were there that night, remember it well. Adults whose parents attended say their parents still talk about it. This young senator from the “Diamond State” had charisma and potential to spare.
Over the years, I have followed Biden’s remarkable career, usually with great admiration. I read his book, “Promises to Keep,” published in 2007, and his more recent book “Promise me, Dad,” published in 2017. Some themes are constants through Biden’s life – the importance of public service, devotion to our country and its people, and an unswerving commitment to faith and family.
It is difficult – if not impossible – to read about the personal losses and pain Biden has endured and not be inspired by his resilience and undaunted desire to help others. One would have to look long and hard to find another politician having a stronger sense of duty or more integrity than Joe Biden. He is decent to the core.
This said, I haven’t yet decided which of our many outstanding candidates will earn my vote in the 2020 primary. It very well might be Biden. But it might not.
Along with many of my fellow Idaho Democrats, I cheered the fact that Biden came to Idaho early in the primary season and did not treat this ruby red state as just so much fly-over country. (Only Jay Inslee and Julian Castro have also done so.) And his clarion speech following the deadly shootings in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton reminded us of the dignity and strength with which a president can lead and the eloquence with which a president should talk.
But as many have noted, Biden’s long tenure in public office is a two-edged sword. He has a great many accomplishments, but some of his past actions, while more easily understood in the context of the times, are problematic in light of present day realities. He needs to find a way to clearly address the past, put it in perspective, and pivot swiftly and forcefully to the future.
Consider when, as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden presided over the Supreme Court nomination hearing for Clarence Thomas. A young lawyer, Anita Hill, testified that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas, who had been her supervisor. Many members of the all-male senate panel treated Hill with disrespect, if not outright contempt.
Thomas vehemently denied Hill’s allegations. Four female witnesses stood ready to testify, to offer corroborating evidence to support Hill’s testimony, but Biden – in an arrangement worked out with the Republicans on the committee – declined to call them.
In recent months, Biden has accepted responsibility for the fact that Anita Hill “did not get treated well,” that she “did not get a fair hearing.” But, as Joy Behar said to Biden when he appeared on The View, his statement would have more resonance if he were to avoid the passive voice and bluntly say, “I’m sorry for the way I treated you.” Moreover, a statement that he should have called her corroborating witnesses would show an understanding of the specific way in which he failed to provide her a fair hearing.
But Biden’s performance at the Clarence Thomas hearing, though troubling, is an aberration. His record on women’s rights is exceptionally strong. Biden was the driving force behind passage of the landmark Violence Against Women Act. He worked tirelessly to recruit more women to run for the U.S. Senate and urged them to become members of the Judiciary Committee. And, as Vice President, Biden fought sexual assault on campuses. Few senators have championed equal rights for women as consistently and forcefully as Joe Biden. Now what is his vision for the future?
Another two-edged sword in Biden’s background is the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which was passed when violent crime was at double the current rates. The downside – and it is considerable – is that it resulted in sky high rates of incarceration and disproportionately affected the Black community. This impact, though unintended, has been unjust and harmful.
On the plus side, the Act contained several progressive provisions, most notably an assault weapons ban designed to help reduce the number of deaths caused by the use of rapid-fire weapons with a capacity to fire many rounds without reloading. Moreover, the Act recognized that we will never eradicate violent crime solely by prosecuting, convicting, and imprisoning criminals. It placed a strong emphasis on crime prevention programs. And, in an effort to make law enforcement personnel a more trusted and integral part of localities, funding was made available for community policing.
Biden could do a better job of harvesting the legislative wheat, even while discarding the chaff. Instead of defending past actions with nuanced explanations, Biden needs to find a way to more crisply convey that in that time, at that moment in history, he did the best he could to get the best possible outcome. To critique a decision against the backdrop of today’s political reality, today’s moral standards, misrepresents the value of the decision at that time and his vision for the future.
And then, most importantly, he needs to share that vision with clarity, specificity and passion. He has the ability to electrify a crowd. I’ve seen it. Now all of us need to see it more often.