Former Vice President Joe Biden has been long known as the "gaffe" guy, who spent decades with ironclad incumbency as a senator from Delaware, never needing to learn care with his language or genuine respect for people who don't look like him. The longstanding assumption is that Biden means well when he makes sexist jokes or racially insensitive comments, but that he's just a stubborn old mule who, hasn't won a competitive race since 1972, and just hasn't learned to do better.
But the ongoing controversy over Biden's remarks about his 1970s-era friendships with Southern segregationists suggests something more sinister: These aren't gaffes at all, but a deliberate strategy. While it's never wise to rule out the possibility that Biden's acting out of ignorance matched only by overconfidence, there's also not a small chance that Biden is marketing himself as the not-politically-correct Democrat who, by virtue of his comity with racists and sexists, can somehow win over Donald Trump's voters in 2020.
If so, it means that Biden is spitting in the face of the very thing that made it possible for a guy who failed spectacularly the previous two times he ran for president to become the frontrunner in 2019: His relationship to Barack Obama. Despite his participation in Obama's two historic campaigns, which proved that building a multi-racial progressive coalition was a winning strategy, it seems that Biden now thinks he knows better than Obama what it takes to win the presidency.
Biden drew controversy this week when, at a New York fundraiser, he spoke affectionately of his relationship with two notorious segregationist senators, noting that Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi "never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
It's hard to interpret Biden's remarks as anything but arguing that his whiteness is an asset. Using the term "boy" used by white supremacists to disparage and belittle black men.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is also running for president, suggested as much, releasing a statement Wednesday saying, "You don't joke about calling black men 'boys,'" and suggesting that Biden should apologize.
Biden did not agree. He doubled down and, using Booker's first name, said, "Cory should apologize."
Almost unbelievably, Biden then leaned on the most threadbare cliché of the white person who takes umbrage at being called out for racism: "There’s not a racist bone in my body."
He also claimed to have "been involved in civil rights my whole career," which is a bald-faced lie, one for which Biden was criticized as far back as his 1988 presidential campaign.
The defense that's kicking around, used by Biden himself, is that he only invoked his relationship to segregationists to illustrate his argument that he's a politician who can reach across the aisle and get things done.
That defense doesn't make much sense. Biden was in the Senate during decades of genuine bipartisanship, which means he's racked up numerable examples of working across the aisle with Republicans who weren't overt racists. (For that matter, the two senators he cited — Eastland and Herman Talmadge of Georgia — were both old-line Southern Democrats.) If he's arguing that he's good at working through partisan differences — which is shaky at best — he had hundreds of stories to tell without putting his hand on that hot stove. And he sure as hell didn't need to speak fondly of how his whiteness shielded him from the degrading terms white supremacists used to address black men.
Biden's own staff is now, in frustration, anonymously telling reporters they begged him to use less offensive examples to illustrate his bipartisanship argument. So there's no argument-from-ignorance defense here, either.
This whole debacle is reminiscent of the way that Biden refuses to apologize or acknowledge fault for his condescending behavior towards women, and in particular towards Anita Hill. It's possible he's just a stubborn old coot who longs for an era when white men like him could just treat women and people of color shabbily without consequence. (Which is arguably a serious problem for a wannabe Democratic nominee in 2020.) But there's also the dreadful possibility that he's doing this on purpose, positioning himself as the un-woke Democrat who can supposedly win over Trump voters.
The donor-centric style of Biden's campaign suggests this may be the case. After Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in a squeaker, it became fashionable among wealthy Democratic elites to believe that Democrats had become too ensconced in "identity politics." According to this theory, the party needed to back away from its commitments to race and gender equality to win back those white working-class voters who went for Trump in 2016 (and have been voting for Republicans at least since Richard Nixon in 1968, a fact politely ignored by fans of this argument).
It's not a surprise, therefore, that Biden bragged about his whiteness in a fundraiser on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, ground zero for Democratic donors who romanticize the stereotype of the white Midwestern man in a hard hat who would definitely vote for Democrats if they didn't make him feel bad about using the N-word. Anti-anti-racism allows such wealthy donors to repackage their own discomfort with diversity not as bigotry, but simply as hard-nosed, grownup realism that all the college kids with their woke slogans just can't understand.
The problem with this theory is that it's completely wrong. It requires ignoring the evidence of Obama's momentous victories in 2008 and 2012, as well as the indicators from the 2018 midterms that suggest the path forward for Democrats is to focus on multiracial coalition-building, rather than trying to chip off a few racist votes in swing districts.
There's a lot of nostalgia in elite Democratic circles for 1992, when Bill Clinton ran a campaign of strategic race-baiting and won the election, ending 12 years of Republican dominance. But in fact, Clinton got a lower percentage of white voters than Michael Dukakis had in 1988, and about the same percentage that Obama got in 2012, with a campaign that was largely free of pandering to white racial anxiety.
Obama's strategy, instead, was to focus on building a multiracial coalition and getting out the vote, which meant he could win a convincing victory with only 39% of the white vote in 2012. As the country gets more diverse, this strategy will only get more effective.
The midterms of 2018 reinforced the wisdom of Obama's approach. Instead of panicking and running a bunch of indistinguishable white male moderates from coast to coast Democrats were able to win a sweeping majority in the House of Representatives with the most diverse coalition ever.
Even in red states where Democrats lost, there were promising signs that progressive politics work. Beto O'Rourke and Stacey Abrams both ran the Obama strategy — O'Rourke even openly took the side of kneeling NFL players, a supposed culture-war flashpoint — in statewide races in Texas and Georgia. Neither of them won, but both came much closer than Democrats had in the past, showing that being unapologetically multicultural is not the death blow that the anti-identity-politics crowd assumes.
"But what about Hillary Clinton?" the anti-anti-racists ask at this point, noting that she ran the Obama strategy in 2016 and lost. But that rejoinder isn't really as strong as one might think.
First of all, Clinton's loss was something of a fluke. She won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes and lost the Electoral College on tiny margins in a handful of districts. Odds are that if we could run that same election over again multiple times, she'd win most of them. More importantly, Clinton lost because, as Perry Bacon at FiveThirtyEight shows, a lot of Obama voters stayed home or voted for third-party candidates instead.
Clinton's defeat, I would argue, demonstrates the real dangers of the anti-woke strategy. While she herself ran a strong, progressive, anti-racist campaign, a lot of outside figures — including Russian trolls — were able to successfully paint her as a '90s-style reactionary Democrat. This worked because her husband had been a race-baiter, and because she herself had engaged in race-baiting in the 90s in support of his policies, a fact she was never able to successfully shake off.
The result? A significant number of Obama voters sat out the 2016 election, and Trump won it in a squeaker.
Every sign shows that Trump and his supporters are planning to run the same style of campaign against Biden as they did against Clinton, in hopes of convincing the same voters who sat out 2016 to do it again. Conservative publications eagerly pounce on every scrap of evidence they can find that Biden has racist impulses, so they can flog this "both sides are the same" narrative. And Biden has way more red flags than Clinton, meaning this strategy could be even more effective if he's the 2020 nominee.
Every effort to snag the racist white vote, therefore, runs the risk of demoralizing and demobilizing the Democratic base. Opinions of punditry-drunk wealthy donors aside, those base voters are demonstrably more interested in organizing under a progressive, anti-racist banner. Biden's nostalgia for 1992 — or 1972, or whenever — isn't just morally questionable. It's also flat out inappropriate for the 21st century.
Biden should have learned more from Obama, who trounced him in the 2008 primary and whose generosity is the only reason Biden isn't a third-tier senator most voters have never heard of. The former veep's egotistical belief that he knows better how to run a campaign than Obama is the kind of delusion that should scare primary voters away — at least if they really want to beat Donald Trump.