In the heart of the US Capitol there’s a small men’s room with an uplifting Franklin Delano Roosevelt quotation above the door. Making use of the facilities there after lunch in the nearby House dining room about a year ago, I found myself standing next to Trent Lott. Once a mighty power in the building as Senate Republican leader, he had been forced to resign his post following some imprudently affectionate references to his fellow Republican senator, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Now he was visiting the Capitol as a lucratively employed lobbyist.
The bathroom in which we stood, Lott remarked affably, once served a higher purpose. History had been made there. “When I first came to Washington as a junior staffer in 1968,” he explained, “this was the private hideaway office of Bill Colmer, chairman of the House Rules Committee.” Colmer, a long-serving Mississippi Democrat and Lott’s boss, was an influential figure. The committee he ruled controlled whether bills lived or died, the latter being the customary fate of proposed civil-rights legislation that reached his desk. “On Thursday nights,” Lott continued, “he and members of the leadership from both sides of the House would meet here to smoke cigars, drink cheap bourbon, play gin rummy, and discuss business. There was a chemistry, they understood each other. It was a magical thing.” He sighed wistfully at the memory of a more harmonious age, in which our elders and betters could arrange the nation’s affairs behind closed doors.
Idon’t know that Joe Biden, currently leading the polls for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, ever frequented that particular restroom, in either its bygone or contemporary manifestation, but it could serve as a fitting shrine to all that he stands for. Biden has long served as high priest of the doctrine that our legislative problems derive merely from superficial disagreements, rather than fundamental differences over matters of principle. “I believe that we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart,” he declared in the Rose Garden in 2015, renouncing a much-anticipated White House run. “It’s mean-spirited. It’s petty. And it’s gone on for much too long. I don’t believe, like some do, that it’s naïve to talk to Republicans. I don’t think we should look on Republicans as our enemies.”
Given his success in early polling, it would seem that this message resonates with many voters, at least when they are talking to pollsters. After all, according to orthodox wisdom, there is no more commendable virtue in American political custom and practice than bipartisanship. Politicians on the stump fervently assure voters that they will strive with every sinew to “work across the aisle” to deliver “commonsense solutions,” and those who express the sentiment eloquently can expect widespread approval. Barack Obama famously launched himself toward the White House with his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention proclaiming that there is “not a liberal America and a conservative America,” only a “United States of America.”
By tapping into these popular tropes—“The system is broken,” “Why can’t Congress just get along?”—the practitioners of bipartisanship conveniently gloss over the more evident reality: that the system is under sustained assault by an ideology bent on destroying the remnants of the New Deal to the benefit of a greed-driven oligarchy. It was bipartisan accord, after all, that brought us the permanent war economy, the war on drugs, the mass incarceration of black people, 1990s welfare “reform,” Wall Street deregulation and the consequent $16 trillion in bank bailouts, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, and other atrocities too numerous to mention. If the system is indeed broken, it is because interested parties are doing their best to break it.
Rather than admit this, Biden has long found it more profitable to assert that political divisions can be settled by men endowed with statesmanlike vision and goodwill—in other words, men such as himself. His frequent eulogies for public figures have tended to play heavily on this theme. Thus his memorial speech for Republican standard-bearer John McCain dwelled predictably on the cross-party nature of their relationship, beginning with his opening: “My name is Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat, and I loved John McCain.” Continuing in that vein, he related how he and McCain had once been chided by their respective party leaderships for spending so much time in each other’s company on the Senate floor, and referred fondly to the days when senators Teddy Kennedy and James Eastland, the latter a die-hard racist and ruthless suppressor of civil-rights bills, would “fight like hell on civil rights and then go have lunch together, down in the Senate dining room.”
Clearly, there is merit in the ability to craft compromise between opposing viewpoints in order to produce an effective result. John Ritch, formerly a US ambassador and top aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked closely with Biden for two decades, and has nothing but praise for his negotiating skills. “I’ve never seen anyone better at presiding over a group of politicians who represent conflicting egos and interests and using a combination of conciliation, humor, and muscle to cajole them into an agreed way forward,” Ritch told me recently. “Joe Biden has learned the skills to get things done in Washington. And I’ve seen him apply it equally with foreign leaders.”
The value of compromise, however, depends on what result is produced, and who benefits thereby. McCain’s record had at least a few commendable features, such as his opposition to torture (though never, of course, war). But it is hard to find much admirable in the character of a tireless defender of institutional racism like Strom Thurmond. Hence, Trent Lott’s words of praise—regretting that the old racist had lost when he ran as a Dixiecrat in the 1948 presidential election—had been deemed terminally unacceptable.
It fell to Biden to highlight some redeeming qualities when called on, inevitably, to deliver Thurmond’s eulogy following the latter’s death in 2003 at the age of one hundred. Biden reminisced with affection about the unlikely friendship between the deceased and himself. Despite having arrived at the Senate at age twenty-nine “emboldened, angered, and outraged about the treatment of African Americans in this country,” he said, he nevertheless found common cause on important issues with the late senator from South Carolina, who had been wont to describe civil-rights activists as “red pawns and publicity seekers.”
One such issue, as Branko Marcetic has pitilessly chronicled in Jacobin, was a shared opposition to federally mandated busing in the effort to integrate schools, an opposition Biden predicted would be ultimately adopted by liberal holdouts. “The black community justifiably is jittery,” Biden admitted to the Washington Post in 1975 with regard to his position. “I’ve made it—if not respectable—I’ve made it reasonable for longstanding liberals to begin to raise the questions I’ve been the first to raise in the liberal community here on the [Senate] floor.”
Biden was responding to criticism of legislation he had introduced that effectively barred the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from compelling communities to bus pupils using federal funds. This amendment was meant to be an alternative to a more extreme proposal put forward by a friend of Biden’s, hall-of-fame racist Jesse Helms (Biden had initially supported Helms’s version). Nevertheless, the Washington Post described Biden’s amendment as “denying the possibility for equal educational opportunities to minority youngsters trapped in ill-equipped inner-city schools.” Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, then the sole African-American senator, called Biden’s measure “the greatest symbolic defeat for civil rights since 1964.”
By the 1980s, Biden had begun to see political gold in the harsh antidrug legislation that had been pioneered by drug warriors such as Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon, and would ultimately lead to the age of mass incarceration for black Americans. One of his Senate staffers at the time recalls him remarking, “Whenever people hear the words ‘drugs’ and ‘crime,’ I want them to think ‘Joe Biden.’” Insisting on anonymity, this former staffer recollected how Biden’s team “had to think up excuses for new hearings on drugs and crime every week—any connection, no matter how remote. He wanted cops at every public meeting—you’d have thought he was running for chief of police.”
The ensuing legislation might also have brought to voters’ minds the name of the venerable Thurmond, Biden’s partner in this effort. Together, the pair sponsored the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which, among other repressive measures, abolished parole for federal prisoners and cut the amount of time by which sentences could be reduced for good behavior. The bipartisan duo also joined hands to cheerlead the passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and its 1988 follow-on, which cumulatively introduced mandatory sentences for drug possession. Biden later took pride in reminding audiences that “through the leadership of Senator Thurmond, and myself, and others,” Congress had passed a law mandating a five-year sentence, with no parole, for anyone caught with a piece of crack cocaine “no bigger than [a] quarter.” That is, they created the infamous disparity in penalties between those caught with powder cocaine (white people) and those carrying crack (black people). Biden also unblushingly cited his and Thurmond’s leading role in enacting laws allowing for the execution of drug dealers convicted of homicide, and expanding the practice of civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement’s plunder of property belonging to people suspected of crimes, even if they are neither charged nor convicted.
Despite pleas from the NAACP and the ACLU, the 1990s brought no relief from Biden’s crime crusade. He vied with the first Bush Administration to introduce ever more draconian laws, including one proposing to expand the number of offenses for which the death penalty would be permitted to fifty-one. Bill Clinton quickly became a reliable ally upon his 1992 election, and Biden encouraged him to “maintain crime as a Democratic initiative” with suitably tough legislation. The ensuing 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, passed with enthusiastic administration pressure, would consign millions of black Americans to a life behind bars.
In subsequent years, as his crime legislation, particularly on mandatory sentences, attracted efforts at reform, Biden began expressing a certain remorse. “I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then, because I think the disparity [between crack and powder cocaine sentences] is way out of line,” he declared at a Senate hearing in 2008. However, there is little indication that his words were matched by actions, especially after he moved to the vice presidency the following year. The executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Eric Sterling, who worked on the original legislation in the House as a congressional counsel, told me, “During the eight years he was vice president, I never saw him take a leadership role in the area of drug policy, never saw him get out in front on the issue like he did on same-sex marriage, for example. Biden could have taken a stronger line [with Obama] privately or publicly, and he did not.”
While many black Americans will neither forgive nor forget how they, along with relatives and friends, were accorded the lifetime stigma of a felony conviction, many other Americans are only now beginning to count the costs of these viciously repressive initiatives. As a result, criminal justice reform has emerged as a popular issue across the political spectrum, including among conservatives eager to burnish otherwise illiberal credentials. Ironically, this has led, in theory, to a modest unraveling of a portion of Biden’s bipartisan crime-fighting legacy.
Last December, as Donald Trump’s erratic regime was falling into increasing disarray, the political-media class briefly united in celebration of an exercise in bipartisanship: the First Step Act. Billed as a long overdue overhaul of the criminal justice system, the legislation received rapturous reviews for its display of cross-party cooperation, headlined by Jared Kushner’s partnership with liberal talk-show host Van Jones. In truth, this was a very modest first step. It offered the possibility of release to some 2,600 federal inmates, whose relief from excessive sentences would require the goodwill of both prosecutors and police, as well as forbidding some especially barbaric practices in federal prisons, such as the shackling of pregnant inmates. Overall, it amounted to little more than a textbook exercise in aisle bridging, a triumph of form over substance.
In the near term, it’s unlikely that there will be further bipartisan attempts to chip away at Biden’s legislative legacy, a legacy that includes an inconsistent (to put it mildly) record on abortion rights. Roe v. Wade “went too far,” he told an interviewer in 1974. “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.” For some years his votes were consistent with that view. He supported the notorious Hyde Amendment prohibiting any and all federal funding for abortions, and fathered the “Biden Amendment” that banned the use of US foreign aid for abortion research.
As the 1980s wore on, however, and Biden’s presidential ambitions started to swell, he began to cast fewer antiabortion votes (with some exceptions), and led the potent opposition to Judge Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then came Clarence Thomas. Even before Anita Hill reluctantly surfaced with her convincing recollections of unpleasant encounters with the porn-obsessed judge, Biden was fumbling his momentous responsibility of directing the hearings. As Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson report in Strange Justice, their book about the Thomas nomination battle, Biden’s questions were “sometimes so long and convoluted that Thomas would forget what the question was.” Biden prided himself on his legal scholarship, Mayer and Abramson suggest, and thus his questions were often designed “to show off [his] legal acumen rather than to elicit answers.”
More damningly, Biden not only allowed fellow committee members to mount a sustained barrage of vicious attacks on Hill: he wrapped up the hearings without calling at least two potential witnesses who could have convincingly corroborated Hill’s testimony and, by extension, indicated that the nominee had perjured himself on a sustained basis throughout the hearings. As Mayer and Abramson write, “Hill’s reputation was not foremost among the committee’s worries. The Democrats in general, and Biden in particular, appear to have been far more concerned with their own reputations,” and feared a Republican-stoked public backlash if they aired more details of Thomas’s sexual proclivities. Hill was therefore thrown to the wolves, and America was saddled with a Supreme Court justice of limited legal qualifications and extreme right-wing views (which he had taken pains to deny while under oath).
Fifteen years later, Biden would repeat this exercise in hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, yet another grim product of the Republican judicial-selection machinery. True to form, in his opening round of questions, Biden droned on for the better part of half an hour, allowing Alito barely five minutes to explain his views. As the torrent of verbiage washed over the hearing room, fellow Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy could only glower at Biden in impotent frustration.
Biden’s record on race and women did him little damage with the voters of Delaware, who regularly returned him to the Senate with comfortable margins. On race, at least, Biden affected to believe that Delawareans’ views might be closer to those of his old buddy Thurmond than those of the “Northeast liberal” he sometimes claimed to be. “You don’t know my state,” he told Fox as he geared up for his second attempt on the White House in 2006.* “My state was a slave state. My state is a border state. My state has the eighth-largest black population in the country. My state is anything [but] a Northeast liberal state.” Months later, in front of a largely Republican audience in South Carolina, he joked that the only reason Delaware had fought with the North in the Civil War was “because we couldn’t figure out how to get to the South. There were a couple of states in the way.”
Whether or not most Delawareans are proud of their slaveholding history, there are some causes that they, or at least the dominant power brokers in the state, hold especially dear. Foremost among them is Delaware’s status as a freewheeling tax haven. State laws have made Delaware the domicile of choice for corporations, especially banks, and it competes for business with more notorious entrepôts such as the Cayman Islands. Over half of all US public companies are legally headquartered there.
“It’s a corporate whore state, of course,” the anonymous former Biden staffer remarked to me offhandedly in a recent conversation. He stressed that in “a small state with thirty-five thousand bank employees, apart from all the lawyers and others from the financial industry,” Biden was never going to stray too far from the industry’s priorities. We were discussing bankruptcy, an issue that has highlighted Biden’s fealty to the banks. Unsurprisingly, Biden was long a willing foot soldier in the campaign to emasculate laws allowing debtors relief from loans they cannot repay. As far back as 1978, he helped negotiate a deal rolling back bankruptcy protections for graduates with federal student loans, and in 1984 worked to do the same for borrowers with loans for vocational schools. Even when the ostensible objective lay elsewhere, such as drug-related crime, Biden did not forget his banker friends. Thus the 1990 Crime Control Act, with Biden as chief sponsor, further limited debtors’ ability to take advantage of bankruptcy protections.
These initiatives, however, were only precursors to the finance lobby’s magnum opus: the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. This carefully crafted flail of the poor made it almost impossible for borrowers to get traditional “clean slate” Chapter 7 bankruptcy, under which debt forgiveness enables people to rebuild their lives and businesses. Instead, the law subjected them to the far harsher provisions of Chapter 13, effectively turning borrowers into indentured servants of institutions like the credit card companies headquartered in Delaware. It made its way onto the statute books after a lopsided 74–25 vote (bipartisanship!), with Biden, naturally, voting in favor.
It was, in fact, the second version of the bill. An earlier iteration had passed Congress in 2000 with Biden’s support, but President Clinton refused to sign it at the urging of the first lady, who had been briefed on its iniquities by Elizabeth Warren. A Harvard Law School professor at the time, Warren witheringly summarized Biden’s advocacy of the earlier bill in a 2002 paper:
His energetic work on behalf of the credit card companies has earned him the affection of the banking industry and protected him from any well-funded challengers for his Senate seat.
Furthermore, she added tartly, “This important part of Senator Biden’s legislative work also appears to be missing from his Web site and publicity releases.” No doubt coincidentally, the credit card giant MBNA was Biden’s largest contributor for much of his Senate career, while also employing his son Hunter as an executive and, later, as a well-remunerated consultant.
It should go without saying, then, that Biden was among the ninety senators on one of the fatal (to the rest of us) legislative gifts presented to Wall Street back in the Clinton era: the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999. The act repealed the hallowed Depression-era Glass–Steagall legislation that severed investment banking from commercial banking, thereby permitting the combined operations to gamble with depositors’ money, and ultimately ushering in the 2008 crash. “The worst vote I ever cast in my entire time in the United States Senate,” admitted Biden in December 2016, as he prepared to leave office. Seventeen years too late, he explained that the act had “allowed banks with deposits to take on risky investments, putting the whole system at risk.”
In the meantime, of course, he had been vice president of the United States for eight years, and thus in a position to address the consequences of his (and his fellow senators’) actions by using his power to press for criminal investigations. His longtime faithful aide, Ted Kaufman, in fact, had taken over his Senate seat and was urging such probes. Yet there is not the slightest sign that Biden used his influence to encourage pursuit of the financial fraudsters. As he opined in a 2018 talk at the Brookings Institution, “I don’t think five hundred billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble. The folks at the top aren’t bad guys.” Characteristically, he described gross inequalities in wealth mainly as a threat to bipartisanship: “This gap is yawning, and it’s having the effect of pulling us apart. You see the politics of it.”
Biden’s rightward bipartisan inclinations are not the only source of his alleged appeal. In an imitation of Hillary Clinton’s tactics in the lead-up to the 2016 election, Biden has advertised himself as the candidate of “experience.” Indeed, in his self-estimation he is the “most qualified person in the country to be president.” It’s a claim mainly rooted in foreign policy, a field where, theoretically, partisan politics are deposited at the water’s edge and Biden’s negotiating talents and expertise are seen to their best advantage.
He boasts the same potent acquaintances with world leaders that helped earn Clinton a similar “most qualified” label on her failed presidential job application and, like her, has been a reliable hawk, not least when occupying the high-profile chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. An ardent proponent of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, an ill-conceived initiative that has served as an enduring provocation of Russian hostility toward the West, Biden voted enthusiastically to authorize Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, was a major proponent of Clinton’s war in Kosovo, and pushed for military intervention in Sudan.
Presumably in deference to this record, Obama entrusted his vice president with a number of foreign policy tasks over the years, beginning with “quarterbacking,” as Biden put it, US relations with Iraq. “Joe will do Iraq,” the president told his foreign policy team a few weeks after being sworn in. “He knows it, he knows the players.” It proved to be an unfortunate choice, at least for Iraqis. In 2006, the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had selected Nouri al-Maliki, a relatively obscure Shiite politician, to be the country’s prime minister. “Are you serious?” exclaimed a startled Maliki when Khalilzad informed him of the decision. But Maliki proved to be a determinedly sectarian ruler, persecuting the Sunni tribes that had switched sides to aid US forces during the so-called surge of 2007–08. In addition, he sparked widespread allegations of corruption. According to the Iraqi Commission of Integrity set up after his departure, as much as $500 billion was siphoned off from government coffers during Maliki’s eight years in power.
In the 2010 parliamentary elections, one of Maliki’s rivals, boasting a nonsectarian base of support, won the most seats, though not a majority. According to present and former Iraqi officials, Biden’s emissaries pressed hard to assemble a coalition that would reinstall Maliki as prime minister. “It was clear they were not interested in anyone else,” one Iraqi diplomat told me. “Biden himself was very scrappy—he wouldn’t listen to argument.” The consequences were, in the official’s words, “disastrous.” In keeping with the general corruption of his regime, Maliki allowed the country’s security forces to deteriorate. Command of an army division could be purchased for $2 million, whereupon the buyer might recoup his investment with exactions from the civilian population. Therefore, when the Islamic State erupted out of Syria and moved against major Iraqi cities, there were no effective defenses. With Islamic State fighters an hour’s drive from Baghdad, the United States belatedly rushed to push Maliki aside and install a more competent leader, the Shiite politician and former government minister Haider al-Abadi. (Biden’s camp disputed the Iraqi official’s assertion that the United States pressed for Maliki in 2010. “We had no brief for any individual,” said Tony Blinken, who served as Biden’s national security adviser at the time.)
Biden devotes considerable space to this episode in Promise Me, Dad, his political and personal memoir documenting the year in which his son Beau slowly succumbed to cancer. But although we learn much about Biden’s relationship with Abadi, and the key role he played in getting vital help to the beleaguered Iraqi regime, there is little indication of his past with Maliki aside from a glancing reference to “stubbornly sectarian policies.”
Promise Me, Dad also covers Biden’s involvement in the other countries allotted to him by President Obama: Ukraine, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Anyone seeking insight from the book into the recent history of these regions, or of actual US policy and actions there, should look elsewhere. He has little to say, for example, about the well-chronicled involvement of US officials in the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government in 2014, still less on whether he himself was involved. He records his strenuous efforts to funnel IMF loans to the country following anti-corruption measures introduced by the government without noting that much of the IMF money was almost immediately stolen and spirited out of Ukraine by an oligarch close to the government. Nor, for that matter, do we learn anything about his son Hunter’s involvement in that nation’s business affairs via his position on the board of Burisma, a natural gas company owned by a former Ukrainian ecology minister accused by the UK government of stealing at least $23 million of Ukrainian taxpayers’ money.
Biden’s recollections of his involvement in Central American affairs are no more forthright, and no more insightful. There is no mention of the 2009 coup in Honduras, endorsed and supported by the United States, that displaced the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, nor of that country’s subsequent descent into the rule of a corrupt oligarchy accused of ties to drug traffickers. He has nothing but warm words for Juan Orlando Hernández, the current president, who financed his 2013 election campaign with $90 million stolen from the Honduran health service and more recently defied his country’s constitution by running for a second term. Instead, we read much about Biden’s shepherding of the Hernández regime, along with its Central American neighbors El Salvador and Guatemala, into the Alliance for Prosperity, an agreement in which the signatories pledged to improve education, health care, women’s rights, justice systems, etc., in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid. In the words of Professor Dana Frank of UC Santa Cruz, the alliance “supports the very economic sectors that are actively destroying the Honduran economy and environment, like mega-dams, mining, tourism, and African palms,” reducing most of the population to poverty and spurring them to seek something better north of the border. The net result has been a tide of refugees fleeing north, most famously exemplified by the “caravan” used by Donald Trump to galvanize support prior to November’s congressional elections.
Biden’s claims of experience on the world stage, therefore, cannot be denied. True, the experience has been routinely disastrous for those on the receiving end, but on the other hand, that is a common fate for those subjected, under any administration, to the operations of our foreign policy apparatus.
Given Biden’s all too evident shortcomings in the fields of domestic and foreign policy, defenders inevitably retreat to the “electability” argument, which contends that he is the only Democrat on the horizon capable of beating Trump—a view that Biden, naturally, endorses. Specifically, this notion rests on the belief that Biden has unequaled appeal among the white working-class voters that many Democrats are eager to court.
To be fair, Biden has earned high ratings from the AFL-CIO thanks to his support for matters such as union organizing rights and a higher minimum wage. On the other hand, he also supported NAFTA in 1994 and permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000, two votes that sounded the death knell for America’s manufacturing economy. Regardless of how justified his pro-labor reputation may be, however, it’s far from clear that the working class holds Biden in any special regard—his two presidential races imploded before any blue-collar workers had a chance to vote for him.
It is this fact that makes the electability argument so puzzling. Biden’s initial bid for the prize in 1988 famously blew up when rivals unkindly publicized his plagiarism of a stump speech given by Neil Kinnock, a British Labour Party politician. (In Britain, Kinnock was known as “the Welsh Windbag,” which may have encouraged the logorrheic Biden to feel a kinship.) Biden partisans pointed out that he had cited Kinnock on previous occasions, though he didn’t always remember to do so. Either way, it was a bizarre snafu. It also emerged that Biden had been incorporating chunks of speeches from both Bobby and Jack Kennedy along with Hubert Humphrey in his remarks without attribution (although reportedly some of this was the work of speechwriter Pat Caddell).
Another gaffe helped upend Biden’s second White House bid, in 2007, when he referred to Barack Obama in patronizing terms as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” The campaign cratered at the very first hurdle, the Iowa caucuses, where Biden came in fifth, with less than 1 percent of the votes. “It was humiliating,” recalled the ex-staffer. (The “gaffes” seem to take physical form on occasion. “He has a bit of a Me Too problem,” a leading female Democratic activist and fund-raiser told me, referring to his overly tactile approach to interacting with women. “We never had a talk when he wasn’t stroking my back.” He has already faced heckling on the topic, and videos of this behavior during the course of public events and photo ops have been widely circulated.)
Further to the issue of Biden’s assurances that he is the man to beat Trump is the awkward fact that, as the former staffer told me, “he lacks the discipline to build the nuts and bolts of a modern presidential campaign.” Biden “hated having to take orders from [David] Axelrod and the other Obama people as a vice-presidential candidate in 2008. Campaign aides used to say to him, ‘I’ve got three words for you: Air Force Two.’” My informant stressed that Biden “sucks at fund-raising. He never had to try very hard in Delaware. Staff would do it for him.” Certainly, Biden’s current campaign funds would appear to confirm this contention. His PAC, American Possibilities, had raised only two and a half million dollars by the end of 2018, a surprisingly insignificant amount for a veteran senator and two-term vice president. Furthermore, although the PAC’s stated purpose is to “support candidates who believe in American possibilities,” less than a quarter of the money had found its way to Democratic candidates in time for the November midterms, encouraging speculation that Biden is not really that serious about the essential brass tacks of a presidential campaign—which would include building a strong base of support among Democratic officeholders.
Other organizations in the Biden universe behave similarly, expending much of their income on staff salaries and little on their ostensible function. According to an exhaustive New York Times investigation, salaries accounted for 45 percent of spending by the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children in 2016 and 2017. Similarly, three quarters of the money the Biden Cancer Initiative spent in 2017 went toward salaries and other compensation, including over half a million dollars for its president, Greg Simon, formerly the executive director of Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Task Force during the Obama Administration. Outside the inner circle of senior aides, there does not appear to be an extended Biden network among political professionals standing ready to raise money and perform other tasks necessary to a White House bid, in the way that Hillary Clinton had a network across the political world composed of people who had worked for her and her husband. “Biden doesn’t have that,” his former staffer told me, “because he’s indifferent to staff.” It’s a sentiment that’s been expressed to me by many in the election industry, including a veteran Democratic campaign strategist. “Everyone else is getting everything set up to go once the trigger is pulled,” this individual told me recently. “I myself have firm offers from the [Kamala] Harris and [Cory] Booker campaigns. The Biden people talked to me too, but they could only say, ‘If we run, we’d love to bring you into the fold.’”
At the start of the new year, Biden must have been living in the best of all possible worlds. As he engaged in well-publicized ruminations on whether or not to run, he was enjoying a high profile, with commensurate benefits of sizable book sales and hundred-thousand-dollar speaking engagements. Even more importantly, Biden found himself relevant again. “You’re either on the way up,” he likes to say, “or you’re on the way down,” which is why the temptation to reject the lessons of his two hopelessly bungled White House campaigns has been so overwhelming. Regardless of the current election cycle’s endgame, though, it’s safe to assume that his undimmed ego will never permit any reflection on whether voters who have been eagerly voting for change will ever really settle for Uncle Joe, champion of yesterday’s sordid compromises.
* The original version of this article incorrectly stated that 2006 was the year of Biden’s first attempt on the White House; it was his second. We regret the error.