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By Norman Solomon
Recent criticism of Joe Biden for praising Dick Cheney as “a decent man” and Mike Pence as “a decent guy” merely scratches the surface of what’s wrong with the current frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. His compulsion to vouch for the decency of Republican leaders — while calling Donald Trump an “aberration” — is consistent with Biden’s political record. It sheds light on why he’s probably the worst Democrat running for president.
After several decades of cutting corporate-friendly deals with GOP legislators — often betraying the interests of core Democratic constituencies in the process — Biden has a big psychological and political stake in denying that the entire GOP agenda is repugnant.
At the outset of his Senate career, Biden lost no time appealing to racism and running interference for huge corporate interests. He went on to play a historic role in helping to move the Supreme Court rightward and serving such predatory businesses as credit card companies, big banks and hedge funds.
Biden’s role as vice president included a near-miss at cutting a deal with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to slash Medicare and Social Security. While his record on labor and trade has been mediocre, Biden has enjoyed tight mutual alliances with moneyed elites.
The nickname that corporate media have bestowed on him, “Lunch Bucket Joe,” is wide of the mark. A bull’s-eye is “Wall Street Joe.”
With avuncular style, Biden has reflexively used pleasant rhetoric to grease the shaft given to millions of vulnerable people, suffering the consequences of his conciliatory approach to right-wing forces. Campaigning in Iowa a few days ago, Biden declared that “the other side is not my enemy, it’s my opposition.” But his notable kinship with Republican politicians has made him more of an enabler than an opponent. Results have often been disastrous.
“In more than four decades of public service, Biden has enthusiastically championed policies favored by financial elites, forging alliances with Wall Street and the political right to notch legislative victories that ran counter to the populist ideas that now animate his party,” HuffPost senior reporter Zach Carter recounts. Biden often teamed up with Senate Republicans to pass bills at the top of corporate wish lists and to block measures for economic fairness.
In the mid-1970s, during his first Senate term, Biden repeatedly clashed with Sen. Edward Kennedy, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, who wanted to rein in runaway corporate power. “Biden became an advocate for corporate interests that had previously been associated with the Republican Party,” Carter reports. As he gained seniority, Biden kept lining up with GOP senators against antitrust legislation and for bills to give corporations more leverage over consumers and workers. “By 1978, Americans for Democratic Action, the preeminent liberal watchdog group of the time, gave Biden a score of just 50, lower than its ratings for some Republicans.”
Opposing measures for racial equity and economic justice, Biden’s operational bonds with GOP leaders continued. Carter reports that “on domestic policy — from school integration to tax policy — he was functionally allied with the Reagan administration. He voted for a landmark Reagan tax bill that slashed the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent and exempted many wealthy families from the estate tax on unearned inheritances, a measure that cost the federal government an estimated $83 billion in annual revenue. He then called for a spending freeze on Social Security in order to reduce the deficits that tax law helped to create.”
Biden came through for corporate power again in November 1993 when he joined with 26 other Democrats and 34 Republicans to win Senate passage of NAFTA, the trade agreement strongly opposed by labor unions and environmental groups. In mid-1996, when Congress approved President Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill, Biden helped to vote the draconian measure into law. It predictably had devastating effects on women and children.
Throughout the 1990s — from tax-rate changes that enriched the already-rich to deregulating banks with repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act to loosening government curbs on credit default swaps — Biden stood with the Senate’s Republicans and the most corporate-aligned Democrats. Carter sums up: “Biden was a steadfast supporter of an economic agenda that caused economic inequality to skyrocket during the Clinton years. . . . Biden voted for all of it.”
Biden led the successful push to pass the milestone 1994 crime bill, engaging in racist tropes on the Senate floor along the way. By then, he had become a powerful lawmaker on criminal-justice issues.
In 1991, midway through his eight years as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden ran the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas that excluded witnesses who were prepared to corroborate Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment. “Much of what Democrats blame Republicans for was enabled, quite literally, by Biden: Justices whose confirmation to the Supreme Court he rubber-stamped worked to disembowel affirmative action, collective bargaining rights, reproductive rights, voting rights,” feminist author Rebecca Traister writes.
Early in the new century, Biden wielded another weighty gavel, with momentous results, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 2002, congressional Democrats were closely divided on whether to greenlight the invasion of Iraq, while Republicans overwhelmingly backed President George W. Bush’s mendacious case for invading. Biden didn’t only vote for the Iraq invasion on the Senate floor in October 2002. Months earlier, he methodically excluded dissenting voices about the looming invasion at key hearings of the Foreign Relations Committee.
While his impact on foreign policy grew larger, Biden’s avid service to financial giants never flagged. One of his top priorities was a crusade for legislation to undermine bankruptcy protections. Biden was a mover and shaker behind the landmark 2005 bankruptcy bill. Before President Bush signed it into law, Biden was one of just 14 out of 45 Democratic senators to vote for the legislation.
The bankruptcy law was a monumental victory for credit-card firms — and a huge blow to consumers, including students saddled with debt. As happened so often during Biden’s 36 years in the Senate, he eagerly aligned himself with Republicans and a minority of Democrats to get the job done.
Now, running for president, Biden has no use for candor about his actual record. Instead, he keeps pretending that he has always been a champion of people he actually used his power to grievously harm.
In ideology and record on corporate power, the farthest from Biden among his competitors is Bernie Sanders. No wonder Biden has gone out of his way to distance himself from Sanders while voicing high regard for the wealthy. (I was a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention and continue to actively support him.)
Biden’s ongoing zeal to defend and accommodate Republicans in Congress is undiminished, as though they should not be held accountable for President Trump even while they aid and abet him. Days ago on the campaign trail — while referring to Trump — Biden asserted: “This is not the Republican Party.” And he spoke warmly of “my Republican friends in the House and Senate.”
All in all, it’s preposterous yet fitting for Joe Biden to claim that Republicans like Dick Cheney and Mike Pence are “decent.” He’s not only defending them. He’s also defending himself.
Norman Solomon is cofounder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org. He was a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to the 2016 Democratic National Convention and is currently a coordinator of the relaunched independent Bernie Delegates Network. Solomon is the author of a dozen books including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.