Can Biden ‘Make America Moral Again?’
Biden is countering Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan with “Make America Moral Again.” But bipartisan deals with Strom Thurmond, the crime bill, Anita Hill, and more, shows he lacks the moral high ground. Jacqueline Luqman and Adolph Reed discuss Biden's record
Senator and presidential hopeful Joe Biden has said he plans to “Make America Moral Again,”—a counter to Trumpian “division” and corruption. The Real News Network's Jacqueline Luqman spoke to Professor Adolph Reed Jr., who recently co-authored a Guardian op-ed titled “Joe Biden Wants Us To Forget His Past, We Won’t” with Cornel West about the limits of Biden's gestures towards “morality” and bipartisanship.
“The bipartisanship ideal has never really been good for poor people, working people, women, and racial and ethnic minorities,” Reed said. “But in particular, Biden's legacy of bipartisanship includes cultivating friendly relations and even jointly-sponsored bills with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who was one of the most notorious racists of the postwar period.”
The way to begin understanding Biden's approach, Reed explained, is to understand his membership in the influential Democratic Leadership Council (DLC): “Their strategy—frontloading Southern primaries early—would, they thought, give a boost to the most conservative Democrats most conservative Democratic presidential candidates and would give them the momentum to win the nomination,” Reed said.
Luqman added that the origins of the DLC reflected racist strategies of Republicans and helped move the Democratic party to the center right.
“The DLC strategy was arguably the beginning of the neoliberal foundation of the Democratic Party's departure from the pro-worker, pro-marginalized, support for marginalized people party to the corporate-focused and certainly the architects of the push to the right,” Luqman said. “It's interesting that the DLC strategy sort of mirrors the Southern Strategy, and that the Southern Strategy moved Democrats out of the Republican Party, but they end up basically on the same spectrum, politically.”
Back in 1994, Biden co-sponsored the devastating Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. During testimony, he bemoaned the lack of jail space available and proposed inmates be placed in “boot camps”—tents surrounded by barbed wire.
“Under this bill, we can string up barbed wire, we can build Quonset huts, and we can put them in boot camps,” Biden said back then. “We can do that.”
Biden’s comments, Luqman said, were similar to those made recently by corrupt sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Trump himself: “[Those are] the kinds of policies that not just Sheriff Joe Arpaio has, but Trump [has]: putting people who are are undocumented, people seeking asylum, in cages under underpasses,” Luqman said.
Luqman mentioned how Biden handled the Anita Hill hearings during Clarence Thomas's confirmation, and Biden's comments on desegregating public schools and busing—just one of the many issues in Biden's past that make his “Make America Moral Again” slogan so insincere.
“I don't think that Biden's record ought to be able to survive scrutiny, and close scrutiny, and it’s sure as hell going to get a lot of it,” Reed said. “The most important thing for people like The Real News, me, and all of us committed to to egalitarian values, and truth, and dignity, and —[we] have our work to do, because we've got to pull the files on all these candidates and make sure that the images that they want to project are consistent with the realities of the lives that they've lived and the policies that they endorsed."
ROBIN ROBERTS [GMA] The president has a motto, “Make America Great Again.” Do you have one?
SENATOR JOE BIDEN Make America moral again. Make America return to the essence of who we are, the dignity of the country, the dignity of people, and treating our people with dignity. End this God-awful deliberate division that’s being taken in order to, separating people to aggrandize his own power.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN I am Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network. Senator Joe Biden says that his counter to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is that he wants to “make America moral again,” but is Biden the man to chart a path to some kind of morality, that his own past casts doubt on him even having? Here to talk to me about Biden’s past that we are admonished not to forget is Professor Adolph Reed Jr., a professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in race and American politics. How are you, Professor Reed?
ADOLPH REED, JR. Oh, I’m pretty good. How about you? Good to see you again.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN It’s great to see you again. Thank you so much. Professor Reed is the co-author of a recent opinion piece published in The Guardian entitled, “Joe Biden wants us to forget his past. We won’t.” He co-authored this piece with Dr. Cornell West. Now, Professor Reed, you and Dr. West point out in the opinion piece that Biden’s emphasis on focusing the beginning of his campaign in South Carolina is more than ironic, considering his past in and involving the state. Can you explain why that is?
ADOLPH REED, JR. Well, sure. A couple reasons. One is connected to Biden’s so-called reputation for bipartisanship. Bipartisanship, or the bipartisanship ideal, has never really been good for people, working people, women, and the racial and ethnic minorities. But in particular, Biden’s legacy of bipartisanship includes cultivating friendly relations and even jointly-sponsored bills with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who was one of the most notorious racists of the postwar period, who actually was a Democrat before he was a Republican and bolted from the Democratic Party in 1948 to run as president on the Dixiecrat ticket, which was a ticket whose only opposition, or rather whose only issue was opposition to the civil rights movement and to desegregation. And Strom Thurmond continued on; Biden co-sponsored two of the notorious crime bills of the 1980s with him and gave the eulogy at Strom Thurmond’s funeral. That’s one reason that the South Carolina choice is ironic.
The other is, as we mentioned in the op-ed piece, the Southern primaries in general and the origin of the so-called Super Tuesday format, was in the mid-1980s. It was the brainchild of the Democratic Leadership Council, which younger people won’t know was an association, an organization of right-wing Democrats, largely but not exclusively Southern who formed the organization, but with a self-conscious objective of pulling the Democratic Party farther to the right. Biden— and this was after Walter Mondale’s loss in 1984— Biden was a member of the DLC, as were Bill Clinton and Al Gore, both of whom had actually been presidents, chairs, or whatever they call it of the DLC. In their strategy, front-loading Southern primaries early would, they thought, give a boost to the most conservative Democrats, most conservative Democratic presidential candidates, and would give them the momentum to win the nomination.
The ironic thing about it was in 1988, the first time that they were able to do this, they were so taken with the notion that the modal Southern Democrat was a conservative white man, that they forgot that the Southern Democratic parties were the blackest and therefore, the most liberal. The big winner from South Carolina in 1988, or rather in the Southern primaries in 1988, was Jesse Jackson, which kind of torpedoed Gore and their larger strategy. But again, South Carolina in particular but the Southern primaries more broadly, became iconic in 2008 as part of the Obama narrative when candidate Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary, or came in first in the South Carolina primary three weeks after having pulled a surprise win in Iowa. Then, you know, that catapulted him ultimately to the nomination.
Eight years later, when Hillary Clinton ran, the narrative had become the best Democratic candidate would be the one who showed that he or she could win the so-called, black vote. When Hillary Clinton won handily in 2016, then that catapulted her toward the nomination. Well, we’ve been wondering this time who the Clintonite candidate was gonna be. Who would go into South Carolina and try to take advantage of the Clintonite connections with the Democratic officials, black Democratic officials in the state? Now it looks like that’s probably one of the reasons that Biden decided to enter the race in the first place, right? To try to winnow the field as part of that conservative, pro-corporate element of the Democrats, concerned to defeat the left right between now and the nomination.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN You know, that’s very interesting because the entire DLC strategy that, you’re right, so many people in subsequent generations know very little about the DLC strategy— was arguably the beginning of the neoliberal foundation of the Democratic Party’s departure from the pro-worker, pro-marginalized support for marginalized people party, to the corporate-focused and certainly, the architects of the push to the right. It’s interesting that the DLC strategy, sort of, mirrors the Southern strategy in a way in that it moved the Democratic Party to the right and that the Southern strategy moved Democrats out of the Republican Party, but they end up basically on the same spectrum politically. How do you feel about that assessment?
ADOLPH REED, JR. Oh well, yeah. I think that’s by and large accurate. I mean, it’s kind of ironic because the other thing about, or the other piece of the DLC strategy that some of the older people in the audience might recall, is that it was built also on demonizing not just black people, but poor black people in particular. During the campaign, Clinton had his Sister Souljah moment where he attacked the black rapper who wasn’t worth paying attention to anyway. And the Clinton administration, for all the talk about Clinton being the first black president— which is a notion that made sense only to comedians on BET and to people in the black professional and managerial strata who could get something out of the Clinton administration.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Are you saying that wasn’t a serious sentiment among most black voters, that Clinton was the first black president?
ADOLPH REED, JR. [laughs] Well I say, it may have been to the extent that they heard it all the time on TV and, you know, the stuff about him smoking weed, playing the saxophone, and you know the rest, which I won’t mention. That came along with the Clinton administration actually, you know, with all the talk about playing by the rules, and making distinctions between the truly needy and so forth, and so on, ended the federal government’s 60-year commitment to provide in a material way for the needs of poor and indigent people. He did the same thing with ending the federal government’s commitment to providing fixed public housing for poor people trying to find affordable housing and he gave it to the market— and then, the crime bills. You’re absolutely correct, but the irony was that where in 1988 and 1992 the DLC strategy was partly predicated on demonizing black poor people, by 2016, they became dependent on mobilizing black voters not only to challenge the right, but also to challenge the left.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Now that’s an interesting point because in Biden’s statement to Roberts on Good Morning America, he made a comment about treating our people with dignity and you brought up the crime bills. Certainly, there was a lot of discussion in the 2016 election cycle about the 94′ crime bill and specifically around Hillary Clinton and condemning her for her “super predator” comments and lobbying for it. There was also, to be fair, challenges to Bernie Sanders to explain why he voted for the bill and, of course, we learned that he voted for it because the Defense of Women amendment was sandwiched into the bill in order to get support from politicians who wouldn’t have voted for the bill otherwise. That’s a common legislative tactic by both sides of the aisle. I remember, and I wonder if you remember, the impassioned speech that was spread around that Bernie Sanders made against the crime bill from that time, explaining not only why it was such a bad idea, but the lasting damage that it would cause and, of course, he was right.
ADOLPH REED, JR. Yeah. Well, no. That’s right. Yeah, but yes. Exactly right. And, I mean—
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Oh, well. I’m sorry.
ADOLPH REED, JR. Yeah. No, no, go ahead. This is a conversation.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN [laughs] Apologize for the lag. But I bring that up to say that there is an equally compelling video of Joe Biden’s testimony about the same legislation. I want you to listen to this clip and think about when we consider the revulsion to the kinds of draconian and racist policies of people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, how do these words from Joe Biden from back in 94′, how do they ring in comparison to the kind of policies of Arpaio? So, we have this clip of Joe Biden’s testimony.
SENATOR JOE BIDEN We have significant legislation in here, relative to making sure that the 30,000 violent criminals who were convicted last year but never saw a day in jail because there is no prison space, that they serve their time in jail. I heard my friend from Texas say he wants to be able to put these prisoners in jail and if there’s not enough room in jail, string up barbed wire put them in tents. Well, that’s what we call boot camps, Mr. President. That’s in here.
ADOLPH REED, JR. Wow.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Yeah. So Professor Reed, how do the Democrats square that kind of rhetoric coming from their, as you said, their chosen candidate with the same kind of revulsion that the same Democrats had toward the kinds of policies that not just Sheriff Joe Arpaio has, but of Trump and putting people who are undocumented people seeking asylum in cages under underpasses?
ADOLPH REED, JR. Right. Well, I mean, in all fairness to Biden and other people like that, you may recall there were a lot of black people who were in support of those “get tough on crime policies” too. That doesn’t mean that they were right. That doesn’t mean that the policies were justified, but there were a lot of black people who were in favor of them for reasons some of which had to do with the fact that there are backward, conservative black people just like there are backward and conservative all kinds of people— punitive and draconian. Also because, people had lived in high-crime areas with a lot of killings and violence were desperate enough to be willing, as I put it at the time, to call in an airstrike on their own position. But all that said, the sequela of those bills has been what it has been, and the politicians who were responsible for writing them, pushing them, passing them, and especially exhorting toward them in the, kind of, Arpaio-like language, as you describe it, that Biden did have some ‘splainin’ to do. It’s funny because my son and I were talking just this morning about this and Joe Arpaio came up in that conversation too.
What Biden has been doing, what Hillary Clinton did before actually, and what others of them have been doing except for Sanders, is to say, oh my bad. I’m so sorry. I want to bring us together now. I mean, that was then; this is now. I understand and so forth, and so on. And, you know, that’s just not to be trusted. I should say, also about Biden, that yet another thing to keep in mind about this guy is that he supported every war that he’s been in a position to support. Who dies in those wars and who gets maimed and damaged psychologically by those wars? And I’m just talking about the Americans. I’m not talking about the genocidal slaughter of the populations that we’ve made needless wars on. You know, there’s also the fact that for all of the disdain and mobilization of contempt and punitive rhetoric toward petty criminals basically that he displayed, it was nothing but tender loving care for the financial sector, the credit card companies, and Wall Street in general. That’s also been the history of his career. So, I mean, the idea— here in Pennsylvania, we joke about this a lot, the idea that because Biden was born in Scranton means that he’s in a better position to carry Pennsylvania at this time than anybody else, is ridiculous— just as this, you know, Joe Biden is just a working stiff guy because he’s from a very wealthy, high-powered political family in that part of the Lehigh Valley. So, it’s all a charade, or chimera, a front basically.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN It sounds, Professor Reed, like people really don’t know good ole Uncle Joe as much as they thought they did. As a matter of fact, I’m going to end on this point and let you respond. A study was just published by the progressive think tank, Data for Progress, on the “electability” of both Biden and Trump. They examined how black voters in particular responded to learning about Biden’s record, and the outcome was very interesting. The studies show that prior to receiving statements about Biden and trump, their respective records, some of these issues you brought up, Professor Reed, but also the Anita Hill issue. The way Biden handled the Anita Hill hearings during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation, 61—Oh, I’m sorry. Also, Joseph Biden’s, particularly his comments on desegregating public schools and busing that many people did not know about— 61 percent of black voters reported that they would support Biden before they heard about his record, but after they heard about his record, 56 percent of black voters reported that they would support Biden. So, the support for Biden among black voters drops when they find out about elements of his record. Do you think he is going to be able to survive the scrutiny of his past that he wants us to forget in this presidential primary, professor?
ADOLPH REED, JR. Well, that’s a good question. I kind of hope not, but I think the busing thing is kind of a little complicated. I mean, I tend not to stress that as much because it was a long time ago and there were other— And, like, most people don’t even understand the context of that issue at this point. And there were, you know, people who came into politics early through that route, like Ray Flynn in Boston and Dennis Kucinich in Ohio, who came out to be much better. That’s not the case for Biden. And I’m glad you mentioned the Anita Hill thing, because a longtime friend of mine was actually one of the two women who was waiting to testify in corroboration of Hill’s testimony. She had formerly worked at EEOC when Thomas was the head. That testimony from either one of those women might well have finally killed the nomination, but Biden adjourned the hearing abruptly before either of them had the chance to testify.
I don’t think that Biden’s record ought to be able to survive scrutiny, close scrutiny, and it sure as hell is gonna get a lot of it. So, I don’t know. We’ll see, but the most important thing for people like The Real News, me, and all of us who are committed to egalitarian values, and truth and dignity in politics, have our work to do because we’ve got to pull the files on all these candidates and make sure that the images that they want to project, are consistent with the realities of the lives that they’ve lived, the policies that they’ve endorsed, and the interests that they’ve been connected with.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Well, that’s certainly true. We do have a lot of work to do. We are out of time, but I am sure we are going to be talking again about not just Joe Biden but other candidates, especially when those candidates say they want to “make America moral again,” but their record [laughs] is full of moral questions. And just that statement— you’re right, Professor Reed, just that statement, “make America moral again?” That’s a whole ‘nother discussion right there, but unfortunately, we have to leave this one here. So thank you so much, Professor Reed, for joining me today to talk about this issue.
ADOLPH REED, JR. Thanks for having me, as always. I’d like to say I look forward to talking again, if and when we do.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.