Branko Marcetic discusses Joe Biden’s neoliberal economic policy and his neoconservative foreign policy record, as covered in his book, “Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.”
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Greg Wilpert : It’s the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.
Former vice president Joe Biden is ahead in the polls and pundits often claim that the reason for this is that Biden is the more electable of the democratic candidates. But is he?
Bernie Sanders recently pointed out that opinion polls regularly indicate that the US electorate’s policy preferences are more closely aligned with progressive policies, such as universal healthcare and free public college, but not with the supposedly more moderate policies of Joe Biden. But exactly what are Biden’s policies and what is his record? This is an issue that the debates and the analysts rarely examined in much detail.
A recently published book with the title Yesterday’s Man, The Case Against Joe Biden by Branko Marcetic does just that. Branko joins me now for part two of my interview with him. Thanks, again, Branko, for being here today.
Branko Marceti…: Yeah, it’s good to be here.
Greg Wilpert : In the first part of this interview we looked at Biden’s civil rights, racial justice and environmental policy record. In this second part, I want to focus on his economic and foreign policies.
Now with regard to Biden’s economic policy record, he was an early supporter of the shift towards neo-liberalism already during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Talk about the main economic policies that he has championed throughout his career from fiscal policy to trade policy.
Branko Marceti…: Yeah, from 1970 onwards, Biden became one of the leading Democrats calling for this kind of Reagan-light approach to budgetary policy. He ran in ’78 as a fiscal conservative. He called for a massive tax cut. He wanted a limit to the size of federal bureaucracy. He even put forward sunset legislation that would basically make every government program automatically phase out unless it was a manually renewed and specifically each one.
That was really the path he followed for the next several decades. Through the ’80s, he was constantly calling for the government to do something about the big deficit and the big spending in Washington. He was really in many ways trying to outdo Reagan. He would, for example when Reagan put forth a spending freeze, Biden put forward his own spending freeze with a couple of other Republicans that was even bigger than Reagan’s, and put Medicare and social security on the table as well.
Through the ’90s, he was constantly talking about the need to attack spending and the deficit. He voted for the balanced budget constitutional amendment three years in a row, despite himself acknowledging every single time that it would be a disaster and that it was a terrible idea. He voted for it each time because part of Biden’s career is that he feels the need to constantly posture and show the public that he is just as much of a conservative and can be just as right-wing and push these kind of same protocol policies as Republicans can.
We saw that even under Obama when he was vice president. Biden’s task under Obama was, one, to root out fraud and so-called waste from the stimulus. What that really meant was get rid of programs that were maybe useful job-creating programs, but could be picked up by Republicans and sort of made fun of and used to attack Obama; and that was his whole thing.
A month before the famous shellacking, the Democrats and Obama talk in 2010, Biden gave Obama how much he had saved through all this rooting out of fraud and waste and that kind of thing. In the grand scheme of things, not a very large amount and there was this very proud thing for Biden. But it showed that given the size of the Democratic loss in 2010, the public really didn’t care about this. This wasn’t a priority for actual Americans, for actual working Americans. It was a priority for the political class that Biden came out of, but that’s it.
I think that’s the same thing with the trade issues. I mean, Biden, despite having a lifelong link to organized labor, despite getting a lot of support from unions from the very beginning of his career to really even now, he ended up pushing and voting for NAFTA, not just to give Bush the fast track authority to negotiate it, but then under Clinton to ratify it, this major, major betrayal of labor.
And just similar to the support that we’re seeing from African Americans that Biden’s getting now, it’s a similar thing with labor, where labor… I’m sure people know that his actual record on labor is not very good. He actually got one of the lowest rating’s from the AFL/CIO consistently through the 1980s, about the same as Gary Hart, who was a famously anti-labor Democrat. And yet laborers have been very loyal to him despite this and despite things like pushing for NAFTA, despite things like pushing for the TPP under Obama, which he has said that he still supports. Which is remarkable if we’re talking about electability to be still supporting TPP while potentially facing up against Donald Trump in the general election.
Greg Wilpert : Now another area where Biden seems to have stood out is in his support for the reform of bankruptcy law and against financial regulation. Now he represents the state of Delaware, which is notorious for being a tax haven and a corporate incorporation paradise. How has that fact influenced his policies on the financial industry?
Branko Marceti…: Well, there was the bankruptcy bill, of course, that made it a lot harder for middle and working class families to discharge their debts and it has been devastating for students who are grappling with student debt. And that was pushed by MBNA, which is a credit card company in Delaware. Also it has to be understood that Delaware, because it’s this bankruptcy haven, a large part of its business, its local industry really is bankruptcy. And so pushing this bill that was terrible for many, many, many people across the United States was good technically for the Delaware economy and it was good for the people who contribute to Biden’s campaigns. Of course, MBNA is the credit card company that was his biggest contributor. They pushed that bill as well as some other things like repeal of Glass-Steagall, which Biden also voted for.
But Biden has beyond that worked to protect the status that Delaware has. When a group of people tried to push what was called the Delaware Killer in the ’90s in Congress, which was this attempt to shift, to end Delaware’s favorability as a site of bankruptcy for corporations to be sort of friendly to them, Biden both times put up such a vehement fight against this, that the effort was killed. One lawmaker just threw up his hands and said, “Okay, well, I don’t want to go up against this.”
Yeah, Delaware’s status as this corporate haven has been really crucial to this snagging of sort of Biden’s votes. But not just that, but you know also the presence of the DuPont Company, which has dominated that state for decades, really even longer than decades, centuries really; and Biden drew a lot of his staffers from DuPont. When he first selected he sort of had this very friendly relationship with them because you sort of had to if you were to elected official in Delaware. I think that’s also helps to explain some his corporatist leanings over the years.
Greg Wilpert : Now finally turning to foreign policy, Biden seems to have a bit of a mixed record in this regard. That is, on the one hand in the 1970s, he opposed the Vietnam War and the US embargo on Cuba and also Reagan’s wars on Central America, but then also he argued against Obama’s troops surge in Afghanistan. But in the 1990s, he became more hawkish in other aspects. Talk about this transition and about where he stood on issues of US military intervention over the decades.
Branko Marceti…: Well, this is what we were talking about before. Biden isn’t someone with a very substantive ideology. I think he’s just someone who has always wanted to be in power. He always wanted to be president and said it from a very young age, and everything has been about that for him. And so you’re exactly right.
Saying he was a New Deal liberal in the 1970s, he was also something of a dove on the Vietnam War because that was the prevailing mood at the time. He actually has in his initial speech announcing saying his campaign for Senate, he didn’t even mention the Vietnam War despite speaking for 40 minutes and basically reporters had to ask him about it, and it was only then that he really developed this anti-war stance that he took into the next few years.
But by the 80s, in the same way that Reagan’s victories had really led Biden and other Democrats like him to reconsider the direction of the party on domestic policy and economics and that kind of thing, those victories also led Biden to rethink his stance on foreign policy. Because he said clearly voters want someone who is more aggressive, who is more willing to use force overseas and Democrats are going to lose if we don’t embrace this philosophy more and more. And so in the 80s he really pushes for, or at least actually supports a number of military interventions. He supports Reagan’s bombing of Libya and his invasion of Granada. He supports Bush’s invasion of Panama. He opposes the Gulf War.
But when it ends up being a big political trial for Bush, he completely reverses it. He says, “You know what, I was wrong. Credit where credit’s due. Bush had courage to push this war that killed hundreds of thousands of kids.” And so he through the 90s, ends up being much more hawkish on the world stage where Republicans were actually less sort of in that decade. He’s pushing for involvement in [halcyon 00:10:38] and Kosovo. And actually, by the end is even calling for Saddam’s ouster. And that leads us to the the moment in 2002 when Biden spends that entire year as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee pushing for war with Iraq, which of course he ends up voting for one and ends up getting.
And you’re right, under Obama, he did take less interventionist positions and things like Libya and the surge Afghanistan. It’s commendable. I think it also shows the way that Biden just kind of goes along with whatever he feels that the prevailing political attitude is. I think it’s also important to note that at the same time that he did take these more laudable stances, he was also the person who created or came up with the idea of that the “counterterrorism plus” strategy, which is what Obama did. Which, basically, instead of invading with boots on the ground, just bombed them remotely from drones and planes and sending special forces every now and then to come in and you raid some house and kill somebody.
And that strategy has not only helped to completely undermine the gains in world opinion that Obama had engendered through his election and feel the kind of anti-Americanism and terrorism that the Obama had come in trying to end, but also is now that program ended up in the hands of Donald Trump. And we saw the danger of this where not has Trump stepped up all of these things, he’s stepped up drone attacks and everything, but also he used the drone to assassinate a foreign leader in the form of a General Soleimani, which nearly caused a war in the Middle East. And that is a really important legacy of the strategy that Biden cooked up. And if Trump wins another term, he’s going to have these expansive and dangerous powers at his disposal for another four years, and then who knows who will come up to him to have the same powers.
Greg Wilpert : Now unfortunately, we can’t actually go through all of these policy areas. We’ve covered a lot of ground. There’s some that we had to skip, such as immigration and Biden’s role in the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justices, but we’re going to have to leave it there. But before we conclude, I just want to briefly try to see if we can summarize this political portrait of Joe Biden. That is, more recently he’s been trying to portray himself as a progressive. Now would you say that he’s actually become more progressive? You’ve mentioned before, he doesn’t really have a clear political ideology, so then is he continuing to just read the sign of the times, in other words, acting opportunistically? I mean, how would you characterize this briefly?
Branko Marceti…: Yeah, definitely. I mean, Biden, if you look at his career, he is always had a tendency to just say whatever he needed to say. He caught himself. He said, “I’m not a liberal,” in the 1970s. “I’m not that liberal. People think I’m a liberal, but I’m actually quite conservative in things.” And he would repeat that through the years. He said a lot of things about his life that aren’t true. He said that he was a civil rights activist for years and years until that was proven to be a lie. He started saying that again now. He said he was an anti-war activist for years. That was also a lie. He is now saying that he got arrested trying to meet up with Nelson Mandela in South Africa, which is a proverbial lie. He’s lying about his Iraq war record. He’s saying lately in the last however many debates, that when the Iraq war started, he immediately went into opposition mode. Flatly contracted by the record, and there’s no way he doesn’t know that this is untrue.
So I mean, Biden, even if you look at the social issues that Democrats have moved left on, even as they’ve stayed economically and otherwise conservative, Biden has always been lagging behind them. I mean, it took him until 2019 for him to oppose the Hyde Amendment, a huge restriction on abortion rights in the US; and that has been his position throughout his entire career. I mean, Biden really has been a conservative Democrat his entire life. And not just a conservative Democrat, but a conservative Democrat who any time the right wing in the United States does anything or move to the right, becomes more radical, Biden moves with them. That’s his only way of combating them.
And again, as we watch the Republican party lurge ever rightward into a more concerning direction, we have to really think about what it’s going to be like to have some like Joe Biden either campaigning in their atmosphere or even governing in that atmosphere.
Greg Wilpert : Yeah, I think it’s really crucial what you’re saying, characterizing him as a conservative Democrat instead of just saying that he’s a moderate. I think that’s probably a much more honest to say a conservative Democrat.
But we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Branko Marcetic, author of the book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. I highly recommend it. Thanks again, Branko, for having joined us today.
Branko Marceti…: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Greg Wilpert : And thank you for joining the Real News Network.
Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.