Branko Marcetic’s book “Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden” discusses Joe Biden’s civil rights and environmental record.


Story Transcript

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. Opinion polls are telling us that Joe Biden is far ahead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination now. It seems a bit surprising though that a candidate who is arguably among the more conservative of the Democratic presidential contenders should come out ahead in this election cycle, considering that presenting oneself as a progressive seemed to be favored by all candidates this time around. But just what does Biden stand for?
The debates shone relatively little light on what he believes, and only occasionally highlighted his 44-year record as a national politician, 36 of which as a Senator from Delaware, and eight of which as Vice President. A recent book on Biden’s political history though examines just this issue. The book is titled, Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. Joining me now to discuss the book is its author, Branko Marcetic. He is also a staff writer with Jacobin Magazine. Thanks for joining us today, Branko.

Branko Marcetic: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Greg Wilpert: Since we have a lot of ground to cover, I would like to divide this interview into two parts. In the first part, I would like to focus on Biden’s political history as it relates to civil rights, racial justice, and environmental policies. In the second part, we’ll look at his economic and foreign policies. Regarding his civil rights records, you begin your book saying that when he was first elected to the Senate in 1976, he was a New Deal Democrat who supported rent control and some price controls, which would benefit the poor. But then he very quickly shifted gears and became a neoliberal and a staunch opponent of issues such as busing. Talk about this transition, and specifically his history on busing and other civil rights issues.

Branko Marcetic: Yeah, that’s right. He won in 1972. That was his big entry into the Senate. He’d actually beaten a Republican senator, Caleb Boggs, who was, despite the fact that he was a Republican, he actually had a very good civil rights record, and he was actually endorsed by the first black senator in US history over Biden, the Democrat. And yet Biden came away with a victory where he actually won the black vote in that election. I believe he came second in the state to George McGovern that year among African American voters.
Very quickly, as you say, he shifted on this, and basically he reoriented his politics to be focused on the concerns of this middle class voter they imagined, which I argue in the book was a conservative, white suburbanite, middle-class voter. He saw them as the the chief audience that he should be speaking to.
And so from ’75 onwards, from 1972 to ’75, even though he said some things about busing and drugs and crime, he didn’t really vote too much to focus on these things. He voted actually mostly for busing despite the fact that he was critical of it. And then from ’75 to ’78 which is when his reelection comes up, I believe he votes 19 times against busing and only once for. And he actually puts forward several legislative amendments that end up having far-reaching effects on the civil rights movement as a whole where there’s a 75 amendment that fails, but it passes the Senate and publications, things like [inaudible 00:03:36] quarterly at the time, they know that this is a watershed because the Senate had always had a reliably anti segregation majority until that amendment, and then Biden succeeded in cracking that for the first time. In ’77 his Eagleton-Biden amendment becomes law and that gets renewed every year and that basically bans, the Department of Education, Health, Education, and Welfare, which it was at the time, from spending its money towards busing, and it doesn’t actually have an effect on Wilmington, Delaware, which is sensibly why he was doing this.
There was a court order that forced busing on Wilmington that actually has limited effect because it’s not about court order busing. It’s purely the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and civil rights workers for years after this complain about this amendment because they say it’s one of the biggest obstacles to civil rights and to actually achieving desegregation in schools because even schools with voluntary desegregation plans can’t complete their plans because of this ban. And then from there, once Biden wins the ’78 election, and even before that, he had moved from the Senate Banking Committee, where he had been working on bills to protect minorities from predatory debt collectors and the like, Biden then switches to the judiciary committee because, he says, “I think that there are bigger issues that are more important to Delaware, namely the issues of crime and busing.”
It’s a very easy transition I think to go from not just opposing civil rights but becoming this vehement toughened crime warrior, because as we know, in the United States, crime and especially things like poverty, in general, are heavily racialized, and crime and drugs becomes this… Even if Biden wasn’t thinking of it this way, it becomes this dog whistle that is really about locking up scary African American people. Biden through the eighties works with Strom Thurmond and others to pass these bills that rewrite the criminal code in the United States: make things a lot harsher, impose mandatory minimums, eliminate parole, expand civil forfeiture, basically the power of the police and other law enforcement to steal your things, essentially. If they see a motorist and they accuse them of possibly being involved in a crime, they can just take their money, take other parts of the property and keep it for themselves.
And that’s really… that blew up after Biden’s bills. And those bills in the 80s are really far more consequential to the mass carceral system that exists in the United States today than the 1994 crime bill, even though that one is important, but that one tends to get all the attention, when it’s really these bills in the 80s that Biden pushes that have a bigger effect. And of course all of this has a much bigger disproportionate impact on communities of color. And so it’s very ironic now that after doing all this, that Biden now is viable because of African American voters. Well, older African American voters’ loyalty to him.

Greg Wilpert: Well actually yeah, I was wondering about that. I mean in terms of his role, it seemed to be very central. That is, he was one of the sponsors of these crime bills that drove, as you said, mandatory minimum sentencing, which contributed to the dramatic increase in the incarceration rate in the United States, particularly of minorities and African-Americans, blacks in the United States, and people who are poor. But how has he dealt with this more recently? That is, has he even had to deal with it? That is, have you seen him confronted with that issue and if so, how has he responded to it?

Branko Marcetic: On the issue of the crime stuff? I think he’s said that it was a mistake. He kind of pivoted on this back in the mid two thousands when the political winds began to shift. They said most of the stuff was a little extreme. At the same time, he also has continued to defend the 1994 crime bill, he still says that it’s one of his great achievements. And he was saying as late as 2016 that actually the crime bill helped save America’s cities. So I think he’s walking a tightrope here. I don’t think it’s… It hasn’t really come up and been as much of an issue in this primary. I mean Cory Booker did mention very early on last year that Biden was the architect of the system and that you can’t elect the architect of this to end the system.
But of course he’s now come out in favor of him. Just as Kamala Harris attacked him for his stance on busing, and has also now endorsed him. I think a lot of what’s happening in this election is it’s become about this nebulous idea of electability, and it’s become about the idea of getting Trump out of office. So a lot of issues have taken a backseat. It’s not… You look at exit polling in a lot of these states, even the more conservative voting states, and Medicare for all is very popular in South Carolina. Majority of Biden voters actually said that they wanted a complete overhaul of the U.S. economic system. Clearly the ideas of Bernie Sanders are winning the day, but I think what is happening is that people are going, “Well, okay, now that Biden is the centrist safe establishment choice. And so if we want to get rid of Trump, yes, all this stuff is really nice. We want all this nice stuff. But the first and top priority is getting rid of Trump.” And Biden, we’ve been hearing for decades is the one who is most likely to beat Trump. Even though if you look at the track record of centrist or moderate candidates in the United States in presidential elections, it’s a very, very poor track record even against very [inaudible 00:09:52] Republicans and the style of Trump.

Greg Wilpert: Yeah. I want to return to that issue of electability later on, but before we go, I want to look at his environmental record. That is, it seems that Biden originally supported environmental protection early on in his career and he was even praised, according to your book, by the Delaware environmental organizations. So how has his position on environmental issues and particularly climate change evolved as far as you can tell?

Branko Marcetic: He’s always had a very good voting record, voting ratings, and scorecards and everything for environmental groups throughout his career. The trick here is that… This is the issue when we turn the environment into this siloed issue as I think people like Biden do, and so many people who support him do. Biden has always voted the right way, but when it comes to actually taking on the wider structural roadblocks to protecting the environment, he’s advanced the exact kind of policies that have led us to the moment that we are at now, this moment of environmental of crisis. A really good example of this is even as Biden was being endorsed by environmental groups in the nineties for voting the right way and making the environment one of his top priorities, he was also pushing Clinton to cut spending and to balance the budget and attack the deficit.
That was his top priority and all those efforts actually undermined environmental protections back in Biden’s home state. It meant that suddenly state governments didn’t have the same resources to tackle river pollution and that kind of thing. And that’s really what we’re seeing now. I’m sure if you asked him, I’m sure he really does genuinely believe that the environment is an important thing, but Biden also clearly doesn’t really understand the urgency of the moment. I think he is a guy who does not have a fixed, committed ideology. He was not a Democrat until 1969, he was already about 27 or 28. He had flirted with being a Republican earlier. A state democratic party chair had said earlier in his career that he was assertive and well-spoken and everything, but he never had any real ideology.
The thing is that I think Biden wants to be president. I think his idea is just that he would come in and just by virtue of not being Trump, it’ll make a radical change. Meanwhile, the environmental crisis and the other crises that are happening, are just going to keep ramping up and hurdling towards us, and I doubt the Biden’s really going to be, up to task of facing them, especially if you look at his climate plan, originally it was partly plagiarized, Greenpeace gave it I believe a D. Then later on he spruced it up to improve it, but there’s still certain things that he won’t commit to doing; he won’t commit to ending oil exports for example. He’s talked about basically a similar strategy as Obama’s all of the above strategy, which is now not nearly adequate to meet the moment.
And of course we look at what kind of funding he’s getting. He’s getting money from Wall Street, and he’s doing fundraisers. He did a fundraiser with the fossil fuel executive, his plan was written by people in the fossil fuel industry. So given all that, you have to ask is even the half measure that Biden is proposing, is he really going to follow through with it? If you look at these wider elements of not just the way that he conducts politics, and how he has responded in the past to an increasingly extreme Republican party, but also given just the nature of his campaign and where it’s getting its money from.

Greg Wilpert: Okay. Well, we’re going to conclude this first part of our interview with Branko Marcectic, the author of the book, Yesterday’s Man: the Case Against Joe Biden. Please make sure to tune in to part two of this interview where we take a closer look at Biden’s economic and foreign policies.

Gregory Wilpert

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.