Joe Biden may have the nickname ‘Middle-Class Joe’ but in truth, the former vice president is a career politician. He was elected to the Senate in 1972 at the ripe age of 29 and kept his seat for 36 years until he decided to gamble on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign by joining his ticket. With eight years as VP experience under his belt, Biden wants the top job for himself more than ever (he previously ran for president in 1988 and 2008, but both of his campaigns quickly floundered).
Typically, career politicians are like robots. They read the talking points their staffers write, stick to the teleprompter during speeches, and focus group their messages. Biden, however, is the politician who often goes off script (much like Donald Trump) and says what is on his mind. Many times, he can be articulate. But often he stumbles and puts his foot in his mouth.
Rewind to Tuesday night. Biden was at a fundraiser doing what he typically does: reminiscing about the good old days when Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill had the intellectual fortitude to work together. The general message was nothing out of the ordinary — the country’s leaders need to be grown-ups for the sake of the American people — and indeed was quite refreshing and hopeful at a time when politics in Washington is in the sewer.
The problem was that in making his point, Biden recalled his work with former segregationist senators in the south. Sure, these guys were racist, nasty human beings, Biden said, but we still got stuff done. ‘At least there was some civility,’ the former Delaware senator stated.
The pushback from Biden’s primary opponents was like a tidal wave: quick and fierce. Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey and an African American whose family suffered discrimination in the past, vocally called out Biden in a statement and on television. ‘He knows better,’ Booker said. ‘And at a time when Donald Trump never apologises for anything… I know Joe Biden. He’s better than this.’ Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is rising in the polls, piled on as well: ‘I’m not here to criticise other Democrats, but it’s never okay to celebrate segregationists. Never.’ Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York City who doesn’t even register in the polling, referenced his biracial family to remind Biden about how toxic the segregationists were.
Biden is being pushed to apologise, but the former VP is more offended than contrite. He doesn’t understand why he’s being asked to issue an apology in the first place, and is angry people are trying to castigate him as insensitive. There is certainly politics at play here; as the undisputed frontrunner, Biden is a punching bag for everyone. Candidates are hoping that bashing the leader in the face with condemnations will earn them more media attention, which in turn will hypothetically give them a bump in the polls. You can expect this story to be at the centre of the first Democratic primary debate next week when the flock of contestants yell and stammer on stage for airtime.
Right now, Biden is still the leader of the pack. He may lose a few points when the next round of polling comes out, but his support among the African-American community is stellar. A June 11-14 poll from South Carolina’s biggest newspaper shows Biden with an overwhelming lead with the state’s African-American voters.
He will survive this episode just like he survived his flip on the Hyde Amendment, which bans most federal funds for abortion services. But as the race draws out, Biden’s propensity to say controversial things will continue to rankle his staff and get him into trouble. As we will see, it’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks.