/What Was Joe Biden Thinking?

What Was Joe Biden Thinking?

Possibly a bit behind the times.
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Zak Cheney-Rice, Benjamin Hart, and Ed Kilgore discuss Joe Biden’s latest wave-making remarks. This chat originally ran in the Intelligencer newsletter.

Ben: At a fundraiser last night, Joe Biden reminisced about the good old days of serving in the Senate with avowed segregationists James Eastland and Herman Talmadge (both Democrats). As with many curious remarks Biden makes, my first question is: What was the point of saying this? As in, who does he think this kind of thing would appeal to?

Ed: You’re assuming he was “thinking” before saying it.

Jon: His point is to demonstrate how good he is at working with people. In Biden’s mind, he’s the opposite of a segregationist, so the fact that he can work even with a segregationist proves the point. He may not realize the Democratic electorate is not uniform in this assumption.

Ed: It’ll come in handy if he wins and has to talk Trump into vacating the White House.

Ben: It is true that the Senate is going through a period of perhaps unprecedented gridlock, mostly thanks to Senate Majority Leader/legislative “grim reaper” Mitch McConnell. And it’s also true that, to hear current lawmakers tell it, the cross-party comity that used to be common has all but vanished. Is it possible to wax nostalgic about the old days of better interpersonal relationships while also reckoning with the discriminatory views that Biden glossed over?

Jon: Yes! Talk about how you worked with liberal Republicans!

Ed: Jacob Javits was really a good old boy, y’know. So was Clifford Case.

Zak: Also as Jon noted in his piece, both guys Biden bragged about working with despite their differences were also Democrats. So while some of their values may have differed, there also seems to have been a sense of shared priorities, to a degree, with these particular examples.

Ed: I have a theory, and it’s just that, suggesting that Biden’s view of national politics could have been crucially shaped in his early Senate days by Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign, when very briefly, segregationists including the two he mentioned united with civil-rights advocates in supporting the Carter candidacy. Biden was very involved in that campaign.

Ben: It always comes back to Carter ’76 with you.

Ed: No, sometimes it comes back to Hart ’84 and Clinton ’92.

Ben: Haha. Well, shouldn’t have Biden’s view of the utility of segregationists changed a bit after 40 years?

Ed: One would think so. But then again, why is he bringing it up? I guarantee you Herman Talmadge’s name ID is very low these days. Both Eastland and Talmadge were out of the Senate by 1980, hence my theory that Biden is still heavily influenced by those days.

Zak: Seems ill-advised to suddenly send the blissfully ignorant masses scrambling to research James Eastland, if you want to convince them that you are Good.

Ed: Very old people have sharp long-term memory, as I once said back in 19 and 71 …

Jon: I guess the flip side is that it’s kind of a way to show that you can appeal to Trump voters? His riff about how his state supported slavery kind of does that. He’s the candidate who knows how to win those people over.

Ben: But wouldn’t you want to wait until you’ve secured the primary nomination?

Jon: That’s an argument for winning the primary. “I’m the Democrat who can talk to Trumpy white voters.” Of course Biden takes everything too far.

Zak: That sounds right, honestly, assuming that Biden is thinking about it even that deeply. “I worked with those racists, I can definitely work with these racists.”

Ed: Next he’ll start riffing on all those people in Michigan who voted for George Wallace in 1972 and how he can reason with them. Unfortunately, most of the ’72 Wallace voters in Michigan are dead …

Ben: Over the last months, Biden has faced questions over inappropriate touching, his jokes about said touching, his busing views from the ’70s, his authorship of the 1994 crime bill, and more. Throughout it all, he has maintained a large national polling lead, though it has slipped a bit, and some recent state polls have been less impressive for him. Do you see comments like yesterday’s hurting him at all? Is the constant “What did Biden say now” stuff more damaging than what he actually said? Or does this all matter less than we think it might?

Jon: You’re seeing other Democrats jump on him in a way they haven’t before, and it could definitely come up a lot in the debate, so the potential is there.

Zak: It seems so far that voters’ beliefs about his electability exist independent of what he’s actually done, aside from being a “white male moderate,” broadly speaking, who was also Obama’s vice-president. But yeah, it’s definitely a lot of ammunition come debate time. It’s hard to see it helping him, but if trends hold, he also may be insulated to a degree from being seriously damaged by it.

Ed: Biden is unusually dependent on African-American support, and it’s fascinating that his gaffes are so frequently on racially sensitive issues. This really could be his undoing. I did a post this morning noting that African-Americans do not seem to share the belief of white and Latino Democrats that an old white guy is by definition more “electable.” So he’s probably being sustained in that demographic by the Obama connection. That may not last if he keeps up with this sort of crap.