The seeming media consensus going into the third Democratic debate held by ABC news in Houston on September 12th, was that the front runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, needed to do better than he did in the first two, where, to be charitable, he often seemed unprepared and used outdated expressions like, “here’s the deal” over and over again. The following morning we were told that he had been one of the night’s big winners, something that must have left many American progressives who watched his performance scratching their heads.
The villain of last Thursday’s debate, at least as viewers were being told on outlets like CNN after the fact, was the usually mild-mannered Julian Castro, whose remark about Biden failing to remember what he’d said just a few minutes earlier, caused others on the stage, most notably South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, to complain about the tone of the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary’s remarks.
“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable. This reminds everybody of what they can not stand about Washington,” Buttigieg said.
Castro rightly replied that this is how elections work. The obvious point of these debates is not only to allow the candidates to articulate policy ideas but also allow American voters and other candidates to parse their records for weaknesses that will almost certainly be exploited by the current president and his allies in 2020. At the same time, the former HUD secretary, who has remained in the low single digits in the polls, obviously felt he had to separate himself from the crowd of candidates and it backfired.
This is probably because so many centrist Democrats (and their corporate media allies) seem to value ‘civility’ over winning elections. That this is a counterproductive strategy was obvious long before the current U.S. president assumed the office.
Castro also pointed out that Biden, who at one point was interrupted by protesters chanting, “We are DACA recipients. Our lives are at risk.”, tends to take credit for Obama administration policies when he thinks it will work in his favor, but tries to shrug off whatever role he may have played when the policies, like those on immigration, are seen more negatively by most of his fellow Democrats, especially the growing constituency of Latinx voters.
How this made Castro one of the debates losers, as reported by USA Today the following morning, is difficult to fathom but the belief seems to have stuck.
At the same time, certain candidates are expected to absorb sometimes absurd attacks from both their Democratic opponents and most of the media without complaint.
For example, much ado was made about Senator Sanders’ voice during the debate, which was somewhat hoarse, especially early on in the night, but for those who have been closely following his campaign, this is probably due to the large number of rallies and speeches he’s been doing on the campaign trail. Biden, on the other hand, has mostly avoided the public while attending friendly fundraisers and basking in pretty fawning coverage.
In fact, just a little more than a week before the debate, at CNN’s climate town hall, which admittedly probably had a smaller audience due to its length and format, Biden had been called out for a fundraiser being held in his honor the very next day by Andrew Goldman, who is the co-founder and still heavily invested in a natural gas company. While the student who asked the question incorrectly called Goldman a “fossil fuel executive”, something Biden vigorously denied, this shouldn’t have been the main takeaway from the exchange.
The former vice-president either didn’t know or obfuscated in his response and the CNN hosts, including Anderson Cooper, who questioned Biden, were put to shame by the fact that the doctoral student had come up with a more relevant question than anyone working for the network had over the 7 hours of interviews with the various candidates who appeared at the forum.
While some commentators, mostly on the left, have speculated on whether or not Biden is suffering from ‘cognitive decline’, most lack the qualifications to make such a diagnosis. What we do know from his campaign thus far is that he is deeply out of touch with younger voters and too often sounds like the product of a much earlier, less progressive, era.
Even Hillary Clinton, whose campaign made many mistakes in terms of reading the political tea leaves, especially in regards to the needs of working people generally, knew enough to try and speak in contemporary terms on issues impacting African Americans and other marginalized communities. Like Clinton, Biden also has the inability, shared by many politicians of his generation, to ever admit that he was wrong on any issue, something as true if he is asked about his vote for the Iraq war or his previously conservative positions on issues of race and criminal justice.
It’s hard to decide what was most disturbing about his quickly stifled laughter and rambling answer to a question made by moderator Linsey Davis at last Thursday’s debate about his attitude towards the legacy of slavery much earlier in his career in the 1970s, when he had said, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
Rather than simply apologizing for an attitude that far to many people had at that time, the former vice-president tried to pivot the question to parenting and schools (and at the end, somehow, Venezuela), saying, in part, “We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t want — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the phone — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background — will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.”
It wasn’t the mention of record players that was most troubling in this: it’s that the former VP seemed to be blaming parents, many of whom need to work multiple jobs to support a family, for the failures of underfunded and thus under-performing schools and, as noted by many other commentators, he seemed to use ‘poor’ and ‘African American’ interchangeably.
Then there was the ‘Corn Pop’ story from 2017 that resurfaced over the last week, the video of which one really needs to see for oneself.
While most U.S. progressives already know that Biden has a checkered past on issues of race, there was yet another shocking story broken by the Intercept this week about Biden’s record that should give American voters, especially the older African Americans who are crucial to his lead in the polls, some pause.
While he says his vision has changed, it’s important to know that in 1981, Biden was attacking then President Reagan from the right on criminal justice, allying himself with the segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond, to push the drug war and so-called tough on crime policies.
“My patience for action in the drug arena by this administration is beginning to waiver. Just as I criticized the Carter administration for a lack of innovative ideas in this area I will criticize this administration if promises and rhetoric are not soon replaced by results,” he reportedly said at the time.
It is a minor tragedy that Joe Biden had the opportunity to bask in the light of being a respected elder statesman, the vice-president to his country’s first African American president (who we should remember has yet to endorse him). Instead, he decided to make a third run for the presidency, forcing scrutiny of his problematic history. While polling seems to show him defeating the current occupant of the White House if he is able to overcome his primary opponents, Republicans will give him no quarter and his allies in mainstream media will have much more difficulty in protecting him from the bruising attacks that are sure to come if he wins the Democratic Party’s nomination.