Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to former senator James O. Eastland. This version has been corrected.
At a fundraiser in New York attended by the usual Wall Street types, Joe Biden said some things that are raising eyebrows, for good reason, on two subjects. His comments on his friendly relations with segregationists are getting the most attention, but he also said something important about the wealthy people whose dollars he was seeking.
Both comments are deeply problematic, and both stem from the same misconception Biden holds. Let’s start here:
You know, what I’ve found is rich people are just as patriotic as poor people. Not a joke. I mean, we may not want to demonize anybody who has made money. The truth of the matter is, you all, you all know, you all know in your gut what has to be done. We can disagree in the margins but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change. Because when we have income inequality as large as we have in the United States today, it brews and ferments political discord and basic revolution. [...] It allows demagogues to step in and say the reason where we are is because of the other, the other. You’re not the other. I need you very badly. I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down.
Biden knows his audience. His pitch to them is not that we must reduce inequality because it’s a fundamental wrong, but because if we don’t, the masses will rise up in anger and you never know what might happen then.
If you want to be generous, you could argue that when he assured the well-heeled donors that “No one’s standard of living will change,” he was telling them that they have so much money that no matter how much we raised their taxes they’d barely notice it. After all, if you have a billion dollars in assets and Elizabeth Warren’s 2 percent wealth tax took effect, your taxes would go up by $20 million, which would leave you with $980 million in assets. You wouldn’t have to cut back on dinners out or start buying the generic toilet paper.
But Biden’s actual ideas about policy change are far more modest, and so are the arguments he wants to make to the public. He believes that you can govern well without attacking the wealthy or big corporations, in both substance and rhetoric. We can all get along if we assume everyone is operating out of good will.
But are they? The problems we’re facing right now didn’t happen by accident. Biden says he’s a great friend to labor unions, but does he think that the Republicans and their corporate partners can be persuaded to abandon their war on collective bargaining with enough backslapping and reassurances that “nothing would fundamentally change”? Or do you have to fight and defeat them because fundamental change is exactly what’s necessary and they’ll never agree to it? If you’re maintaining good relations with the billionaire class, might that be evidence that you’ve already committed to not changing the status quo?
Now let’s look at the even more startling thing Biden said at the fundraiser.
First, Biden recounted being at a caucus with the late Mississippi Sen. James O. Eastland. Imitating his southern drawl, Biden said: “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son’.”
There’s a reason Eastland didn’t call Biden “boy.” That’s what racists like Eastland called black men, and Biden is white. In fact, Eastland was friendly toward Biden in no small part because at the time Biden was an opponent of busing.
Biden then brought up deceased Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge and called him “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.” Biden added:
Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.
One reason all this is so objectionable is that much of Biden’s career was built on him being the kind of Democrat who could speak to and for white people who felt dispossessed by societal change, particularly around issues of race. That’s also a key building block (though it goes unstated) of the suggestion that he’s “electable” in ways other Democrats might not be.
Which means that when he’s running to be the presidential nominee of the party that represents pretty much all nonwhite Americans, Biden needs to be especially thoughtful about how he talks about his friendships with people like Eastland.
It takes more than calling a segregationist “mean” to assure us that Biden really gets that these men he worked with didn’t just have political differences with him and weren’t just personally unpleasant, but had devoted their lives to a project of monstrous evil, the subjugation of millions of Americans because of their race.
But let’s try again to be generous to Biden. The point he was trying to make is that if he could work with a racist like Eastland to “get things done,” surely he can convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to do the same.
But there’s a problem with this logic, which is that Eastland and other segregationists were perfectly happy to pass legislation on any number of issues that didn’t impede their agenda of white supremacy.
Today’s Republican Party is not. If there’s a Democrat in the White House in 2021 they will employ the same strategy they did under Barack Obama of obstructing everything that president wants to do, as Biden ought to remember.
When the other party is committed to that view — as today’s Republican Party is — the president’s good will and friendliness will change nothing. Yet Biden continues to believe that his friendships with Republicans are so profound and his powers of persuasion so overwhelming that he can transform the Republican Party, altering the course it has been on for decades.
I’m sure Biden will protest that people are misunderstanding what he said at that fundraiser, so let’s be clear that this isn’t about a “gaffe.” Biden has a very particular view of how governing works and what’s possible at this moment in history. He thinks his ability to get along with anyone — Republicans, billionaires, segregationists — will make his presidency successful.
There is no reason, based on everything we’ve seen over the past couple of decades, to think he’s right. And we also have to ask what moral compromises he’s willing to make along the way.