Stuck in his craw is her earlier comment that “Democrats are not going to win by repeating Republican talking points” and her suggestion that if Biden wants to stand on the side of insurance companies and the wealthy, maybe he’s “running in the wrong presidential primary."
You can see why he would chafe at Warren’s accusation. But she has a point. And by responding the way he did, Biden helped her make it.
Of course, Warren’s Medicare-for-all plan — her overall candidacy, for that matter — isn’t beyond critique. How do we pay for this? is a fair question. We can’t afford this may also be a fair conclusion. Biden seems to sincerely favor a more incremental approach than Warren on an array of issues, including health care reform, and part of the primary contest should be to hash out those differences. But while Warren continues to make a detailed, issue-by-issue case for her platform, Biden has focused heavily on atmospherics — and adopts a right-wing frame in the process.
Take the “elitist” attacks. Warren grew up working class and her agenda prioritizes lower- and middle-income families over the rich, funding many of her social safety net programs by increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Biden may think she’s going about that in the wrong way, but instead of taking on the substance of her proposals — or detailing his own lower-tax, more modest alternative — he caricatures her as an over-educated, ivory tower know-it-all. It’s a barb long stuck to Democrats by their Republican opponents, a way to instigate cultural resentment against liberals while the GOP pursues policies that make it ever harder for those not born into wealth to move up the ladder.
And it has worked: While Democrats generally say higher education has a positive impact on the country, Republicans are now much more likely to say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going. Seeing higher education as elitist and too far left is one of the ways Republicans have worked to undermine funding for public education and squeeze access to higher education, and even convince voters that egghead scientists are lying about climate change.
The elitism charge is also a subtle way for the political right to undermine the ascent of women and people of color, who are the core of the Democratic base but remain underrepresented in elected office. Routinely, women and people of color have to load up on credentials before having a realistic shot at winning even lower-stakes elections, only to find themselves deemed out of touch for being highly qualified and bringing thoughtful ideas, with specifics, to the table. Is it likely that Warren would be Senator Warren today if she hadn’t been Harvard Law School professor Warren first, establishing herself as one of the country’s leading experts on personal bankruptcy, the author of a bestseller on personal finance, the chair of the TARP oversight panel and the brains behind the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? Perhaps. But it stretches credulity to think she could have jumped to the Senate after a few years of legal practice followed by one term as a county councilor — Biden’s pre-Senate experience.
Biden, of all people, should get how destructive all this is: “Elitist” was exactly the charge Republicans leveled against the president he served under, Barack Obama.
It’s not just his adoption of “elitist” as a put-down that has Biden sounding as if there could be an (R) after his name. His past opposition to school busing as a tool for integration hinged on an argument for states’ rights, a justification for acquiescing to the denial of civil rights that’s often deployed by the right. And he’s been quick to imply that structural problems facing some in the African American community are cultural. Asked, in one debate, about how to address racial segregation in American schools, Biden began with a few policy proposals — more funding for low-income schools, better teacher pay — before pivoting to saying that teachers are doing their best, but we need to “deal with the problems that come from home.” He proposed sending social workers to monitor a greater number of households and said struggling families — black families — need to “make sure you have the record player on at night.” It’s a reference to the way-too-frequently cited “word gap” theory, and it goes to the heart of what Republicans have often suggested: that when black students fall behind their peers, it’s not the fault of an unfair system, but of bad black parents.
And then there’s this: In one unearthed recording from the Watergate era — when Biden was just starting his Senate career — he says, “Let me say for the record, clearly, clearly, Democrats are as immoral as Republicans, and maybe in big cities a good deal more immoral in the traditional sense.”
In Biden’s depiction, real America looks a lot like a flattened stereotype of his hometown, Scranton, Pa.: mostly white, hardscrabble, admiring the man’s man who, as the saying goes, showers after work, not before. And going back to when he insisted, on CNN, a few weeks after Donald Trump’s election, that voters Democrats lost to Trump “are good people, man!” he’s leaned as far as he can into the idea that the last election was about “economic anxiety,” not the reality, a 2017 study found, that it was about “cultural” anxiety.
Biden fundamentally falls into a Republican-set trap of dividing America in two: There’s the America of rural voters and the white working class (and the men in that class the realest among them), and there’s the inauthentic America of city-dwelling elites. Biden’s anti-Warren jibes echo Trump’s attack line: Stumping in Scranton on the eve of Election Day 2016, Trump said, “It is time to reject a failed political elite that has bled this country dry.” And they echo Sen. John Neely Kennedy’s (R-La.) jab — spat out Thursday night, standing next to President Trump at a Louisiana rally — at the “cultured, cosmopolitan, goat’s milk latte-drinking, avocado toast-eating, insider’s elite.”
Biden is betting that he’ll be able to win over voters who’ve long supported Republicans, and that fear of losing their dominant racial and religious status drives voting patterns more than kitchen table issues. In the meantime, perhaps unwittingly, he’s contributing to a narrative that, the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer explains, “draws lines around who belongs and who does not.”
Any realistic assessment of Biden’s policy positions, priorities and history makes clear he is a conservative-to-moderate Democrat. But the rhetoric he uses to defend those policies, and the story he tells of who built America and who matters in it, is right out of the Republican playbook. His attacks on Warren, in particular, underscore her point: Biden’s campaign pitch would mesh, stylistically, just as easily in a GOP primary as a Democratic one.