Joe Biden wants voters to trust him as a leader who will help restore America’s moral compass. As Sen. Cory Booker, a former rival who has now endorsed Biden, termed it at a rally on Monday, Biden is “the best one to restore the soul of America. He is the best one to bring dignity back to that office.” This platform stands out today, in stark contrast to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s carefully laid plans and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s plethora of policy statements, for not really articulating much of a substantive agenda. But Biden isn’t running on policy; he’s trying to gain the public’s trust and restore Americans’ faith in the political system — an aspect of his agenda from the very beginning of his Senate career.

Biden entered Washington in 1973, as Watergate unfolded, precipitating debates over campaign financing and other ethical issues. The Vietnam War and Watergate scandal had created a credibility gap and left Americans lacking faith in their government. Biden saw himself as the antidote to such distrust. He wasn’t naive. He freely acknowledged the capacity of political leaders to abuse their power. “Whether you like it or not, young lady,” he said to a young journalist interviewing him in 1974, “us cruddy politicians can take away that First Amendment of yours if we want to.”

But Biden had pursued a political career because the corruption of Richard Nixon and other unscrupulous politicians necessitated good, honest people to enter government. Only that would prevent a country led by “men worse than themselves,” as Biden put it. As the Watergate investigation intensified from 1973 to 1974, and scholars began to write about an “imperial presidency” under Richard Nixon, Biden painted himself as an alternative to unscrupulous politicians — they were the type to trample over cherished rights, not him.

Like today, Biden was a part of the center-left back then and offering an alternative to the polarizing politics of his age. In the early 1970s, he rejected the efforts of liberals in his own party, dubbed the New Left, to create a new social order. Rather than participating in the culture wars at the time, Biden chose to focus on bread-and-butter issues such as Social Security and the income tax. At the same time, he was also winning over Southern segregationist senators in his party, including James Oliver Eastland, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and, unlike Biden, did not believe in civil rights, but eventually gave Biden a seat on the committee. This helped Biden serve as a bridge between the disparate elements within the Democratic Party, whose internal divisions at times appeared to be starker than those of the two major parties.

And when there was a growing political divide between the left and the right, Biden refused to tear down Republicans, even when it became clear during Watergate that key GOP leaders had behaved like the unscrupulous politicians he so strongly detested. Instead, Biden saw politics as the driving force behind American greatness, essential to prevent cynicism from destroying the system. For, without its political system, there was no America. “We are a product of our political system,” he said in 1973. “What holds us together as a nation are not cultural ties as in other countries, but political ties.” Crucially, he added in reference to the Republican Party: “If we bring down a great political party, we bring down our political system.”

This was not a solipsistic attempt to make friends on the other side of the aisle to advance his political career. Instead, Biden was acting on his deeply held belief that politics is a noble pursuit, one worthy of veneration from the country.

His solution for elevating the status of politicians in American society included raising their salaries. “I don’t know about the rest of you [senators], but I am worth a lot more than my salary of $42,500 a year in this body,” he said in 1973, only a month after Nixon told the public that he wouldn’t comply with a subpoena to hand over tapes relating to Watergate. “It seems to me that we should flat out tell the American people we are worth our salt.” Biden had good reason to appear contemptuous of the precarious financial situation he found himself in after securing campaign financing by taking out a second mortgage. He even pointed out that, at the time, other senators were personally wealthy and didn’t have to make the same personal sacrifices. Many of them also used their elected office for personal benefit.

But Biden also had a broader cause: professionalizing politics. Doing so would create a class of morally upstanding leaders. And so, amid the larger debate about reforming campaign finance procedures — the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, the creation of the Federal Election Commission in 1974 and then the landmark 1976 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, which struck down spending limits in politics — Biden advocated public financing of federal campaigns and co-sponsored legislation to do just that in 1973.

So as a young centrist, what exactly did Biden believe in? Honesty. “The central issue of my campaign,” Biden said at the time, “and I used all the issues from busing to the war to the economy, crime, and prison reform — was to convince the people that I was intelligent and to convince them that I was honest.” According to Biden, policies could be figured out on the job. What voters really wanted to understand was whether they could trust a politician. Would they abuse power?

Today, Biden is running on that same platform. Even his foreign policy envisions a restoration of America’s trust in the international scene. As he recently declared, the United States must be “prepared to lead again — not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example.” Of course, Biden has a troubled past when it comes to presidential campaigns and the issue of trust. His campaign in 1987 came to a grinding halt after it came to light that he had used the words of other politicians in a few of his campaign speeches and even at one of the debates. But that’s not the type of trust Biden was emphasizing in the 1970s or today. For him, a trustworthy politician is one that won’t wield power for personal gain — like Nixon with Watergate.

To be sure, Biden’s views from the 1970s — notably those on abortion, legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage — have undergone significant transformations. But one aspect that hasn’t changed over the years is his emphasis on trust in politics. That’s important, because it’s the very issue at stake in the 2020 election. And it’s also poetic, because it means this is Biden’s last chance to fight for the very issue that brought him into politics.