The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden and Warren, longtime frenemies, will finally meet in a debate chasing the biggest prize of all

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former vice president Joe Biden will be on the same Democratic primary debate stage for the first time on Sept. 12. (Video: The Washington Post)

Vice President Joe Biden came to the Capitol in late 2016 to preside over Senate passage of a cancer-fighting measure named after his son, the Beau Biden Memorial Moonshot. In a day of bipartisan bonhomie, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was among those praising Biden, calling him “a man who spent his career fighting for working families.”

But earlier, in a private meeting with Democratic leaders, Warren had slammed the bill that included the Moonshot, saying its relaxed rules on drug companies made Democrats appear cozy with big business — a big reason she believed President Trump had just won the White House. In a blistering floor speech, she said the bill’s compromises with industry amounted to “extortion.” She was one of only five senators to oppose it.

Now, Biden and Warren, two of the leading presidential hopefuls, are set to meet Thursday on the debate stage, a setting that will highlight their wildly different styles and messages.

Those contrasting impulses were captured in their disagreement three years ago. Where Warren saw Democrats cravenly caving to corporations, Biden saw a necessary compromise on a critical issue and praised Republicans heartily for their support. It was just one episode in a long and complicated history between Biden and Warren that has showcased their fundamental difference: Biden believes in the system, and Warren believes it needs radical change.

“They’re both very strong but with a different touch,” said former senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who served in the Senate with Biden and Warren. “Elizabeth connects with you strongly on the issues. Joe connects even more on a personal level. . . . She makes the most passionate argument, but Joe has the added dimension of having a personal touch.”

That divergence began long before they even met. As a young senator in the early 1970s, Biden fought against mandated busing as a path to school integration, arguing for less coercive methods. Warren, as a law student during the same period, wrote her first law review article about why the Supreme Court was wrong to restrict busing.

But their hardest-fought confrontations came during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when credit companies were fighting to make it harder for Americans to declare bankruptcy, complaining that free-spending consumers were irresponsibly using the process to protect themselves.

Biden, whose home state of Delaware was the headquarters of many financial services firms, championed their cause. These firms were among Biden’s top campaign contributors. He even earned the nickname “the senator from MBNA,” a reference to a bank founded in Delaware.

Warren, then a professor, blasted Biden by name in a 2002 New York Times piece for playing a key role in what she called an “unconscionable” bankruptcy bill.

In a paper in the Harvard Women’s Law Review in 2002, she argued that with his “presidential ambitions growing,” women’s groups should oppose Biden because the bill would disproportionately harm women. In her 2003 book, “The Two-Income Trap,” written with Amelia Warren Tyagi, she added that he was a “sellout” when it came to women.

Warren was Biden’s opposite, a fighter where he was a backslapper, an activist who once said of battling financial institutions that she wanted “plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.” She was already a top bankruptcy expert, winning a Harvard Law School professorship in part because of her research on how middle-class families were going broke at alarming rates. She saw the bankruptcy system as a safety net, allowing families to erase debt and start fresh.

The two clashed again in 2005 when the bankruptcy bill made it to the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Biden was a senior member. Sitting at the witness table, Warren listened as Biden pushed her to talk about the role government should play when families cannot pay their bills.

Biden referred to Warren as “professor” twice and, before she spoke, characterized her argument as “very compelling and mildly demagogic.”

He asked who should foot the bill when consumers can’t pay. If Warren believed the chief victims were struggling families doing their best to stay afloat, Biden also sympathized with companies, including small businesses, that were getting shortchanged through no fault of their own.

“Is it the responsibility of the gas company and the drugstore and whoever else you name to make sure that these people do not have to make these hard choices?” Biden asked. “Or is that the responsibility of the government or the people at large?”

Warren did not directly answer the question, a tactic she continues to employ, saying the real solution is an economy where Americans are doing better.

“We need fewer families to need to turn to the bankruptcy system,” Warren said, pointing to health-care costs as a major factor. Until the health system can be fixed, she argued, Americans need the option of a generous bankruptcy system.

Jared Bernstein, Biden’s chief economist during the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, said there was “no question he and Warren were on different sides.”

But he insisted the relationship warmed once Biden became vice president. In the bankruptcy fight, Biden was representing his state’s interests. His prism broadened significantly when he joined the administration, Bernstein said.

The Obama team, after all, immediately confronted a devastating financial meltdown that threatened middle-class families across the country. Warren was tapped by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to come to Washington to help keep watch over the distribution of bailout money, ultimately becoming a resource for the Obama team rather than an adversary.

“At that point, it’s clear that Elizabeth Warren really knows what she’s talking about regarding what happened and that her vision of the appropriate guardrails needed was a smart one,” Bernstein said. “You can call it ideologically aligned or meeting of the minds or whatever, but it was more of a pragmatic alignment.”

Obama tapped Biden to head a task force aimed at improving the lot of the middle class, and Biden saw Warren as an ally. He supported her successful push to create an agency charged with protecting consumers from deceptive financial practices.

“What I got to see was a relationship that was really forged on respect,” said Terrell McSweeny, a former Biden aide. “I think they had a lot of shared perspective in terms of focusing on getting the economy back on track.”

Still, some Warren allies play down Biden’s role in winning passage of the Dodd-Frank law, the sweeping bank overhaul measure that established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) championed by Warren.

Some liberal Democrats still say Biden is too close to corporate interests, and some moderates say they are uncomfortable with Warren’s attacks on the status quo.

“Biden was simply not part of the conversation” surrounding the passage of Dodd-Frank, the oversight of the bank bailout and the creation of the CFPB, said one Warren ally who worked closely with her at the time and spoke on the condition of anonymity because their current employer is neutral in the presidential race.

By that point — Dodd-Frank passed in 2010 — some saw early signs of Warren’s interest in higher office. At a White House photo op, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) pressed Obama to appoint Warren as head of the CFPB, adding that she would probably run for Senate if she wasn’t nominated.

“The president said, ‘Do you think she wants to be a senator?’ ” Frank recalled. “And I said, ‘No, I think she wants your job, but she knows she’s got to start somewhere.’ ”

It is unclear whether Biden played a role in recommending or discouraging Warren’s appointment as leader of the CFPB. Facing forceful opposition from Republican senators, Obama ultimately declined to nominate her — a blow to Warren, but one that set her on course for the Senate.

When Warren won her 2012 Senate campaign, it was Biden, in his role as vice president, who presided over her swearing in. “You gave me hell,” Biden joked to Warren, referring to their previous skirmishes.

Biden harbored no ill will toward Warren, and the two periodically chatted on the phone after she became a senator, according to former senator Ted Kaufman, a onetime Biden aide who took over his Senate seat after he became vice president. That fits Biden’s tendency to view political adversaries as friendly opponents rather than implacable enemies, Kaufman said

“I think at the end of the day, it’s entirely consistent with the way Vice President Biden approaches relationships,” McSweeny said. “In his heart, I think he believes they are aligned on helping the middle class. Whether they agree on every solution is different, but they are trying to address the same issues.”

In August 2015, as Biden was considering his own presidential bid, he invited Warren to lunch at the U.S. Naval Observatory, which serves as the vice president’s residence. As they dined without aides present, Biden hinted at the possibility of the two joining forces on a ticket, a development that set Washington abuzz for weeks, according to news reports.

Biden did not run that year, and the 21st Century Cures Act that contained his cancer-fighting provision passed shortly after the election. At a White House signing ceremony, he fondly remembered his son and said the law would save lives.

He praised Republicans — naming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), in particular — acknowledging that the bill could not have passed without them.

“It shows that our politics can still come together to do big, consequential things for the American people,” he said.

Warren had a different reaction. When Trump won, she concluded that traditional approaches were no longer working. Regarding the 21st Century Cures Act, she told fellow Democrats they were using an outdated strategy in trying to placate the opposition, according to a Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss a private conversation.

Warren called Reid, the Senate minority leader at the time, to tell him she planned to oppose the bill and push other Democrats to join her, according to the former Senate aide. She was impassioned on the Senate floor, telling colleagues that voters “didn’t send us here to whimper, whine or grovel” to drug companies.

Most of all, Warren felt the bill would send a devastating political message about lawmakers’ coziness with industry. The Democratic aide summed up Warren’s argument this way: “I tried it your way and it didn’t work, so it’s time to listen to what I have to say.”