No Joe: On Character, Quality and Authenticity

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The Democratic Party establishment might want to heed Santayana’s warning about how people who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. One of the many lessons of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign is that your candidate better damn well possess strong quality and character if you are going to run on, well, candidate quality and character.

The Clinton campaign might have prevailed over the Malignant One if it hadn’t made egregiously stupid mistakes. It failed to set foot in Wisconsin after the Democratic convention or to purchase campaign ads in Michigan. Clinton got caught telling wealthy New York City donors that half of Trump’s supporters were “a basket of [racist, white, working-class] deplorables”—a hideous mistake hauntingly akin to Mitt Romney’s gaffe in 2012 when he was recorded telling elite donors that 47 percent of the population were a bunch of lazy welfare dependents.

Also problematic was the Clinton team’s decision to run almost completely on the issue of candidate quality and quality – on the undeniable awfulness of Trump. This was a blunder, given Hillary’s weak character standing with voters, already low before the e-mail scandal that FBI Director James Comey re-ignited late in the season.

Which brings us to Joe Biden. Like Hillary (and Bill) Clinton, he represents the corporate-establishmentarian wing of the Democratic Party. Also like Hillary, his main hook is the undisputable dreadfulness of the Donald.

So what, then, about Biden? Democrats need to talk about Joe. There’s little doubt that the 77-year-year-old former U.S Vice President is suffering from some measure of dementia. Confusing New Hampshire with Vermont, not knowing the name of the college where he just spoke, thinking that he met with Parkland school shooting victims when he was vice president, invading the centrist MSDNC host Joy Reid’s physical space to claim that she advocates “physical revolution,” inappropriate public touching (and sniffing), forgetting thoughts in mid-sentence, saying that the recent Dayton and El Paso mass shootings took place in “Michigan” and “Houston” – all of this and more (including the alarming frequency with which he looks lost and confused) suggest that Biden’s elevator is no longer running all the way to the top floor (if it ever was) as he nears his ninth decade of life. Executive function is no small matter. This is about aging, which some people (e.g. the still on-point Bernie Sanders) do more gracefully and cogently than others (e.g. Joe).

Long before Biden’s gray cells got so much grayer, however, he showed signs of moral decrepitude. During his dismally unsuccessful campaign for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, Biden stole key lines and themes from the British Labor Party candidate Neil Kinnock, falsely portraying himself as a working-class hero who rose up from generations of coal miners. After it came out that Biden had ripped off the English politician, Biden gave a speech crediting Kinnock but claiming that he’d received a videotape of the Kinnock speech he plagiarized from “a leader of another country.” In reality, Biden got the speech from a Washington political consultant who had made the tape available to numerous candidates.

Joe’s oratorical pilfering of Kinnock was not plagiarism technically speaking since political speeches don’t bear copyrights. During law school, however, Biden committed plagiarism the real thing. He took five pages from a law review article for a brief he wrote in a legal methodology course. Biden was penalized with an ‘F’ for the course, which he had to repeat.

Another example of morally problematic deception in Biden’s political career concerns the tragic death of his young wife and infant daughter in a traffic accident in December of 1972. In September of 2001, one week after the 9/11 jetliner attacks, Biden told nearly three thousand people at the University of Delaware that his wife and daughter had been killed by “an errant driver who stopped to drink instead of drive.”

Six years later, while running for president again in Iowa, he told an Iowa City audience that the driver of the truck that hit his wife and daughter “allegedly drank his lunch instead of eating his lunch.”

This was false. As Politico senior staff writer Michael Kruse reported last January:

“The problem was it wasn’t true. The driver of the truck, Curtis C. Dunn of Pennsylvania, was not charged with drunk driving. He wasn’t charged with anything. The accident was an accident, and though the police file no longer exists, coverage in the newspapers at the time made it clear that fault was not in question. For whatever reason, Neilia Biden, who was holding the baby, ended up in the right of way of Dunn’s truck coming down a long hill.”

“‘She had a stop sign. The truck driver did not,’ Jerome Herlihy told me. He’s a retired judge who then was a deputy attorney general and once was a neighbor to Biden and remains friendly. A pal of Biden at the time asked Herlihy ‘to go out to the state police troop where the driver of the other vehicle was to make sure everything was going all right,’ and so he did. ‘In the end,’ Herlihy said, ‘I concurred in their decision that there was no fault on his part’.”

Biden’s lie, centered on the deaths of his first wife and baby daughter, upset the family of Curtis Dunn, who died in 1999. Dunn had lived his last twenty-seven years with the painful memory of what happened when Biden’s first wife recklessly pulled out in front of him with her baby in her lap.

What could have led Biden to falsely attribute the tragedy to a drunk driver? Kruse bends over backwards to provide psychological rationalizations (he speculates that Biden used the lie to make the deaths “more palatable” and that Biden just likes to stretch the truth) but the 2007 version of the lie, uttered in the context of his Iowa presidential campaign, surely reflected a desire to curry sympathy points from voters. It’s not a pretty picture.

Consistent with concerns that Biden bends the truth for political advantage, the Washington Post recently outed him for concocting a ridiculous tale about his heroic role in honoring a medal-winning U.S. soldier in a war zone as vice president. It was no small fib. By the Post’s account, “Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the military branch, and the rank of the recipient wrong as well as his own role in the ceremony.” Pathetic.

But Biden’s worst deception is his pretense of being regular old working-class “lunch-bucket” Joe, a great product and friend of ordinary working people. His fiercely corporatist and pro-Wall Street record militates strongly against this faux blue-collar branding:

+ Voting to rollback bankruptcy protections for college graduates (1978) and vocational school graduates (1984) with federal student loans.

+Working with Republican allies to pass the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which put traditional “clean slate” Chapter 7 bankruptcy out of reach for millions of ordinary Americans and thousands of small businesses (2005).

+Voting against a bill that would have compelled credit card companies to warn customers of the costs of only making minimum payments.

+Honoring campaign donations from Coca-Cola by cosponsoring a bill that permitted soft-drink producers to skirt antitrust laws (1979).

+ Joining just one other Congressional Democrat to vote against a Judiciary Committee measure to increase consumers’ rights to sue corporations for price-fixing (1979).

+Strongly supporting the 1999 Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act, which permitted the re-merging of investment and commercial banking by repealing the Depression-era Glass–Steagall Act. (This helped create the 2007-8 financial crisis and subsequent recession.)

+Supporting the corporate-neoliberal North American Free Trade agreement and the globalist investor rights Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Adding clumsy neoliberal insult to concrete neoliberal policy injury, Biden now absurdly criticizes those who advocate a universal basic income of “selling American workers short” and undermining the “dignity” of work. He opposes calls for free college tuition and Single Payer health insurance. He defends Big Business from popular criticism, writing in 2017 that “Some want to single out big corporations for all the blame. … But consumers, workers, and leaders have the power to hold every corporation to a higher standard, not simply cast business as the enemy.” That’s called propagating a fantasy – the existence of a democratic political system in which the working-class majority has the power to hold concentrated wealth accountable.

“I don’t think five hundred billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble. The folks at the top aren’t bad guys,” Biden sickeningly told the Brookings Institution last year – this as he claimed to worry about how the “gap is yawning” between the American super-rich and everyone else.

Most nauseating of all, “blue-collar” Biden says that he has “no empathy” for Millennials’ struggle to get by in the savagely unequal and insecure precariat economy he helped create over his many years of abject service to the Lords of Capital. “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are—give me a break,” said Biden, while speaking to Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times last year. “No, no, I have no empathy for it, give me a break.”

Read that a second time: “No, no, I have no empathy for it, give me a break.”

So what if Millennials face a significant diminution of opportunity, wealth, income and security compared to the Baby Boomers with whom Biden identifies? Who cares if “lunch bucket Joe” helped shrink the American Dream for young people with the neoliberal policies and politics he helped advance?

Biden’s incredibly low standing with young Americans – he is backed by just 7 percent (!) of U.S. voters under 30 – is richly deserved.

Sadly enough, Biden is the preferred candidate of older Black voters reached by pollsters so far. That position is richly undeserved. Proud of his onetime alliance with openly segregationist, racially terrorist Jim Crow U.S. Senators like James O. Eastland – the one who Biden (forgetting his own skin color?) says “never called me ‘boy’” – Biden backed the racist mass incarceration state by supporting Bill Clinton’s ‘Three Strikes” crime and prison bill along with Clinton and Newt Gingrich vicious abolition of Aid for Families with Dependent Children. Biden took his embrace of the supposedly sacred virtue of bipartisanship to the grotesque level of forming close friendships with virulent southern white racists like Republican Senators Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, not to mention the frothing warmonger John McCain – a natural ally given Biden’s longstanding imperialism.

Trump won in 2016 thanks in no small part to the Democrats’ longstanding inauthenticity problem. In the U.S. as in other countries “reactionary populist” fascist-style leaders score “authenticity” points by seeming to “speak their minds” and “gut” in ugly but “genuine” if “politically incorrect” ways while “politically correct” liberal and social-democratish politicians look fake and untrustworthy (and inauthentic) as their pretense of representing the interests of the working and middle class majority is belied by their cringing subservience to the globalist rich and powerful. As the legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh recently commented, reflecting on how “a guy like Donald Trump won”:

“They [voters] understood where he was coming from. That Trump is just a blowhard. They laughed at him. They knew Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But Trump wasn’t the same old big smile and a lot of good words. The Democrats have been going around saying, ‘We’re for the people, we’re for the little guy.’ And all they do is run to Wall Street for money. And the one guy that didn’t, Bernie Sanders, was sabotaged by the Democratic National Committee.”

That’s the core systemic inauthenticity of U.S. politics right there, consistent with a still-left Christopher Hitchens’ onetime description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” Throw in unmistakable signs of deeply flawed personal character like Hillary’s covering for her husband’s serial sexual assaults and Biden’s history of plagiarism and lying and you have big problems for Democratic presidential candidates in an ever more savagely unequal nation where, as Bernie keeps pointing out, three absurdly rich people now possess between them as much wealth as the bottom fifty percent.

The best alternative from an electability standpoint would be for the Democrats to run Sanders, an authentically progressive, social-democratish neo- and green-New Dealer running without and indeed against Big Business sponsorship and (imagine) in accord with majority left-of-center public policy opinion. But the Democratic Party isn’t primarily about winning elections, much less advancing social justice and environmental sanity. It’s about serving elite corporate and financial interests and those interests would prefer to see a creeping fascist and eco-exterminist Neanderthal in the White House over a genuine “populist progressive.”

Wall Street’s top pick Biden would probably need a recession between now and the first Tuesday in November of next year to defeat Trump. Sanders would not. If Joe finally proves too obviously dementia-addled and truth-challenged to be sold as a credible challenger to the tariff- and Twittter-tantruming Trump baby and no dependable neoliberal substitute can be found (Kamala Harris and Pete Butiggieg have faded of late), capital may do its best to cut a deal with the vaguely half-progressive policy maven Elizabeth Warren, who comforted corporate election investors by standing to applaud (unlike Sanders) when Donito Assolini called for Congress to pledge that “America will never be a socialist country” during his State of the Union Address last January.

But Warren has her own authenticity and political correctness problems, to say the least – problems that don’t haunt Sanders. As the clever and idiosyncratic Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wrote two days ago, “the charade of representing herself as a Native American, and the catastrophe of her DNA test turns off working-class families” that “Democrats need” to defeat the “aspiring fascist leader” (Eric Draitster) who currently contaminates the White House. Kass is right, I think, to counsel Warren to “drop out and back Bernie” in the interest of unifying the (what Kass calls the) “hard left” Democratic voting base (I doubt Kass knows what the actual “hard left” is) to prevent the hapless prevaricator Biden from “rid[ing] his whoppers to the Democratic nomination.”

“Joe adrift, list in his multiverse of fabrication and moist feelings, like a sad sci-fi astronaut with gleaming white teeth in a Netflix movie” (Kass) is a Trump asset. Warren may turn out to be one too. The still sharp and genuinely progressive Sanders (well to my right) is not. He “has,” Kass writes, “the necessary authenticity.”

Look for those atop the Inauthentic Opposition (the late Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s dead on term to describe the neoliberal-era Democratic Party) to do everything they can to prevent their fiefdom from running its most viable candidate against the authentically gruesome ecofascist Donald Trump.

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Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).