The intense buzz surrounding a possible presidential run by Vice President Joe Biden (maybe with Elizabeth Warren?) has thus far been met with restraint by the media, and even the most die-hard Hillary Clinton lifers, but eventually the knives had to come out. Clinton herself has joined most Democrats in giving the veep the space he needs to make a difficult decision, and the worst thing that’s been thrown at Biden so far is some low-grade concern-trolling about his age.
On Saturday morning’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show, however, MSNBC regular and Big Girls Don’t Cry author Rebecca Traister went off on Joe Biden while attempting to dispel the idea that he’s a viable alternative to Hillary. Traister started out professing “love” for Biden, but sixty seconds later, was in something close to a lather about something Biden said eight years ago:
“I love Joe Biden. I think everybody should run for president. I wish there were more nominees. Okay? Great. Get in the game. But the perception of him as a great alternate to Hillary I think is super flawed. I think we have to recognize why he’s comforting to us. Every one of Hillary’s flaws, save for being married to Bill Clinton, Joe Biden has and then some. He wrote the crime bill, and Clarence Thomas is on the Supreme Court, and he voted for the bankruptcy bill while his son was working — Hunter was working for the big financial firms. The Hyde amendment. Okay, he voted for the Hyde Amendment, with no exceptions for rape or incest. He voted for the partial-birth abortion ban. That hilarious thing he said about President Obama, about him being clean and bright and articulate, that was appalling. It was nice, cuz it was… So what I’m saying is the reasons that he looks appealing to us are because he looks like a president, which is why he’s Barack Obama’s vice president. He is a comforting mainstream white dude. Which is why he ran with Obama.”
The remark that Traister is referring to is one of several that Biden opponents will inevitable drag out to try and shake his appeal with minorities. In 2007, while kicking off his own presidential campaign, then-Senator Joe Biden had this assessment of then-Senator Barack Obama:
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
That comment is a favorite among right-wingers trying to deflect Republican racism, as are a handful of other Biden quotes that pack the racial sensitivity of a Redskins helmet, but it’s a little unusual to hear it cited by a liberal commentator. Traister is right that the comment was appalling, but her premise, that Biden’s pre-Obama record will be some huge political liability for him, is way off-base.
The inevitable attack on Biden’s handful of racial gaffes represents a fundamental misunderstanding of credibility with Obama coalition voters, and black voters in particular. The remarks weren’t okay, but were essentially absent of malice, and even to the extent that they could hurt him, Joe Biden has spent the past six years earning the kind of cred that thousand-pound fists of ham can’t knock down. He has had President Obama’s back every step of the way, and now, President Obama has his back. Whatever hole Biden’s critics think he started out in with Obama supporters with that comment, he is now the King of OFA Mountain.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, dug herself a Mariana Trench with black voters in 2008 with a series of overtly racist moves that set the table for deranged opposition to Obama for the next six years. Like Biden, Hillary has managed to quell some of that residual resentment by virtue of her loyal service to the President, and has made further strides by making racial justice policies a strong and early focus of her campaign. Unfortunately, Clinton had a deeper hole to dig out of, so Biden’s goodwill with black voters figures to be more durable, but Hillary can make a strong case if she continues to perform as well as she has. Her handling of a meeting with #BlackLivesMatter activists was the most authentic she’s looked so far in this campaign.
Bernie Sanders and his fans misunderstood this dynamic in the opposite direction when they decided that Sanders’ 1960s-era activism had earned him a lifetime Hood Pass. Sanders eventually came around, but neither he nor Hillary Clinton can touch the sort of goodwill Joe Biden has earned as President Obama’s loyal second-in-command. #BidenSoBlack, he’s allowed to sing along to gangsta rap, and sing all of the words.
For many of the same reasons, neither Joe Biden nor Hillary Clinton figure to be hurt all that much by baggage from the crime bill. Hillary was a first lady supporting her husband’s policies, Biden authored the bill, but both have since demonstrated a command of its deficiencies, and a good-faith desire to fix them. The key factors for voters, especially black voters, are what are you going to do now, and can you be trusted to do it?
A Joe Biden candidacy will face an uphill climb with many women simply by virtue of the fact that he’d be running against Hillary, so the effects of his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings and his support of the Hyde Amendment are tertiary, at best. That rumored Elizabeth Warren co-ticket might help with that, but again, Biden’s stint with President Obama has been very good to women.
If Biden does run, and makes it to a general election, gaffes like the one Traister cites could even become an asset for Biden in the Age of Trump, helping him appeal to the soft-headed “independent” voters who prize Trump’s “political incorrectness,” but would prefer a president who knows things.
Traister’s tirade is, however, an illustration of why so many of Joe Biden’s friends and fans are torn about watching him run for president again. His tenure as vice president has been monumentally great for his legacy, and a campaign means that all of the old attacks will become new again, and that legacy will be tarnished if he doesn’t win.
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