Biden’s tough-on-crime past: Were all Dems really like that?
The most memorable moment of the Democratic primary debates last week came when Senator Kamala Harris confronted former Vice President Joe Biden about his record on racial justice. Biden did not exactly redeem himself. But Biden got less attention for the part of his self-defense that involved going after Harris for being a prosecutor: “If we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that. I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor.”
This was new. For decades, Biden, along with other major Democratic players, positioned himself on the far right end of the Democratic Party on criminal justice, in what the New York Times recently called a “decades-long effort to more closely marry the Democratic Party and law enforcement.” Even when he was running for president in 2008, Biden touted his ability to work across the aisle by saying, “The crime bill, which became known as the Clinton crime bill, was written by Joe Biden, the Biden crime bill. That required me to cross over, get everyone together—no one’s civil liberties were in any way jeopardized. We put 100,000 cops on the street.”
Some have defended Biden’s record by putting these actions and stances into context. “Joe’s a decent fella, but he was doing what his white constituents wanted,” said Harmon Carey, director of the Afro-American Historical Society in Wilmington. “The white people wanted to send people to prison. They wanted cops. And that’s what he did.”
The standard narrative has held that this is what Democrats had to do to win elections. White Americans, even liberals, could not be trusted to place the suffering of people of color in the criminal system above their own desire for security. So until recently, they were fed a steady diet of punitive language on criminal justice, infused with nods to equality and lightly coded racism.
This political tactic was not irrational: It’s supported by data. A phenomenon that has been called the “Great Awokening”—comparable in various ways to the religion-based galvanizing of white northerners in the years before the Civil War––began roughly with the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. It has been documented by Ph.D. candidate Zach Goldberg, who shows that in the past five years, white liberals have moved farther to the left on questions of race and racism than the typical Black voter. “If there had been no Twitter or Facebook,” Columbia University’s John McWhorter told Matthew Yglesias, “Trayvon [Martin] and Mike Brown would have had about as much impact on white thought as, say, Amadou Diallo did.” Beginning in 2014, pollsters began to see white Democrats suddenly express significantly higher levels of concern about racial inequality and discrimination, while showing greater enthusiasm for racial diversity and immigration. “I don’t think it’s just a reaction to events,” said political scientist Brian Schaffner. Rather, “even prior to Ferguson, people take cues from elites.”
So maybe Biden can’t be blamed for taking a tough-on-crime stance in years past, since it was what everyone did to win elections. And maybe liberal Americans, in turn, can’t be blamed for not coming around to the urgency of the inequities and excesses of the criminal system because their leaders played right into their most punitive impulses.
By that theory, “the great awokening of 2014” should have been the turning point, and before that time, leaders in both parties would not have risked alienating any voters by highlighting injustices and advocating for systemic reforms. Now that white liberals have begun to care, though, we can expect to hear statements like these at Democratic primary debates: “There is unequal justice in this country. Not only racial profiling … but also in terms of kids getting mandatory sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug use and being put away 20 years. That should not happen.”
But no one said that at last week’s debates. Those were the words of former Senator Bill Bradley, during a primary debate with Al Gore nearly 20 years ago, and they sounded remarkably like something Beto O’Rourke said during last Thursday’s debate: “Many are [in prison] for nonviolent drug crimes, including possession of marijuana.”
Bradley was the leftist candidate in the 2000 primary, of course, but during the same debate, his centrist opponent, Al Gore, said: “I believe that we need to spend as much time and effort and money and energy on education as we do on incarceration. … I think that community policing does work. I think that we need to add to it provisions that will take race out of the equation in law enforcement.” Not to be outdone, Bradley said he was willing to tell “white Americans what they don’t want to hear,” including what he called “the issue of white skin privilege,” which he said he experienced as a white player in the NBA. Gore was not about to cede his woke ground quietly. He touted an exchange he had had with a Black police officer in Massachusetts, where he learned that “you’ve got to put a lot more emphasis in the training of law enforcement officers on this question: but not just training in the law enforcement techniques; also in human relations.”
The bombastic leftist Mike Gravel, who didn’t qualify to be on the debate stage last week, did not come to his views recently. In a 2008 primary debate, when Biden was touting his role in what he called the “Biden crime bill,” Gravel said, “One of the areas that touches me the most and enrages me the most is our war on drugs that this country has been putting forth for the last generation. In 1972, we had 179,000 human beings in jail in this country; today, it’s 2.3 million, and 70 percent are Black.” Undeterred by the light applause his comments received, he added, “Is it a surprise to anybody in this room that if you don’t have any money, you don’t get any justice?”
That’s all fine for primary debates, but what about the general, when both candidates tack toward the center? Once Gore beat Bradley, he faced George W. Bush in the 2000 general election. In one of their debates, Bush was asked if he believed the death penalty deters crime. “I do, it’s the only reason to be for it,” Bush responded. “I don’t think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge. I don’t think that’s right.”
Far left politicians have been sounding the alarm about mass incarceration on a national stage for at least two decades. And centrists have, for just as long, decried racial disparities and excessive incarceration. Even Republicans have rejected retribution as a reason for punishment. So the idea that Joe Biden simply lacked the vocabulary necessary to speak out against injustice in the criminal system is false.
But by the same token, Americans who have only come to care about criminal justice over the past five years cannot claim that they had no way of knowing the truth beforehand.