The Case Against Joe Biden: How the Former VP Fueled Mass Incarceration & Protected Big Banks

Web ExclusiveMarch 14, 2019
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Speculation is growing that former Vice President Joe Biden will soon enter the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. We continue our conversation with Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor for Harper’s magazine, about what he sees as Biden’s dangerous track record, from his 1994 crime bill to his close ties with big banks. Cockburn’s latest piece is headlined “No Joe! Joe Biden’s disastrous legislative legacy.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our discussion about speculation mounting that former Vice President Joe Biden will soon enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. A longtime senator from Delaware, Biden has previously run twice for the Democratic nomination, last time in 2008, when he ultimately became then-Senator Barack Obama’s running mate.

While a new campaign would seek to capitalize on Biden’s two terms as vice president, it would also invite scrutiny of his Senate record, in a Democratic political climate that’s notably more progressive today than it was when Biden last sought the nomination. Joe Biden’s 1994 crime bill, while implementing sweeping gun control, also helped fuel mass incarceration with financial incentives to keep people behind bars. This is Joe Biden, Senator Joe Biden, speaking in 1993 during the debate on the Senate crime bill. The clip was recently unearthed by CNN.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: We must take back the streets. It doesn’t matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter or my son or daughter, my wife, your husband, my mother, your parents—it doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter or not—whether or not they had background that enabled them to have—to become social—become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society. The end result is they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife, take on my sons. So I don’t want to ask what made them do this. They must be taken off the street.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Biden went on to describe criminals as predators.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: If we don’t, they will, or a portion of them will, become the predators, 15 years from now. And, Madam President, we have predators on our streets, that society has, in fact, in part because of its neglect, created.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Biden is also known for close ties to the financial industry, notably helping push through a 2005 bill that made it harder for consumers to declare bankruptcy. According to The New York Times, the credit card issuer MBNA was Biden’s top donor from 1989 to 2010. One of his key legislative achievements was the 2005 bankruptcy law that made it harder to reduce student debt, preventing most Americans from claiming bankruptcy protections for private student loans.

Well, to continue our conversation on Joe Biden and his possible presidential run, we go to Washington, D.C., to talk with Washington editor for Harper’s magazine Andrew Cockburn, his latest piece for Harper’s headlined “No Joe! Joe Biden’s disastrous legislative legacy.”

Thank you for staying for Part 2 of this conversation, Andrew.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Not at all.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk more deeply about the crime bill and Senator Joe Biden’s involvement in that and where you see his trajectory today.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, I mean, it was his signature issue, really throughout the 1980s. As I mentioned earlier, you know, he teamed up with Strom Thurmond, this sort of very aged, old segregationist from South Carolina, you know, really the face of—the face of everything that we’d been trying to get away from. And it was really, you know, Joe—he thought this was going to really propel him to the top. As he said to a former aide, who told me—I think it was around about 1990—the aide was telling me how he, Joe, was always trying to hold hearings on crime and drugs. Every week, his poor staff had to sit around dreaming up a new excuse for a hearing on crime and drugs. And as Biden said to his staffer, he said, “I want when people hear the words 'crime' and 'drugs,' I want them to think 'Joe Biden.'” I mean, he was really running, you know, like a—like George Bush Sr., on a sort of Willie Horton. You know, it’s astonishing that this man, this politician, should be considered a front-runner for the Democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, could he simply say he’s changed since then, that he’s completely reversed his position?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, not really. I mean, he sort of—he’s flubbed on a few things. I mean, he changed—you know, he’s apologized for a few things—not, I note, on busing; not on choice, where his record is truly terrible. He has said that he’s kind of sorry, a bit sorry, about his crime legislation. And he said he’s sorry he voted for the financial deregulation, the key repeal of Glass-Steagall. He said that was the worst vote ever—ever of his entire career, which I’m—there’s a lot of competition there. So, but even if—you know, just thinking of his political viability, supposing he has to go through the campaign saying, “Well, I’m sorry I did what I did on busing. I’m sorry I did what I did on crime. I’m sorry I did what I did on banks,” he’s going to sound like another shifty politician.

AMY GOODMAN: And on Anita Hill, “I’m sorry what I did on Anita Hill”?

ANDREW COCKBURN: And Anita Hill, “I’m really sorry about Anita Hill.” He’s expressed some regret for that, I should admit. So, you know, basically, his record has very little that’s good about it. You know, he has his sort of shtick of being the friend of the working man, but, you know, he’s been a much better and closer friend of the financial industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened with Neil Kinnock, the speech.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, very bizarre, that. He, Neil Kinnock, who at that time was the leader of the Labour Party, had this standard stump speech.

AMY GOODMAN: In Britain.

ANDREW COCKBURN: In Britain, yeah, British Labour Party. And he would—in his stump speech, he would say that, you know, he was—why was it that he was the first Kinnock in a thousand years to go to college, and Mrs. Kinnock, he invoked, too, as being the first from her family to go to college. And he made a moving sort of rags-to-riches sort of piece out of that. And Biden—Biden heard this, or his speechwriter did, and thought, “That sounds good,” and simply substituted the word “Biden”: “Why am I the first Biden in a thousand years to go to college?” and so on, so forth. And, well, what’s particularly ironic about it is that Neil Kinnock was known in Britain as the “Welsh windbag,” because he went on and on. And, of course, Biden himself is a terrible windbag. So, it was really bizarre to have one windbag plagiarizing another.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about Iraq. In 2002, former chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, Scott Ritter, said, quote, “Sen. Joe Biden is running a sham hearing. It is clear that Biden and most of the Congressional leadership have pre-ordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts, and are using these hearings to provide political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq. These hearings have nothing to do with an objective search for the truth, but rather seek to line up like-minded witnesses who will buttress this pre-determined result,” Ritter said. That same year, in 2002, Senator Biden said, quote, “We must be clear with the American people that we are committing to Iraq for the long haul; not just the day after, but the decade after. … I am absolutely confident the President will not take us to war alone,” he said. Talk about the significance of that then, and then what it could mean for today.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, it fits into Biden’s, you know, worldview, or, well, behavior on the international stage, throughout, which is as, you know, a very hard-line hawk. You know, as you just said, or as Ritter said at the time, Biden was really doing everything he could to assist George Bush in the run-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq. You know, on the Foreign Relations Committee, he summoned just pro-invasion witnesses. As far as I know, he was certainly not one of the famous of the five senators who took the trouble to go down and read the National Intelligence Estimate, that Senator Bob Graham has talked about, which was locked away down in the basement, which would have told them that there was a lot of doubts in the intelligence community as to whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and so forth. No, he just—he wanted—you know, he was all for war, and he was all for occupation, as you said.

And that fits in with, you know, his record since, most notably as vice president. Obama made him, made Vice President Biden—gave him really the—well, the Iraq file, but also the Ukraine file. And Biden used that to be an ardent proponent of, you know, more arms for Ukraine, for intervention in what is really a civil war in Ukraine. Of course, his family—his son—had very extensive business ties in Ukraine, which doesn’t look too good. His son Hunter was on the board of the Ukrainian gas company. So, you know, Biden, whenever he’s been given the chance, he’s been for armed intervention. He was ardently for the expansion of NATO, the post-1990—in the 1990s, which, you know, is really the root cause of the renewed—sort of the new Cold War. I mean, Biden was there. It’s no surprise that he describes John McCain as his best friend in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden also said, in 2002, “I do not believe this is a rush to war; I believe it’s a march to peace and security.” So, Andrew Cockburn, if you could comment on his two runs for president, both failed? You know, all the media is saying the polls show he’s the—you know, number one now, followed by Bernie Sanders. But, of course, he’s got the biggest name recognition nationally. He was vice president for eight years under President Obama.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, that’s right. I mean, it is largely a factor of name recognition. But also, I mean, we have to think about those two runs. And what it showed—first of all, there was, as we’ve discussed, this astonishing gaffe in 1988, where he wasn’t just plagiarizing this British politician, by the way. It turned out that his speeches also had extensive passages lifted from Robert Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, unbelievably. So, you know, it’s kind of—it’s hard to explain this really sort of mental issue. But then that sank his—it’s not clear that his campaign was going anywhere, anyway, at that time.

And then, in 2008, you know, he didn’t even have that excuse of a plagiarism. I mean, he made an astonishing remark about Barack Obama early on, where he described him as “clean.” I mean, it was a very sort of racist—almost racist-sounding, patronizing remark. And he got nowhere. You know, he really sputtered in his campaign, sputtered and died.

So it’s pretty bizarre to me, this sort of—this cheering squad for Biden: you know, “Run, Joe! Run!” And I think, actually, what you—clip you showed, featured, of him at the firefighters’ convention yesterday, was very telling, because sounded like I can hear Donald Trump invoking, you know, low energy again. He didn’t sound like a, you know, ready-to-go politician at all to me. He sounded sort of rather weary. I have the feeling sometimes that he—in his heart, he doesn’t want to do it. That’s why we’ve had this sort of Hamlet performance for months now. And the people around him, all these longtime aides, this is their chance for, you know, a ticket in the big game, to be in on a big-time presidential campaign, and they’re kind of pushing him into it.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think, you know, if he does run, those poll numbers will come down in a hurry. He’s not an effective campaigner. He hates preparation. He hates like debate prep. He’s not a great fundraiser. He doesn’t like having to sort of kowtow to big donors to get money. He’s got such an inflated ego. I really think that he is not—I’m not the only person saying this; people who’ve known him for a long time think the same—that he would really—what he really wants is to be anointed—you know, “Please, Mr. Biden, please come and be our candidate. Please come and be our president”—without having to go through the hard grind, the incredible exhaustion, of a modern presidential campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew, could you talk about the media’s coverage of him? You are really among the first, if not the first one, in this period, to start really seriously analyzing Joe Biden’s record as a senator and then as a vice president. Then the rest of the media started, well, repeating some of what you had to say.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, yes. So, thank you. That’s kind. But that is true. But, I mean, the pack—you know, now they’re all busy at work, like CNN digging out that very damning clip you played earlier. And there’s going to be a lot more of that. I mean, already there’s things I didn’t know that are coming up. And just imagine what it’s going to be like when he has 12 other Democrats, you know, sort of chasing him around the ring. It’s going to be like Lord of the Flies or something. It’s, you know, the people—you know, oppo researchers can be pretty good these days, and there’s a lot to come out.

And he has—you know, he has so many deficiencies as a candidate, including, I should say, because the Republicans are already saying it, a “me, too” problem. I mean, if you look on sort of Republican websites and Twitter accounts, there’s a montage going around of Joe Biden with women at photo ops, including some quite young women—children, really—you know, apparently fondling them. I’m sure it’s all very just avuncular and everything, but as one person, one political fundraiser and operative, said to me—a lady said, “I was never talking to him when he wasn’t stroking my back.” You know, he’s very tactile, which, I’m sure, is entirely innocent. But, you know, don’t think that the Republicans won’t make a lot of lot of hay with that, and probably his Democratic rivals, too.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, I mean, you start with Anita Hill. He was head of the Senate Judiciary Committee when—well, we mentioned it in Part 1 of our discussion, but talk about exactly the role he played as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the Clarence Thomas confirmation, how he responded to Anita Hill first coming forward.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, very reluctantly. He didn’t really want to put her on. He was obviously just uncomfortable with the whole thing. I mean, he assured—you know, it’s a telling remark, because he—just before the hearings or at the beginning of the hearings, he was walking, I believe it was, Clarence Thomas’s mother into the hearings. And he said was the effect of “Don’t worry, Mrs. Thomas. You know, your son will be OK with us, or I’ll look after your son.”

You know, he fancies himself as a great sort of legal authority. And, you know, he—because he had done the Bork hearings, had gone quite well, from his point of view—Robert Bork, a previous Supreme Court nominee who the Democrats had managed to—you know, the Senate had rejected. And so, Biden, really, his view of himself as a sort of, you know, a great legal scholar was really inflated, so he fancied himself as having sort of serious legal discussions with Clarence Thomas.

And the fact that this woman, this black woman, was coming forward with some very—actually, very convincing stories of the true nature of Clarence Thomas was obviously unsettling to him. And then he panicked, because the Republicans mounted a very, you know, adroit and forceful pushback campaign against poor Anita Hill. And so, when there was—you know, he was offered two more witnesses who would back up what she was saying. He panicked and just wanted to close the whole thing down as quickly as possible before the Republicans broadcast more rude remarks about him.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of Anita Hill. Let’s turn to then-Senator Joe Biden, Senate Judiciary Committee chair, questioning Anita Hill in 1991.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Can you tell the committee what was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you have alleged?

ANITA HILL: I think the one that was the most embarrassing was his discussion of pornography involving these women with large breasts and engaged in a variety of sex with different people or animals. That was the thing that embarrassed me the most and made me feel the most humiliated.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Anita Hill being questioned by Senate Judiciary Chair Joe Biden back in 1991. In an interview with Elle magazine last year, Anita Hill noted Biden acknowledged he owed her an apology, but he never took the next step. Andrew?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, there you go. I mean, he said he owed her an apology but didn’t deliver. I mean, this is fitting. This fits in with Biden’s sort of general behavior. He doesn’t like admitting he was wrong. He doesn’t like—you know, he doesn’t like anything that sort of interferes with his self-image, which is, you know, strangely enough, that of a fearless fighter for the working man, despite his record; as a champion of civil rights. You know, as he said at Strom Thurmond’s funeral, where he gave the eulogy, he said, you know, “I was in—got into politics impassioned about the fate of black people and, you know, a champion of civil rights.” He really—I think he tells himself that. But it’s not true. And so, that, you know, he hasn’t even had the grace to call up Anita Hill and say, “Look, I’m really, really sorry for what happened to you,” is very telling.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew, we just—we have less than two minutes. But he already ran for president twice. What happened then, in 1988 and in 2008?

ANDREW COCKBURN: What happened, I mean, he ran for president twice and failed miserably both times. I mean, he was—it’s really astonishing that he’s considered a serious candidate at the moment, because, you know, his record in national electoral politics is abysmal. I mean, he was rescued by Obama in 2008, who wanted a sort of older white—sort of white elder statesman to balance his ticket. But, you know, I know—I do know that he drove the Obama team crazy, you know, trying to get him to stay on message, trying to get him to stick to the point, not to ramble on. He was terrible in debate prep. And, you know, his aides had to keep—to keep him focused, they kept saying to him, “Listen, just think three words: Air Force Two,” to get him to sort of toe the line, do what the Obama managers, who were pretty good at their job, were telling him to do and not sort of ramble off.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andrew Cockburn, I want to thank you for being with us, Washington editor for Harper’s magazine, his latest piece for Harper’s headlined “No Joe! Joe Biden’s disastrous legislative legacy.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

Also, to see Part 1 of our discussion with Andrew Cockburn, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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