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From Crime Bill to Iraq War Vote, Biden’s Legislative History Under Scrutiny as He Enters Race

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Former Vice President Joe Biden has entered the 2020 race for the White House, becoming the 20th Democrat to seek the nomination in the largest and most diverse field of Democratic candidates ever to run for president. Biden will face scrutiny for his long and checkered record in the coming weeks, including his 1994 crime bill, that helped fuel mass incarceration with financial incentives to keep people behind bars, and his handling of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. Biden is also known for close ties to the financial industry and voting to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the weeks before Biden announced his bid for the presidency, at least seven women stepped forward to accuse him of inappropriate touching. We speak with Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor for Harper’s magazine, about Biden’s record. His recent piece is headlined “No Joe! Joe Biden’s disastrous legislative legacy.”

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StoryMar 13, 2019As Joe Biden Hints at Presidential Run, Andrew Cockburn Looks at His “Disastrous Legislative Legacy”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Former Vice President Joe Biden has entered the 2020 race for the White House, becoming the 20th Democrat to seek the nomination in the largest and most diverse field of Democratic candidates to ever run for president. Biden will hold his first fundraiser tonight in Philadelphia. It will be hosted by Comcast’s chief lobbyist, David Cohen.

AMY GOODMAN: In a campaign video released on social media this morning, Biden took aim at President Trump’s response to the 2017 “Unite the Right” march of white nationalists in Charlottesville. He began by talking about Charlottesville, the home of Thomas Jefferson, and then went on to talk about what happened most recently.

JOE BIDEN: It was there in August of 2017 we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis come out in the open, their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging, and bearing the fangs of racism, chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the '30s. And they were met by a courageous group of Americans, and a violent clash ensued. And a brave young woman lost her life. And that's when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were, quote, “some very fine people on both sides.” “Very fine people on both sides”? With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s Joe Biden announcing his run for president. As a longtime senator from Delaware, Biden has run twice before for the Democratic nomination. The last time was in 2008, when he ultimately became then-Senator Barack Obama’s running mate. Biden’s third bid for the presidency comes in a Democratic political climate that is notably more progressive than the last time he sought the nomination.

Biden will face scrutiny for his long and checkered record in the coming weeks, including his 1994 crime bill that helped fuel mass incarceration with financial incentives to keep people behind bars. Biden has also long faced criticism for his handling of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. At the time, Biden was the chair of the Senate Judiciary committee. 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.

AMY GOODMAN: One of Biden’s 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. He also voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the weeks before Biden announced his bid for the presidency, at least seven women stepped forward to accuse him of inappropriate touching.

Well, last month, I spoke with Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor for Harper’s magazine, about Biden’s potential run for the presidency and his recent piece headlined “No Joe!” “Joe Biden’s disastrous legislative legacy” was the subtitle. I began in Part 2 of this discussion by asking Andrew Cockburn about Biden’s role in the 1994 crime bill.

ANDREW COCKBURN: 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: That’s Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor for Harper’s magazine. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org.

When we come back, we look at a New York Times exposé detailing how Navy SEALs, who witnessed their platoon chief, Eddie Gallagher, commit war crimes in Iraq, were encouraged by their superiors not to speak out, and told they could lose their jobs for reporting him. Gallagher goes on trial for murder next month. We’ll speak with New York Times journalist Dave Philipps. Stay with us.

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Navy SEALs Tried for Months to Report Superior for War Crimes and Were Told to “Let It Go”

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