Biden 2020 candidacy confronts Democratic Party with its past

The dust-up this week over Joe Biden’s praise of his working relationship with segregationist Democratic senators sharply underlines how his presidential candidacy is forcing a reckoning between the Democratic Party of today and the party of 50 years ago.

When Biden, who’s now 76, was first elected to the Senate from Delaware in 1972, Democrats relied on an electoral coalition that revolved primarily around working-class white voters, many of them conservative on cultural issues, particularly those involving race. With those voters in sight, Biden was one of many generally liberal Democrats during that era who took nuanced, or even openly conservative, positions on racially infused issues, including school busing and crime.

Biden now will force Democrats to decide whether those earlier views are still acceptable in a party that has moved left since then on all racially related issues, in response both to shifting attitudes in the country and the increasing diversity of its voters.

“His career is really a microcosm of the changes in the Democratic Party over the past half-century, all in one person,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and longtime Democratic policy analyst.

The electoral landscape that confronted Democrats of Biden’s generation is almost unimaginable for today’s younger party activists.

Biden, a lawyer, began his political career in 1970 by winning a seat on the county council of New Castle, Delaware, which included Wilmington, the state’s largest city. Two years later, he won election to the US Senate, just weeks before his 30th birthday. He served in the Senate for the next 36 years, until he joined President Barack Obama as his vice president in 2009.

Decades of change have reshaped the party not only demographically but also geographically. When Biden first arrived in 1973, the sustained Democratic majorities in Congress still depended partly on their dominance of House and Senate seats across the South. During Biden’s first session in the Senate, Democrats held about two-thirds of both the House and Senate seats from the region.

Southern Democrats, many of them still staunch conservatives who had resisted civil rights — like Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, each of whom Biden has cited as figures he was able to work with — accounted for one-fourth of the Democratic Senate caucus and nearly one-third of all Democrats in the House, according to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress.

Even in Biden’s era that meant it was impossible for more liberal Democrats to avoid working with the Southerners because the party only rarely had enough votes to pass its agenda if its Southern wing preponderantly voted with Republicans.

Over the span of Biden’s career, the country — and the Democratic coalition — experienced enormous demographic change. In the 1976 election, when Democrat Jimmy Carter won the presidency, whites without college degrees composed 70% of all voters, according to an analysis of census data by the nonpartisan States of Change project. Minority voters — almost all of them African-American — made up only about 11% of voters then, with college-educated whites providing the remaining 19%.

Even as late as 1992, when President Bill Clinton was first elected, those blue-collar whites still represented about 60% of all voters, with college whites composing about 25% and minorities the remaining 15%. According to the States of Change calculations, working-class white voters cast a majority of the votes in every presidential election until 2008 (when they represented 48% of the voters).

African-American voters were already reliable Democrats by the 1970s, having moved decisively toward the party after the passage of the landmark civil rights laws in the 1960s. But white-collar whites in that period still leaned heavily toward the Republican Party: During the three presidential elections of the 1980s, Presidents Ronald Reagan and then George H.W. Bush carried college-educated whites by at least 20 percentage points each time.

The result that Democrats in almost every state — and certainly in presidential elections — relied on an electoral coalition centered primarily on whites without college degrees and secondarily on African-Americans. In 1980, for instance, fully 60% of Carter’s votes in his losing race against Reagan came from working-class whites, according to calculations by longtime Democratic elections analyst Ruy Teixeira, one of the founders of the States of Change project.

“That’s a world that is gone, and it is easy for people to forget how different things were back then, both in terms of voting behavior and relative size of the groups,” says Teixeira, co-author of “America’s Forgotten Majority,” a 2000 book about the white working class.

By 2016, blue-collar whites, in stark contrast, accounted for slightly less than 30% of the votes that Hillary Clinton won. That was partly because the group continued its long-term decline as a share of the total vote (reaching 44% by the States of Change calculations), but also because it broke so decisively toward Donald Trump. Minorities, including growing populations of Hispanics and Asian-Americans, provided about 40% of Clinton’s votes, while whites with college degrees, among whom Democrats have gained strength steadily since the 1990s, contributed the remaining 30% or so.

Younger Democrats reared in a political world where the party mobilized that latter coalition, and built its congressional majorities despite Republican control of most Southern seats, have little experience with the choices the party faced in the 1970s and 1980s. The principal electoral challenge facing Democrats during the first decades of Biden’s career was crafting an agenda and message that could unite working-class whites and African-Americans.

“It was the central issue,” said Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who became nationally known from his studies of white working-class alienation from the Democratic Party in Macomb County, Michigan, after the 1984 election. “Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, were seen as very responsive to African-American voters in their time, yet they were also candidates who stretched to reach white working-class voters. You could not contemplate being successful and sustainable as a national party through Bill Clinton without making an imperative of (attracting) very strong support with both those groups.”

Tensions in appealing to coalition

Issues relating to racial equity were always the most vulnerable link in this chain. The Democratic reliance on white working-class voters in those years meant that their coalition included a significant number of whites who held conservative positions on race-related issues and even many with antagonistic views toward African-Americans. In the University of Michigan’s National Election Studies, a comprehensive post-election survey, at least 70% of self-identified Democrats opposed busing to achieve school integration in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984.

Even as late as 1994, in polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, fully 59% of all white Democrats, and 63% of white Democrats without college degrees, rejected discrimination as the principal cause of inequality and said instead that “Blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.” In Pew’s most recent polling, just 25% of all white Democrats, and 33% of them without college degrees, endorsed that view.

The party “had a significant number of very conservative, racially conservative, probably racist, Democrats in their coalition,” said Greenberg. “There was no other way to imagine it. That was your electorate. That was your state, that was your citizenry.”

Delaware, a state with a large blue-collar white population, embodied the tensions in the Democratic coalition. In 1970, the year Biden first held elected office there, census figures showed that 84% of the state was white, and just 14% of white adults held college degrees. For Biden, like most northern Democrats in those years, there was no path to electoral success that did not include a competitive performance among non-college white voters: If he allowed his deficit with them to grow too large, there were simply not enough other voters to overcome it.

With that electoral challenge as the backdrop, Biden followed a careful path on race-related issues throughout his long Senate career. Civil rights groups generally considered him an ally and praised his record on housing rights, voting rights, the passage of the Violence Against Women Act and his work as Judiciary Committee chair to win Senate ratification in 1994 for an international conventional on ending racial discrimination, fully 28 years after the US signed it.

But Biden also regularly frustrated civil rights activists. He “was a mixed bag,” said one leading civil rights lobbyist during those years, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about Biden’s record.

“He was certainly in the Democratic Party mainstream but he was to the right of center on some of the social justice issues of the times. He was always a supporter of voting rights; he was always a supporter of housing. He wasn’t John Stennis” — the segregationist Democratic senator from Mississippi — “he wasn’t a conservative Democrat or Republican. But he did have some issues where he was right of center. I think Joe has evolved. I don’t think there was any question about that.”

One of the most volatile racial issues Biden has had to confront is the one that intersects with gender: his handling of Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Republican Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. But two other policies that embody shifting Democratic sentiment will also provoke extensive debate.

One was Biden’s prominent role in the 1970s promoting legislation to limit the use of school busing to combat racial segregation. He wasn’t alone in that: Dozens of House Democrats, for instance, routinely voted for legislation to limit busing. But as historian Jason Sokol chronicled in his 2014 book “All Eyes Are Upon Us, Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn,” Biden was a leader in Senate efforts against busing, working arm in arm with archconservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina well into the 1980s.

“What Biden did is he made anti-busing more politically respectable,” said Sokol, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. Although busing was usually the only practical means to achieve school integration, Sokol says, “Biden claimed he was pro-integration but anti-busing, which was disingenuous, but that was the position a lot of (Democrats) were looking for.”

Choices defensible at the time?

Two decades later, Biden was a principal author of the crime bill that passed under Bill Clinton. A complex balancing act between liberal and conservative priorities, the bill provoked withering criticism at the time from conservatives, but in recent years it has faced unmitigated hostility from liberals and civil rights advocates who see it as a wellspring of mass incarceration.

Many centrist Democrats say Biden’s choices on these issues are defensible on substantive grounds. When Congress passed and Clinton signed the crime bill, for instance, the violent crime rate was nearly double its level today, according to FBI figures, and most African-American mayors and members of Congress supported the legislation. And busing was always deeply controversial, with polls showing whites overwhelmingly opposed and even African-Americans closely divided over the policy.

“Could opposition to busing be defended in the context of the times?” asked Galston, who served as Walter Mondale’s issues director in the 1984 presidential campaign and Clinton’s deputy domestic policy adviser. “Yes, definitely. Because it was a policy which was typically, though not invariably, judicially enforced that lacked public authorization or buy-in, and that rested on certain premises about what equal educational opportunity amounted to that were eminently questionable.”

The larger issue is not whether Biden can muster explanations for each of the positions he took on racially tinged debates decades ago. The real question may be whether a party that has moved to a very different consensus on those issues is better served by a nominee who ever held those views, whatever the justification, or one whose agenda and message have always reflected its modern racial perspective.

Teixeira says it would be a mistake for Democrats to “write off” older white politicians — and by implication older white voters — from Biden’s generation.

“It is just off to take people out of their historical context and judge them by the same norms we have today. It doesn’t help to understand who they are and what they did when they did it,” he says. “Politicians say stuff not just because that’s what they believe at the time, it’s because they are embedded in a certain political context in which they are trying to put together 50+1 (of the vote). And they have to be sensitive to the views of their constituency.”

Steve Phillips, author of the 2016 book “Brown Is the New White” and an advocate for increased Democratic focus on mobilizing nonwhite voters, doesn’t entirely disagree. But he worries that Biden remains too focused on mollifying the blue-collar white voters whose conservative racial views shaped his formative political years.

“He obviously said very troubling, outright disqualifying things, particularly during the busing days, given where the party and the country is at today,” said Phillips, who is supporting Cory Booker in 2020. “But you need to allow the potential for him to have grown and evolved. The concern is that the premise of his candidacy is his capacity to win over those conservative white working-class voters who still hold those views. That’s what is going to be the difficult needle to thread. Does he think his personality alone will attract them or will it be the issue set?”

On the other hand, even some veteran civil rights leaders frustrated with aspects of Biden’s record still consider him the party’s strongest potential nominee in 2020, precisely because he seems the best suited to win back the three Rust Belt states that Trump dislodged from the “blue wall” in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Early polling has found a stark generational divide in attitudes toward Biden, with the former vice president generating much more support among older Democratic voters than younger ones. The debate over his posture on race — which encapsulates the often wrenching evolution of the Democratic Party itself through his career — seems likely to harden that divide. Biden inflamed the issue by initially seeming to celebrate his ability to work with his segregationist colleagues in the earlier era, rather than presenting it as an inescapable necessity of the times. He’s since tried to stress his willingness to oppose them on issues such as the Voting Rights Act. But whatever lens he uses to look back, Biden’s candidacy may measure the tolerance of younger Democrats for the choices that their elders made to navigate a very different demographic and political era.