The trouble with Biden

As they begin their search for a nominee, most Democrats — more than half, according to a February poll from Monmouth University — prize electability above all else.

But beating President Donald Trump isn’t the same as beating Trumpism. Unseating the president won’t automatically undermine the white resentment and racial chauvinism that drive his movement. That will depend on the nature of the campaign against him and whether it challenges the assumptions of his ideology or affirms them in the name of electoral pragmatism.

The possibility of defeating Trump without defeating Trumpism looms over Joe Biden’s possible run for the 2020 Democratic nomination. The former vice president’s not-yet-candidacy centers on his appeal to the white, blue-collar workers who rejected Hillary Clinton. He believes he could have won them in 2016, and he thinks he can win them now. As a senator from Delaware, Biden understood himself as a staunch defender of Middle American interests.

But those interests were racialized, which is how a younger Biden could at once be a committed liberal and an ardent opponent of busing to desegregate his state’s public schools. As a recent article in The Washington Post demonstrated, Biden was at the forefront of opposition to busing in Delaware. The rhetoric he deployed in defense of his position channeled the hostility of whites whose children were bused or whose schools took in bused children.

“I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race,’ ” Biden told a Delaware-based weekly newspaper in 1975. “I don’t buy that.”

Biden made his argument using language that is still common to opponents of efforts to rectify racial inequality: “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

Busing did its job — integrating schools and improving outcomes for black students — but many whites viewed it as an encroachment on the privileges afforded them in a racially stratified society, what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “psychological wage” given as compensation for racial solidarity. These Americans thought they could keep black children out of their schools and neighborhoods. Busing meant they couldn’t, and they were angry.

That is why a segregationist like former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms had kind words for Biden’s position, welcoming him “to the ranks of the enlightened.” Biden made a straightforward defense of white racial advantage. And while Biden tried to distance himself from outright demagogues like George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama and presidential candidate, his rhetoric was on the same wavelength.

“The real problem with busing,” he said, was that “you take people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school … and you’re going to fill them with hatred.”

Politically, Biden’s position made sense. Most white voters in Delaware opposed busing. And just three years earlier, the Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, had prompted a revolt among working- and middle-class whites with his defense of the policy.

“Support for it was a difficult case to make to white working people who felt that integration was taking place on their backs,” historian Jefferson Cowie explains in “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.” “Immediate defense of white identity, home and school readily trumped the abstract hope of a better world someday.”

Biden’s sensitivity to the fears and anxieties of his white constituents helps explain his positions on drugs and crime in the 1980s and 1990s. He was an ardent drug warrior and “tough on crime” Democrat who hoped to outflank the Republican Party on those issues. “One of my objectives, quite frankly, is to lock Willie Horton up in jail,” he said in 1990 when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That line, which refers to a notorious political ad from the 1988 presidential election, gets to the heart of Biden’s appeal in that era. His central work on the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, like President Bill Clinton’s later support for welfare reform, was part of a larger effort to position the Democratic Party as both a defender of white middle-class interests and as a disciplinarian — in clamping down on assumed black pathologies of criminality, promiscuity and dependency.

No one is their past, however, and it is possible Biden has redeemed himself through his association with Barack Obama’s historic presidency. And Biden has been supportive of civil rights laws as well as a strong ally to groups like the NAACP. At the same time, however, the former vice president has only tentatively addressed his intimate role in building the modern incarceration state, and he still defends his position on busing.

A Biden candidacy may be one where he tries to capture the supposed center of American politics by presenting himself as the real embodiment of working-class white identity against Trump’s inauthentic embrace of the blue-collar worldview.

Consider the message this would send. For decades, Biden gave liberal cover to white backlash. He wasn’t an incidental opponent of busing; he was a leader who helped derail integration. He didn’t just vote for punitive legislation on crime and drugs; he wrote it. His political persona is still informed by that past, even if he were to repudiate those positions now. Biden could lead Democrats to victory over Trump, but his political style might affirm the assumptions behind Trumpism. The outward signs of our political dysfunction would be gone, but the disease would remain.

Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.