Sausage making according to Joe Biden
Recent comments weren’t nostalgia for the good old days of segregationists in Congress. They were nostalgic for the good old days when government worked despite segregationists in Congress.
Hair caught fire in Democratic circles last week, and a statement from Joe Biden, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, was both the spark and accelerant. With one or two words, Biden strayed again out on the American third rail of race, but made a deeper point that eluded much of the media, most of the candidates, and nearly all of the national conversation.
A lot of our understanding of Biden’s statement at a New York City fundraiser on June 18 has been undercut by the way it’s been edited, to suit the breathless shorthand dictates of television news and tweet-era attention spans. Consider the full statement, in which Biden attempted to drive home the importance of being able to negotiate in a sometimes hostile environment of a divided Congress, and to express how he navigated those waters in the past:
“I know the new New Left tells me that I’m — this is old-fashioned,” Biden said. “Well, guess what: If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president. That’s what it does. You have to be able to reach consensus under our system — our constitutional system of separation of powers.”
◊ ◊ ◊
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said, attempting to copy the pronounced drawl of the late Mississippi Democratic senator who headed the Senate Judiciary Committee. Biden said Eastland, “never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’” Biden also brought up the late Georgia Democratic senator Herman Talmadge, whom he described as “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.”
He went on: “[Y]ou go down the list of all these guys. Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
This fuller reading of Biden’s June 18 comments puts the generally peripheral assessments of two ardent segregationists in perspective, as piquant backdrop to his wider discussion of how progress in Congress used to be made, back in the hard, practical light of day.
◊ ◊ ◊
And it’s nothing really new; Biden said much the same thing to another audience, in Alabama in late 2017. “Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists,” Biden said. “You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.”
Cooler heads didn’t prevail in the hours and days after Biden’s fundraiser. Instead, Biden was almost immediately the target of progressive outrage. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker took lead umbrage with Biden’s Eastland comments, doubling down predictably on Eastland’s identity as a segregationist, but largely overlooking what Biden said about their relationship where it counted: in the halls of Congress. Others in the 2020 Democratic field of candidates piled on, as well as some of the media.
It didn’t have to come to this. A quick check of a ready resource for federal government information, a little online digging shows that Biden’s comments didn’t reflect nostalgia for the good old days of segregationists in Congress. They reflected nostalgia for the good old days when government worked despite segregationists in Congress.
◊ ◊ ◊
According to statistics from GovTrack.us, an independent monitor of federal legislation and legislators, there were 772 enacted laws, 903 passed resolutions, and 562 bills and joint/concurrent resolutions in the 93rd Congress, which started when Biden began his first term as a senator in January 1973.
The 110th Congress — the last one in which Biden was a member before becoming vice president in January 2009 — had 460 enacted laws; 1,435 passed resolutions, and 861 bills and joint/concurrent resolutions.
By contrast, the current 116th Congress, can so far take credit for 21 enacted laws, 225 passed resolutions; and 197 bills and joint/concurrent resolutions. It’s early yet; this Congress only convened on Jan. 3. But the amount of legislation passed up to now — six months before the 116th’s halfway point — clearly underscores Biden’s central assertion, lost in the rush to liberal anger: More things got done when Biden was in Congress than are getting done in Congress today. However clumsily it may have been expressed, however inconvenient it may be for the Democrats, Biden’s statement is provably, factually, correct.
◊ ◊ ◊
Biden was a victim of his own rhetorical expansiveness at the fundraiser; his offhand use of the word “boy” (ascribed to Eastland) took on an almost pejorative taint. However obliquely, Biden’s use of the word hijacked its true context. He slyly tried to invoke race without invoking race; he didn’t realize it then and he’d certainly deny it now, but he did.
It overnormalized a racist trope by trying to make it transferable, at least appearing to minimize its impact in the national culture generally, and its still-corrosive power among African Americans specifically. Biden thus hobbled an otherwise thoroughly defensible argument; it was not a good look for a candidate seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. It needn’t be fatal, but it is revelatory.
But don’t lose sight of the overall. The main thrust of Biden’s argument that night centered on the need to achieve compromise — to do what they were sent to Washington to do in the first place, by negotiating with the people they disagree with. In his dealings with Eastland, Talmadge and other retrogrades of Congresses past, and with these hard cases as his benchmark for the worst that Congress can be, Biden reflected a grasp of what seems to elude the Democratic candidates as a group: a command of realpolitik according to the United States, politics based in reality and the practical and the achievable, and not solely on principles or preferences.
It’s foundational to any government anywhere on the planet; ironically, it’s a fact that our bicameral, bifurcated government seeks to avoid: You make sausage with the kitchen tools you’ve got to work with. You make laws with the lawmakers available to make laws with you. And you get things done.