Opinion | The Gerontocracy of the Democratic Party Doesn’t Understand That We’re at the Brink – The New York Times

Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

If you want a sense of what separates much of the leadership of the Democratic Party from many of its supporters — of what illustrates their profound disconnect from younger cohorts of liberal and progressive voters — you could do much worse than to read this recent statement from Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.

“Some things take longer than others, and you can only do what you can do at a given time,” she said in an interview with Rebecca Traister of New York magazine. “That does not mean you can’t do it at another time,” she continued, “and so one of the things you develop is a certain kind of memory for progress: when you can do something in terms of legislation and have a chance of getting it through, and when the odds are against it, meaning the votes and that kind of thing.”

“So,” Feinstein concluded, “I’m very optimistic about the future of our country.”

This entire comment was, in Traister’s analysis, a damning example of the sanguine complacency that seems to mark much of the gerontocratic leadership of the Democratic Party.

I agree.

What’s missing from party leaders, an absence that is endlessly frustrating to younger liberals, is any sense of urgency and crisis — any sense that our system is on the brink. Despite mounting threats to the right to vote, the right to an abortion and the ability of the federal government to act proactively in the public interest, senior Democrats continue to act as if American politics is back to business as usual.

Earlier this year at the National Prayer Breakfast, to give another example, President Biden praised Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, as a “man of your word” and a “man of honor.”

“Thank you for being my friend,” Biden said to a man who is almost singularly responsible for the destruction of the Senate as a functional lawmaking body and whose chief accomplishment in public life is the creation of a far-right Supreme Court majority that is now poised to roll American jurisprudence back to the 19th century.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is similarly enamored of this rhetoric of bipartisan comity in the face of a Republican Party whose members are caught in the grip of a cult of personality marked by conspiratorial thinking and an open contempt for electoral democracy.

“It might come as a surprise to some of you that the president I quote most often is President Reagan,” Pelosi said at the ribbon-cutting for the Washington branch of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. “The good humor of our president was really a tonic for the nation, the gentleman that he was.”

And last month, she told an audience in Miami that she wants a “strong Republican Party” that can return to where it was when it “cared about a woman’s right to choose” and “cared about the environment.” Of course, the ideologically moderate Republican Party that Pelosi seems to want resurrected was largely dead by the time she entered national politics in the late 1970s, bludgeoned into submission with the notable help of Ronald Reagan, among other figures.

As I reflect on this attitude among Democratic leaders, I’m reminded of the historian Jefferson Cowie’s argument about the New Deal’s relationship to the American political order. In “The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics,” Cowie argues for an interpretation of the United States in the 20th century that treats the New Deal era, from the administration of Franklin Roosevelt to the 1970s, as a “sustained deviation from some of the main contours of American political practice, economic structure, and cultural outlook.”

The Great Depression and World War II may have “forced clear realignments of American politics and class relations,” Cowie writes, “but those changes were less the linear triumph of the welfare state than the product of very specific, and short-lived, historical circumstances.”

If this is true — if the New Deal was the product of highly contingent circumstances unlikely to be repeated either now or in the future — then the challenge for those committed to the notion of a government that protects and expands the collective economic rights of the American people is to forge a new vision for what that might be. “The path forward is not clear,” Cowie writes, “but whatever successful incarnation of a liberal ‘social imaginary’ might follow will not look like the New Deal, and it might be best to free ourselves from the notion that it will.”

I think you can apply a similar “great exception” analysis to the decades of institutional stability and orderly partisan competition that shaped the current generation of Democratic leaders, including the president and many of his closest allies.

They came into national politics in an age of bipartisan consensus and centrist policymaking, at a time when the parties and their coalitions were less ideological and more geographically varied. But this, too, was a historical aberration, the result of political and social dynamics — such as the broad prosperity of the industrial economic order at home — that were already well in decline by the time that Biden, Pelosi, Feinstein and others first took office.

American politics since then has reverted to an earlier state of heightened division, partisanship and fierce electoral competition. Even the authoritarianism on display in the Republican Party has antecedents in the behavior of Southern political elites at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

Millions of Democratic voters can see and feel that American politics has changed in profound ways since at least the 1990s, and they want their leaders to act, and react, accordingly.

Standing in the way of this demand, unfortunately, is the stubborn — and ultimately ruinous — optimism of some of the most powerful people in the Democratic Party.

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Source: Opinion | The Gerontocracy of the Democratic Party Doesn’t Understand That We’re at the Brink – The New York Times

Biden Has Not Changed. The Politics, Culture and Mood of His Party Have. – The New York Times

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. at a campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in April.
CreditCreditEric Thayer for The New York Times

Joseph R. Biden Jr. was addressing an elite audience, describing how as a young senator he had learned to work with Jesse Helms, the right-wing North Carolinian known for his fierce opposition to civil rights and his open loathing of gay people. He once believed Mr. Helms had “no redeeming social value,” Mr. Biden said, until a senior Democratic senator chided him, explaining that Mr. Helms and his wife had adopted a disabled teenager.

It was a moment of revelation, Mr. Biden said.

“It’s awful hard having to reach across the table and shake hands,” he said. “No matter how bitterly you disagree, though, it is always possible if you question judgment and not motive.”

The audience was Yale University’s graduating class of 2015. Mr. Biden delivered the speech as the sitting vice president of the United States. His remarks on Mr. Helms, who died in 2008, stirred not a hint of controversy.

As Mr. Biden seeks the White House four years later, his reminiscences about working with hard-line reactionaries — including segregationists like James O. Eastland and Herman Talmadge — have provoked an entirely different response. His evident nostalgia for forging compromises, even with racist figures like them, touched off a disruptive new controversy for his campaign, as liberal leaders and Democratic rivals accused him of being insensitive and out of touch.

The criticism has deeply angered Mr. Biden, according to associates, and he is said to be indignant over what he sees as politically motivated hectoring from rival presidential candidates. His reaction has crackled with the frustration of a man who feels he is being misunderstood and caricatured. Asked by a reporter about Senator Cory Booker’s demand that he apologize, Mr. Biden shot back: “Apologize for what?”

“He knows better,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Booker. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

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In other words, Mr. Biden seemed to insist, he has not changed — he remains the same man who left office in 2017 as a beloved figure among Democrats, and a friend to lawmakers like Mr. Booker.

Yet if Mr. Biden remains the same character he was two and a half years ago, the political and cultural environment around him is utterly different. Democratic politics is now defined by a mood of emergency, and a give-no-quarter ethos on issues like racial justice and abortion rights where liberals view their fundamental values as under assault.

Mr. Biden’s resistance to accommodating that mood may well come to define his campaign.

Stories that voters once heard as folksy tales of the last century’s Senate no longer sound so benign to an electorate convulsed by President Trump’s blunt appeals to racial animus. A majority of Americans believe race relations have worsened under Mr. Trump, and liberal constituencies appear far less receptive to the idea that even the worst racists can be negotiated with.

Cornell William Brooks, the former president of the N.A.A.C.P., said Mr. Biden had to recognize that the political times had changed more drastically than the passage of just a few years would imply.

“The White House has used racial and ethnic Balkanization as a campaign strategy, with xenophobia as a reliable theme,” Mr. Brooks said. “In this context, to talk about two segregationist senators as a measure of one’s civility is a false note.”

[The latest data and analysis to keep track of who’s leading the race to be the Democratic nominee.]

Mr. Brooks, now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said Mr. Biden had a “reservoir of credibility” with Democrats that left him room to correct course — if he would abandon Southern segregationists as a reference point in his rhetoric of conciliation and bipartisanship. Mr. Brooks took particular exception to Mr. Biden’s recounting of Mr. Eastland referring to him as “son” rather than “boy,” a term often applied dismissively to African-Americans.

“People appreciate you being able to cross the partisan aisle,” Mr. Brooks said, “but they also want to know where you draw the moral line.”

This is not the first time in Mr. Biden’s brief campaign that he has faced pressure to repudiate aspects of the worldview and political style that defined him as a senator and vice president. This month, Mr. Biden reversed his longtime opposition to government funding for abortion, after aides and women’s rights advocates impressed upon him that a conservative crackdown on abortion rights had transformed the political dynamics around the issue.

In April, facing criticism from a number of women who said he had made them uncomfortable with his physical manner — a trait that had long been in public view — Mr. Biden said he saw tactile contact as part of making “a human connection” but acknowledged, “Social norms have begun to change.”


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Joseph R. Biden Jr. was a two-term vice president and spent 36 years as a senator. But his front-runner status in the Democratic primary will be tested by the party’s desire for generational change.CreditCreditMaddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Mr. Biden also continues to face intensive scrutiny of his record on race and law-enforcement policy, particularly his role in negotiating a punitive criminal-justice law in the 1990s with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a former segregationist at whose funeral Mr. Biden delivered a eulogy in 2003.

Yet Mr. Biden’s belief in the power of bipartisanship, of looking past ideological and even moral lines to forge deals in government, is far more central to his political identity than even his views on abortion. His ability to reach out to conservatives and woo them to his side is fundamental to his campaign strategy and to his theory of governing: Mr. Biden has claimed that he could win states as red as South Carolina in the general election, and that he could jawbone even the Republican senators who thwarted the Obama administration’s agenda into cooperating with him.

[18 Questions. 21 Democrats. Here’s What They Said.]

In the big picture of politics, Mr. Biden may not have the worse end of the argument: A Pew survey published this week found that most Americans, including about 7 in 10 Democrats, said it was very important for elected officials to make compromises. But partisans on the left and right were mostly interested in having the other side make concessions.

Where Mr. Biden’s preference for comity intersects with foundational issues like gender and race, Democrats may have far less patience for his views. Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, said his research showed white progressives in particular had grown rapidly more alarmed about racism in recent years, with their shift in attitudes propelled by social media and the rise of Mr. Trump. As a consequence, they are far less interested in accommodating attitudes they see as reactionary.

“Being willing to do business would be, essentially, sullying yourself,” Mr. Kaufmann said, paraphrasing this view. “It would be a violation of the sacred, rather than seeing it as a transaction.”

Mr. Biden and his advisers continue to believe there are more than enough voters who will be sympathetic to his account of his record of maneuvering in the Senate. Kate Bedingfield, an adviser to Mr. Biden, stressed on CNN Friday morning that the point of the story was that sometimes it is necessary to work with people “whose views you find repugnant.”

She noted, “The vice president, I think, was frustrated that a story he’s told many times was being taken out of context.”

To Mr. Biden’s critics, however, it is the different context — the present — that matters most.

In his call this week for Mr. Biden to apologize, Mr. Booker chided him for not being more sensitive to the current political atmosphere — “a time when we have, in the highest offices in the land, divisiveness, racial hatred and bigotry being spewed.”


Source: Biden Has Not Changed. The Politics, Culture and Mood of His Party Have. – The New York Times

When Joe Biden Voted to Let States Overturn Roe v. Wade – The New York Times

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 1981. His changing record on abortion is getting fresh scrutiny as he considers running for president in a Democratic primary where women are expected to make up a majority of voters.CreditCreditGeorge Tames/The New York Times

It was a new era in Washington in 1981, and abortion rights activists were terrified.

With an anti-abortion president, Ronald Reagan, in power and Republicans controlling the Senate for the first time in decades, social conservatives pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow individual states to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that had made abortion legal nationwide several years earlier.

The amendment — which the National Abortion Rights Action League called “the most devastating attack yet on abortion rights” — cleared a key hurdle in the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 1982. Support came not only from Republicans but from a 39-year-old, second-term Democrat: Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“I’m probably a victim, or a product, however you want to phrase it, of my background,” Mr. Biden, a Roman Catholic, said at the time. The decision, he said, was “the single most difficult vote I’ve cast as a U.S. senator.”

The bill never made it to the full Senate, and when it came back up the following year, Mr. Biden voted against it. His back-and-forth over abortion would become a hallmark of his political career.

As Mr. Biden prepares for the possibility of a third presidential run, women’s rights leaders and activists in both parties are recalling these shifts on abortion, which are likely to draw fresh scrutiny in a Democratic primary race where women are expected to make up a majority of voters.

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Mr. Biden entered the Senate in 1973 as a 30-year-old practicing Catholic who soon concluded that the Supreme Court went “too far” on abortion rights in the Roe case. He told an interviewer the following year that a woman shouldn’t have the “sole right to say what should happen to her body.” By the time he left the vice president’s mansion in early 2017, he was a 74-year-old who argued a far different view: that government doesn’t have “a right to tell other people that women, they can’t control their body,” as he put it in 2012.

Abortion has long been a difficult issue for Catholic Democrats and leaders including former Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Many Catholic Democrats in government have cited their faith in explaining their personal opposition to abortion while taking stands to support abortion rights — and, in some cases, also holding positions in favor of some abortion restrictions. A Pew Research Center poll last fall showed Catholics divided on whether abortion should be legal.

An anti-abortion march in Washington in 1981, days after President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.CreditHerbert K. White/Associated Press

But some of Mr. Biden’s more moderate-to-conservative stances in his legislative record are raising questions in the party about whether he could win over an ascendant liberal wing eager to impose purity tests around issues of race and gender in 2020.

Even before announcing a candidacy, Mr. Biden has started trying to rebut those concerns, telling party officials in Delaware this month that he has “the most progressive record” of anyone running for president.

But the issue of abortion poses particularly challenging terrain for Mr. Biden. Efforts to restrict access to abortion by the Trump administration, and the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court, have heightened concerns among many Democrats that federal protections of abortion rights could be chipped away or eventually overturned — and that the next president needs to be a dependable ally on abortion issues.

“Anxiety is super high among women across the country,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion rights organization Naral Pro-Choice America. “Joe Biden is trying to carve out a space for himself as the middle, moderate candidate, and he’s going to have to really get with the times and understand that standing with abortion rights is the middle, moderate position.”

She added, “I can’t tell you if he’s there or not.”

Mr. Biden is already facing criticism from some women’s rights activists over his aggressive questioning of Anita Hill during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Clarence Thomas in 1991. Mr. Biden’s comment Tuesday that he wished he “could have done something” to give Ms. Hill’s claims of sexual harassment a more respectful hearing drew fierce backlash from critics, who pointed out that Mr. Biden was chairman of the Senate committee that questioned Ms. Hill. Some women’s rights leaders say Mr. Biden must offer a stronger and more personal apology to Ms. Hill, as well as clarify his views on a broad range of issues including sexual assault, harassment and Republicans’ efforts to limit abortion access. (Mr. Biden has spoken warmly about some Republicans and bipartisanship in recent months.)

[Read Michelle Goldberg’s column about how the abortion divide is getting deeper in states.]

Mr. Biden declined to be interviewed for this article. His spokesman, Bill Russo, said the former vice president is a supporter of the Roe decision who fought to protect abortion rights by mounting a fierce opposition to the nomination of a conservative judge, Robert H. Bork, to the Supreme Court in 1987.

“Because of that, Roe and its progeny have been preserved for 30 years. But for that effort, Roe v. Wade would not be the law of the land today,” Mr. Russo said.

Mr. Russo declined to detail Mr. Biden’s current views on specific policies he once supported, including banning all federal funding for abortion services and research.

What is clear from a review of Mr. Biden’s record in the Senate, his public statements as vice president and interviews about his comments in private meetings is that his position on abortion grew more liberal over his four decades in federal office.

“I’m prepared to accept that at the moment of conception there’s human life and being, but I’m not prepared to say that to other God-fearing, non-God-fearing people that have a different view,” he told the Catholic magazine America in 2015.

Mr. Biden has cast his evolution as a matter of wrestling with the teachings of his faith. But his shifting views also reflect a political calculation about the changing mores of his party in the 1980s and 1990s, when many moderate Democratic leaders, including Al Gore and Bill Clinton, altered their skeptical positions on abortion. Mr. Clinton, for one, sought to stake out a center-left position by saying abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”

Today, every candidate in the 2020 field supports abortion rights, with a dozen boasting a perfect scorecard from Naral Pro-Choice America.

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“The benevolent reinvention of Joe Biden is what’s unfolding,” said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, the former head of religious outreach for the Democratic National Committee, who was once criticized for what some party activists saw as conservative views on abortion. “His perspectives around a number of issues over the years were reflective of a different context and maybe even, if you will, a different time.”

In interviews during his first decades in the Senate, Mr. Biden said he supported the right to an abortion but opposed federal funding to pay for it. That position was shared by Mr. Gore and other Democrats who wanted to support abortion rights but were uncomfortable making taxpayers who were anti-abortion pay for it.

As Mr. Biden put it to U.P.I. in 1986, “If it’s not government’s business, then you have to accept the whole of that concept, which means you don’t proscribe your right to have an abortion and you don’t take your money to assist someone else to have an abortion.”

In the 1980s, he repeatedly voted against funding abortions as part of the health care plan provided to federal employees and in federal prisons, except in cases where it was medically necessarily for the mother.

Efforts to restrict abortion by the Trump administration and the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court have heightened concerns that Republicans could chip away federal protection of abortion rights.CreditSaul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In 1981, he crafted the Biden amendment to ban the use of foreign aid for biomedical research related to abortion. He repeatedly voted for the so-called Hyde amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion, including through Medicaid. Both policies remain in place today, despite efforts by Democrats to end the ban on the use of federal funds.

In 1984, Mr. Biden supported an amendment praising the Reagan administration’s “Mexico City policy,” which banned federal funding for organizations around the world that provide abortion counseling or referrals. In 2005, he voted against it, supporting an amendment that would have nullified President George W. Bush’s reinstatement of the policy.

A voter guide put out in 1987 by two abortion rights groups described Mr. Biden as having an “erratic” record on reproductive rights, writing that he had a “mixed voting and rhetorical record on the issue of whether women should have the right to choose an abortion.”

“Joe Biden moans a lot and then usually votes against us,” Jeannie Rosoff, a founder of the abortion rights research organization Guttmacher Institute, told The Wall Street Journal as Mr. Biden weighed whether to enter the 1988 presidential race. “It’s very difficult to know whether this issue is purely personal, purely political or a combination of both with him.”

At the time, opponents of abortion rights say they saw him much the same way as liberals: “Unreliable,” said Marilyn Musgrave, a former Republican congresswoman from Colorado and current vice president of government affairs for the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group.

“I don’t believe he’s made a public statement recently about funding, so I don’t know where he really stands on that now,” said Ms. Musgrave. “Perhaps he evolved on that also.”

Aides to Mr. Biden declined to say whether he still supports those specific policies.

As the years went on, abortion rights advocates recall, Mr. Biden spoke passionately in meetings about how his religious beliefs shaped his views on abortion. And they, with equal emotion, worked to reframe the issue as a matter of trusting women and their doctors to manage their health care.

“Biden’s struggle was genuine and heartfelt,” said Kristina Kiehl, an abortion rights activist who met with Mr. Biden during the 1980s and 1990s. “And I think we were very helpful in kind of guiding him into how this is O.K. and it’s the right thing to do.”

While Mr. Biden remains personally opposed to abortion rights, he has come to adopt a less restrictive position in public policy than he did earlier in his political career.CreditPete Marovich for The New York Times

As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987, Mr. Biden drew praise from supporters of abortion rights for sharply questioning Judge Bork about his opposition to a ruling that struck down birth control bans. In Congress, Mr. Biden repeatedly voted to give access to abortion services for members of the military, and in 1994 he voted to establish fines and penalties for barring access to abortion clinics. In interviews and congressional votes, he defended the Roe ruling.

But at other times, he sided with Republicans and conservative Democrats who were trying to limit abortion access.

When Republicans began introducing legislation in the 1990s that would outlaw a rare abortion procedure they termed “partial-birth abortion,” Mr. Biden emerged as a reliable ally. He voted for the ban, and then against efforts by President Clinton to veto the legislation in 1996 and 1998.

Those proposals did not prohibit a wide enough range of procedures, he argued in a speech on the Senate floor in 1997.

“It did not, as I would have liked, ban all post-viability abortions,” he said, backing a proposal by Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic majority leader, that would include an exception if the mother’s health was at risk. “I was and still am concerned that in banning on partial-birth abortions, we do not go far enough.”

In 2003, he backed a third ban that included no exception for the health of the mother, sponsored by Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania. That law moved through the courts for several years before being upheld by the Supreme Court in April 2007.

By that point in his career, Mr. Biden was running for president for a second time against Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom had voted against bans of the procedure. Mr. Biden cast himself as a strong supporter of abortion rights and criticized the court’s ruling as “paternalistic,” worrying that it could be a step toward overturning Roe.

“I was 29 years old when I came to the U.S. Senate, and I have learned a lot,” he said in a 2007 interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Look, I’m a practicing Catholic, and it is the biggest dilemma for me in terms of comporting my religious and cultural views with my political responsibility.”

When Mr. Obama picked him as vice president more than a year later, some abortion rights advocates worried about Mr. Biden’s record. But they felt confident that Mr. Obama’s more liberal views on the issue would prevail, recalled Kate Michelman, a former leader of Naral.

“Joe Biden continued his evolution on the issue under Obama. He got there,” she said. “I can’t say for absolute, 100 percent, but I would trust him as president to protect and defend a women’s right to choose.”

Kitty Bennett and Isabella Grullón Paz contributed research.


Source: When Joe Biden Voted to Let States Overturn Roe v. Wade – The New York Times