Forgiving Joe Biden

What Uncle Joe really does for Democrats.

The day that made Joe Biden vice president was the worst day of his public career: the brisk afternoon of Jan. 22, 2007.

Biden had lunch by the Wilmington train station that day with a New York Observer reporter, Jason Horowitz. The senator argued over a bowl of tomato soup that he was by far the best qualified Democrat to be president.

Biden was a font of faint, damning praise — especially about the young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

And so Biden then launched his campaign into a shitstorm composed equally of offense and eye-rolling.

Obama wasn’t among those taking offense though.

"I didn't take it personally and I don't think he intended to offend," the candidate said, an early glimpse of his political instinct when confronted much later even with the blatant bigotry of birtherism. Pressed later on the point that others, like Jesse Jackson, might be offended by Biden’s words, he elaborated that “obviously they were historically inaccurate.”

Biden’s campaign that year never exactly took off. He spoke endlessly to small crowds, hopped eagerly on the phone with reporters to talk about his plan to divide Iraq into three parts, and generally missed a moment that turned out to be, well, this moment — about voters desperate for change and alienated from the system, not about voters in search of a steady, experienced hand.

Biden took less than 1% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, and promptly dropped out of the race. ("I ain't going away,” he said, accurately.)

And then, eight months later, he was back, suddenly on the ticket with the guy who had brushed off his slight. The official explanation was conventional: foreign policy expertise, “gray hair,” a foil for John McCain.

Obama said nothing about Biden’s gaffe, or about race. That wasn’t unusual. The man who would become the first black president was navigating the politics of race in America with unprecedented dexterity, and mostly by avoiding talking about race at all. Republicans sure didn’t want to talk about race. Nobody really wanted to pull a Biden. And as a result, surprisingly little of the overt campaign conversation was about race — and reporters and politicians alike were slow to see racial animus in the fervid opposition to Obama that mounted in 2009 and 2010.

During the campaign, Obama departed from his strategic avoidance of a direct conversation about race only once: in his famous “race speech,” which had been forced by videos of his sometimes-radical pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The speech was complex, with many audiences and goals; one audience, surely, was white voters who might at some point have spoken or thought the sort of casual racism that had come out of Joe Biden’s mouth.

“I can no more disown [Wright] than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe,” he said.

It was a powerful message.

And when Obama faced what was, in a sense, his first real governing choice, he ratified those words by choosing Biden — the embodiment of a kind of white American man, and of the word “cringe.”

Obama didn’t have to explain the gesture; he’d found that talking about race at all undermined your messaging about race. But by choosing Biden he telegraphed to white voters what kind of first black president he would be: He would be the kind who didn’t mind the occasional screw-up, who knew you meant well. When Obama won, he carried a higher share of white voters than Al Gore or John Kerry had, and more than Hillary Clinton would.

But if Biden’s utility to Obama was that ritualistic forgiveness of white racial sins, it’s pretty hard to see why Biden is running for president in 2020. His campaign is stumbling toward launch with all the hallmarks of a Jeb!-level catastrophe — a path that leads straight down. His public persona, always teetering on the brink of being a running Onion joke, is now the subject of a different kind of discomfort, the story of a powerful guy who kisses a woman he barely knows on the head.

This is a pessimistic, unforgiving moment, and Biden’s habit of touching women — not exactly new news — is being taken more seriously than his “articulate” and “clean” line ever was. Rereading Obama’s race speech, the line that actually seems the hardest sell to 2020 Democrats was the 2008 nominee’s condemnation of Wright’s own politics as a “profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.”

These days many Democrats saw Andrew Gillum’s harder-edged response to his opponent last fall as the right path: "Now, I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum said of his Republican rival for the governorship of Florida, Ron DeSantis, during a debate. “I'm simply saying the racists believe he's a racist.”

So Joe Biden isn’t going to emerge from the 2020 campaign as the nominee. You already knew that.

But he has renominated himself for the role he played in 2008: Someone’s going to have to forgive him.

Biden is, again, the stand-in for a generations of Americans disoriented by changing mores, perhaps by the notion of a female president. Sen. Kamala Harris, or whoever the nominee is, can’t make Uncle Joe vice president again, but expect a big hug on the convention floor, and expect to cringe a little.

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