As a conservative watching the Democratic debates, one of the most astonishing aspects of the multicandidate assault on Joe Biden was that the case against him seems to be based in large measure on his role in two generations of Democratic victories. His “crimes” consist partly in playing crucial roles in the political successes of two previous Democratic presidents — men who were personally so popular that it’s entirely likely that they would have won a theoretical third term.
In key issue after key issue, Mr. Biden isn’t running against the failures of the past. He’s running against the arrogance of the present.
Let’s take, for example, his role in passing Bill Clinton’s signature anti-crime legislation, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Yes, it was tough on crime. It enhanced penalties; it expanded the death penalty; and it funded new police officers and new prison cells. It also contained the Violence Against Women Act and an assault weapons ban that wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance of passing Congress today. Moreover, it did not play a material role in mass incarceration, which is a product mainly of state prosecutions, not federal law enforcement.
And what two additional elements do Mr. Biden’s critics miss? First, it was passed with overwhelming Democratic support (including a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus), which means that most of his present critics — had they been in office at the time — would have also voted for the bill.
Second, the Clinton administration presided over a truly historic decrease in the crime rate. Yes, that decrease has many causes, but it is still true that violent crime fell, property crimes fell and tens of thousands of men and women are alive today because their towns and cities are far, far safer than they were when Mr. Clinton took office. Given our low crime rate, it’s time to try easing our nation’s punitive approach, but we have the luxury of policy experimentation in part because America’s war on crime worked.
And what of immigration? On Wednesday night, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York pressed Mr. Biden over the Obama administration’s deportation policies. He was attacking Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden for enforcing federal law. This was astonishing. By the standards of the present moment, the Obama administration’s immigration policies were not only progressive, the challenges on the southern border were minimal compared with what the Trump administration now faces. Illegal border crossings during the Obama administration were substantially fewer, on average, than during the Bush administration, and far fewer than the surge the Trump administration faces now.
At the same time, Mr. Obama pressed and exceeded constitutional limits in his attempts to use his executive authority to protect Dreamers and their families from deportation. Yet even that record is under fire because the Obama administration didn’t abandon deportations?
But it’s the health care debate that truly boggles this conservative’s mind. Mr. Biden is running not just on a defense of Obamacare but on an immense expansion of the most significant Democratic social policy victory since the Johnson administration passed Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Make no mistake, creating a public option for citizens to buy into government health insurance would have immense effects on the private health insurance market. Passing a public option would be a historic Democratic legislative achievement, even in a narrowly Democratic-controlled Senate.
But that’s just not enough. Obamacare was sold to the American public in part through a (failed) promise that Americans could keep the plans they liked.
“If you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” President Obama said in 2013.
Now single-payer advocates like Bernie Sanders attack Mr. Biden for saying pretty much the same thing — Americans can keep the employer-based plans they prefer.
From the crime bill to immigration to health care, Mr. Biden is facing attacks for his role in policies that Democrats can argue in good faith worked. Crime rates went down; Mr. Obama staved off a crisis on the southern border while protecting hundreds of thousands of Dreamers from deportation; and after Obamacare was put in place, the number of Americans without health insurance fell to an all-time low.
The arrogance of the present scoffs at these Democratic achievements. Instead, it declares that crime rates would have fallen even without Democratic toughness, that our nation’s immigration challenges would have been eased without conventional law enforcement, and that our health care system is so broken that Obama’s signature legislative achievement must be completely undone.
It’s one thing to attack Mr. Biden’s vote on the Iraq war. That was a Republican administration’s policy; it faced substantial Democratic opposition; and now even Republicans have largely rejected their own president’s great gamble. It’s another thing entirely to reject Democratic accomplishments of the recent past.
During the debate, I watched as Mr. Biden appeared genuinely and rightfully befuddled at the attacks on his record. But he was combating not only his own failures but the spirit of the present age. New orthodoxies form at the speed of Twitter. There is no respect for the wisdom of the past, and there is no understanding of the complexities of the challenges preceding generations faced. Success is taken entirely for granted, and failures are seen as a sign of moral defect. There is no grace, only judgment.
As the race rolls on, Mr. Biden’s best hope is that most Democrats have different memories and different priorities. Maybe a reason for his current polling dominance is that Democrats are proud of the policy successes of administrations past and grateful for his role in their success.
But Mr. Biden can’t coast on the fond memories of the Democratic middle. He has to better remind his voters why they hold him in such high regard. He helped them win. He played a key role in the party’s most significant achievements.
And what of his critics? Should they not understand that the forces of judgment they unleash now can be turned on them? The conventional wisdom of today will soon be deemed the backward thinking of yesterday, and then — perhaps — they will empathize with Mr. Biden’s incredulity that his successes are now deemed not just failures, but moral flaws.