Vice President Joe Biden’s decision not to seek the presidency is understandable and regrettable. Events, most especially the untimely death of his son earlier this year, seemed to conspire against his seeking the top job. As Biden said yesterday, the window had closed on the opportunity of mounting a viable candidacy. The window metaphor is accurate about more than the timing of a potential bid this year: The window has been closing for some time on politicians like Biden. His departure turns the page from one type of politician to a different, and to my mind, far less likeable kind.
Joe Biden is all heart. The man wears his emotions on his sleeve. Earlier in his career, when he would say precisely what was on his mind, such comments were deemed mistakes. This year, when authenticity seems to be prized above all, those “mistakes” might have been his calling card. For seven years, the highly emotive Biden was a good balance to the ever cool, no drama Obama. If Obama sees the world thru the lens of a policy wonk, Biden views the world through stories, stories about people, most especially his family. Aides recount endless tales of this uncle or that cousin, his mom and his dad, his siblings, all mixed in with discussions of policy. Biden never forgot that politics is about the polis, that the often abstract, complicated, compromised decisions made in Washington have a real impact on people’s lives. Like all politicians, he had to be cognizant of the desires of different interest groups, which have replaced the traditional party structures as the arbiters of elections, but Biden never saw the world in the myopic vision of the activists. He saw the world from Main Street, not K Street.
You cannot understand Biden unless you understand his profound rootedness in his faith. He was a social justice Catholic start to finish. Not many politicians can quote from Rerum Novarum except in prepared remarks. Biden could and did. For him, the mid-century alliance of labor and Catholicism was not a political strategy, it was home, it was Scranton, it was the wedding receptions in union halls and union meetings in Church basements. His commitment to the poor took many forms in his long legislative career, but the roots of that commitment were in the St. Vincent DePaul Society and the Society of Jesus, which is to say, in the Gospel.
Biden’s commitment to equal dignity for all persons was also rooted in his understanding of his faith. Unfortunately, the fight for equality in recent years has set the Church and the progressive movement at loggerheads, most obviously in the political and legal battles over same sex rights. I have heard churchmen fret that equality had become an ideological steamroller set to run over American culture in Jacobin-like fashion, which seems histrionic. And, I have heard advocates for equal dignity confuse their own message, demanding rights that they deny to others, all without blinking an eye, such as we see in the ACLU's efforts to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. I do not know how this unnatural conflict will play itself out, but I suspect it will play out worse than it would have if Biden was at the table.
My biggest disappointment in Biden was that his sense of solidarity with the excluded and the marginalized did not extend to the unborn. He was not alone. A string of politicians from Ed Muskie to Ted Kennedy to Al Gore abandoned their pro-life stances in the course of the 1970s. Interestingly, one of the most prominent Democratic women of that era, Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso, never abandoned her pro-life position. I wish the boys had done the same. I am certain that Biden’s change on the abortion issue grew, in part, from his sense of solidarity with women. He and his generation could not see the ways that the abortion license became an expectation, especially for poor women and women in high-powered careers: Instead of altering the social contract, and workplace cultures, to accommodate pregnant women and help them to flourish, the idea gained traction that pregnancy, the thing that most differentiates women, could be managed by this horrible procedure, indeed, that women’s autonomy depended on it. Now, the special interest groups on both sides of the issue have kept the discussion of our nation’s abortion policy stuck in a timewarp. Catholic women in high office have been attacked, personally and viciously, by pro-life zealots. Pro-choice zealots have a hold on the Democratic Party akin to the hold the NRA has on the GOP. If Biden is looking for something to do once he leaves office, he might usefully turn his attention the kind of common sense, broadly popular changes in our country’s abortion policies that characterize those in other Western nations, for example, wedding paid family leave to the 20 week abortion ban.
As noted at the beginning, Biden was the last of a type of politician. He was elected to the Senate in 1972. In that campaign, he did not have to spend five or six hours a day, every day, on the phone asking people for money. In 1972, garnering the support of local party officials still counted for something. Back then, politics grew organically out of society, it had not yet become an industry and politicians did not have to take a poll before saying what was on their mind. Our nation has not benefited from the changes in how campaigns are waged. The class of political consultants has emasculated most candidates long before they take an oath of office. It is a horrible thing to see. With Biden’s departure, all that is left are those politicians with the personal wealth to run for office and those who have submitted to the current praxis of being a fundraiser and a mouthpiece, not a human being, in the quest for office. It is all artificial and it is a large part of the reason we have gridlock in this country.
The way politics is done today will not produce another Joe Biden just as it won’t produce another John Boehner, two men who were both decent, both rooted in their middle class upbringings, who happened to reach vastly different conclusions about the direction the nation should take, but who never lost respect for each other. The United States will not benefit from the loss of this kind of politician. Our politics will become more gridlocked, more ideological, more impersonal. Something fine and human leaves the stage as Biden leaves the stage. It is hard to see how we can ever recapture that fineness and that humanity.