Americans of all political stripes should be glad to hear that Vice President Joe Biden is not running for president.
Joe Biden was a bad senator. Not a bad senator meaning an ineffectual, inconsequential senator, like Jim Webb was. Joe Biden was actively and impressively bad. He achieved bad things. He won important victories that made life tangibly worse for real people. His biggest accomplishments—and he has more major legislative accomplishments than most senators—were fundamentally awful pieces of legislation, like the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which he wrote, and the 2005 bankruptcy bill, which he championed.
The crime law—which Joe Biden was still calling the “1994 Biden Crime Bill” earlier this year—expanded the scope of the racist prison-industrial complex and helped balloon America’s incarcerated population. The bankruptcy bill was one of the most nakedly corporatist and anti-consumer pieces of legislation of the entire George W. Bush administration. (It also had the secondary effect of exacerbating the subprime mortgage crisis.)
This is a shitty legacy. It’s so shitty that one can imagine wanting to spend a term or two as president to help erase the shittiness. Biden, thankfully, decided not to try. But the man clearly wants to do something. He’s got that legacy to think about, and he is likely more well-known (and well-liked) now than at any other point in his political life.
The good news is that there are things lifelong politicians can do, when they are well-known and well-liked, that are not running for president. Would any of those things be fulfilling to Joe Biden? Would he be good at those things? I don’t know. Here are some of those things anyway:
Head up the mass transit lobby
Joe Biden, as we all know, loves trains. This is one of those things about him that is regularly and easily used as grist for the “lovable goofball idiot manchild Joe Biden” meme—the guy loves choo-choos!—but it is a depressing fact that Biden is among the very few powerful and nationally prominent political allies of mass transit. Biden, for years the least-rich member of the Senate, took the train from his home in Delaware to Washington D.C. for the entirety of his Senate tenure. As Vice President he was put in charge of selling President Obama’s high-speed rail program.
There is, ostensibly, a “lobby” for mass transit—there is the American Public Transportation Association, the minuscule National Association of Railroad Passengers, and transit workers’ unions—but it is dwarfed by the lobbies and PACs representing auto dealers and manufacturers. Air and auto interests spend much more on lobbying than the rail industry, and rail industry spending is (obviously) dominated by freight rail companies, whose interests do not actually align with passenger interests all that often.
Joe Biden is not going to change the economic realities that give auto dealers, freight rail operators, and airlines more lobbying power than mass transit operators, but he can offer access and connections with an unquantifiable economic value. And he can advocate not just for Amtrak and high-speed rail, but for underfunded bus, light rail, and urban and suburban mass transit operators across the country. If you’re going to influence-peddle, why not influence-peddle for a good cause?
But there’s more to advocating for transit than lobbying for federal dollars. An ideological case has to be made, and a coalition assembled, to defend and expand transit access. In one of the brothers’ more cartoonishly villainous operations, organizations affiliated with and funded by the Kochs have already demonstrated a willingness to use their own powerful network of ideological allies to crush modest transit proposals in cities like Nashville and Albuquerque. There is no equivalent powerful national pro-transit coalition able to rally support (and attention) to these projects. Is Joe Biden the man to help build that coalition?
I don’t know, but trying to do so seems better than trying to be president.
Launch a new “50-State Strategy”
For some reason, various Democrats in the early 2000s had convinced themselves, with help from hack Republican strategists like Karl Rove, that the country was immutably conservative, and that Democrats had to either fundamentally remake themselves or else face a generational Republican majority on par with Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. (Few pointed out, at the time, that the president Rove claimed would usher in a durable Republican majority wasn’t actually even elected president with a majority of the vote.)
When failed 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean was put in charge of the Democratic National Committee in 2005, he put in place an ambitious plan to campaign in every state and congressional district, rather than just blasting money at a few key “swing” districts, as the DNC had traditionally done. In 2006, Democrats won control of Congress, and in 2008, they won the presidency as well.
This is not to give Dean too much credit. His strategy coincided with a couple very helpful political and demographic trends that he can’t take credit for (including, in 2006, the inescapable national recognition that the Bush administration was a dismal failure). But Dean’s approach at least seemed a more coherent strategy for strengthening the party at local and regional levels than anything that has come since. (See also: The Bernie Sanders critique that Barack Obama should have used his massive 2008 campaign infrastructure to rejuvenate the entire party following his wave election, instead of essentially putting in mothballs until 2012.) And while Dean’s strategy had no real effect on the complete conservative Republican takeover of the former Confederacy, it likely did boost Democratic Party fortunes in southwestern states.
The problem is that the Democratic Party has now become a party with a slight demographic advantage in national presidential elections... and severe structural disadvantages at the Congressional, gubernatorial, and state and local levels. Matt Yglesias isn’t wholly wrong to say that Democrats are complacent and in trouble.
Joe Biden may not be constitutionally suited to run the DNC, a difficult job that actually involves managing people and other administrative tasks that senators and vice presidents rarely engage in, but it wasn’t the RNC that trained and elected a generation of activist conservative shitheel state legislators. It was outsider-funded think tanks and nonprofits that created the new Republican majority.
Joe Biden has a rolodex of deep-pocketed Obama donors who were, until today, ready to write him big checks to lose a presidential election. Recruiting a generation of political talents to rescue (or seize) moribund local Democratic Parties, and reversing the various gains made by ultra-conservative Republicans in statehouses across the nation seems like a better use of their money.
Reform Delaware corporate law
Of the things listed here that Joe Biden could do, but very probably won’t do, this is both the unlikeliest and probably the most broadly beneficial to society at large.
Joe Biden’s home state, Delaware, is America’s own onshore tax haven. It is the easiest place in the country—and among the easiest places in the world—to set up a shell company. In addition to the race-to-the-bottom effect that Delaware’s corporate code has had on the other United States—depriving basically all of them of potential tax revenue from corporations located in those states but supposedly headquartered in P.O. boxes anonymous Wilmington office parks—Delaware’s lax incorporation rules and total commitment to secrecy make it a popular destination for those wishing to engage in corporate malfeasance, white-collar crime, or money laundering .
What could Joe Biden actually do to reform Delaware’s corporate law, especially when most of the state’s worst practices are enabled by lax federal rules regarding corporate behavior and transparency? Truthfully, probably not much, unless he can somehow convince the Delaware business leaders in whose pocket he resided for many years to support reforms that would limit some of the more creative methods of exploitative profit-seeking available in Delaware to anyone with a pulse.
But Joe Biden owes it to us to try to fix Delaware-style corporatism much more than he owed it to anyone to run for president.
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