When Joe Biden makes his widely anticipated jump into the already crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the race is going to get a lot meaner. That’s not because the former vice president will necessarily go negative himself, but because his long record practically invites attacks from his left—and almost every major candidate is well to the left of the former senator.
Biden is one of the best known Democrats in the country, and enjoys relatively solid positives amongst the faithful, regularly topping opinion polls for 2020 even though he has not formally announced he’s seeking the nomination. Much of that can be chalked up to a perceived folksy demeanor and his time as former President Barack Obama's second-in-command. And then there's Biden's long record from the Senate—he served from 1976 to 2009—which, though it made him something of a household name in his party, also comes with a set of problems.
Team Biden surely knows a storm is coming. He can only coast so long on Obama-era goodwill before he has to make his own way, especially as the rose-colored glasses come off and Biden is forced more and more to run on—and answer for—his own long record in office.
"Biden currently enjoys the glow from the Obama era, which for all its major flaws was at least not nearly as bad as what we are experiencing under Trump," wrote Ryan Cooper in The Week. "But if he becomes an official contender, candidates from all sides are going to tear into his hide."
A number of left-wing activists, advocates, and observers are already taking aim at Biden's past—so much so that Biden's team is actively planning an elaborate pushback campaign as he readies his run for office. Reporting from the Daily Beast indicates Biden and company plan a wide-ranging defense that will concentrate on the former vice president's working-class background and, while acknowledging some missteps along the way, attempt to frame Biden's past as an evolving record of progressive achievement.
"He operated at a different time and environment and will have a lot to answer for," a former Obama-Biden aide told the Beast.
Biden's already trying to rewrite the record. In a recent speech, he said he had "the most progressive record of anybody running" before correcting himself to say "of anybody who would run."
If that’s the line he’s going to take, it’s going to result in a lot of pushback from activists like Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid, who pointed out a few of Biden’s less progressive positions:
Biden's perceived deficiencies are so numerous that they've created a cottage industry of humorous owns from progressives on Twitter:
Sometimes, of course, like in a March tweet from user @zei_nabq in response to a speech from Biden jokingly wishing his kids were Republicans, the message is more succinct:
Left-wing elements of the Democratic Party are more prominent than they have been in decades, and you don’t need to look far for critiques of Biden both jokey and vicious. The socialist magazine Current Affairs, in a post on March 19, pointed out that Biden gave a warm eulogy for segregationist Strom Thurmond, a move the magazine argued "should be disqualifying."
"Much more so than a candidate’s rhetoric or platform, a candidate’s record tells us what kind of president that candidate would be," said Ben Spielberg, co-founder of the left-leaning blog 34justice. "And Joe Biden’s record is replete with examples—on issues ranging from finance to immigration to race to foreign policy to more—of his prioritization of privileged people’s interests over the rights of everyone else."
"Biden isn’t the only Democrat the growing social justice wing of the party doesn’t want to see in the White House in 2020," Spielberg added, "but the list of good reasons to oppose his candidacy is by far the longest."
Maura Quint, a comedy writer who frequently comments on politics on Twitter, said that Biden is hoping that he can avoid engaging with the reality of his record based on the strength of his charm and American amnesia.
"Joe Biden's presidential aspirations seem to be based on the hope that we remember Joe Biden as that guy that was always smiling just to the side of President Obama and that that's all we remember about Joe Biden," said Quint.
But that's not going to work, Quint said.
"He definitely seems to hope we're not looking at his voting record, the one where he opposed desegregation bussing, voted for the Iraq War or voted against an incest or rape exception to the anti-choice Hyde Amendment," said Quint. "He doesn't want us to reflect on his bungling of the Anita Hill hearings, or how he defended billionaires last year, or how he called anti-LGBTQ Mike Pence a 'decent guy' just last month."
Jennifer Epps-Addison, president and co-executive director at the Center for Popular Democracy Action, agreed.
"Being a progressive means tackling the foundation of inequality in America — racism, sexism, unfettered capitalism — with bold, audacious solutions," said Epps-Addison. "Biden has long had a cozy relationship with banking and credit card industries, he voted for the Iraq War, was a key force behind the writing and passage of the ‘94 crime bill which fueled mass incarceration and he still supports the death penalty."
If Biden and his team are really going to try to say that it was a different time, said activist Sean McElwee, that's "fucking absurd." McElwee, who is a co-founder of progressive analysis firm Data for Progress (and who has written for VICE), pointed out that, in his view, other candidates who were around at the time aren't burdened with similar poor choices.
"Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden both had fully developed prefrontal cortices in 2005," said McElwee. "Both had access to all the facts and information necessary to make an informed decision. One chose to fight for the people and one chose to enrich the powerful."
Another tack Biden might take is to present himself as an alternative to the left-wing candidates in the race and appeal to the many moderate voters in the Democratic Party. In the recent past he has made comments that put him at odds with the party’s progressive faction, praising a Republican in a paid speech, trashing millennials, and saying “I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble.”
But it’s unlikely Biden will attract moderates en masse because that category of Democrat is far from a cohesive bloc. He’ll have to persuade at least some progressives of his bona fides — and that will be a difficult hurdle.
"I'm not sure what Biden thinks we want to see in our next president," said Quint. "I just know Biden's not it."
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Eoin Higgins on Twitter.