Joe Biden, Tiffany Cabán and Democrats’ Two Paths Forward
The stories provided a striking contrast, a portrait of the Democratic Party’s past and a glimpse of its possible future.
Just after midnight on Wednesday, 31-year-old Tiffany Cabán claimed victory in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney, an announcement that ignited chants of “DSA” during her campaign’s watch party at the La Boom nightclub in Woodside, N.Y. (Members of the Democratic Socialists of America were among her most active volunteers and canvassers.) Cabán, a self-identified queer Latina from Richmond Hill, N.Y., who received endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has vowed a wholesale decriminalization of poverty.
Mere hours before, The New York Times reminded readers precisely what she and her fellow progressives are up against, both nationally and within their own party. In a new report tracing his long and ignominious career in the Senate, journalists Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Astead W. Herndon present the case that former Vice President and 2020 hopeful Joe Biden was not merely a foot solider in a decades-long war on crime but one of its chief architects—and that his work with segregationists in the Senate was far more extensive than he has led voters to believe.
“While Mr. Biden has said in recent days that he and [James O. Eastland] ‘didn’t agree on much of anything,’ it is clear that on a number of important criminal justice issues, they did,” the report reads. “As early as 1977, Mr. Biden, with Mr. Eastland’s support, pushed for mandatory minimum sentences that would limit judges’ discretion in sentencing. But perhaps even more consequential was Mr. Biden’s relationship with Mr. Thurmond, his Republican counterpart on the judiciary panel, who became his co-author on a string of bills that effectively rewrote the nation’s criminal justice laws with an eye toward putting more criminals behind bars.”
From the time he entered the Senate in 1973 to the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Joseph R. Biden adhered to a single guiding principle when it came to criminal justice—one that he articulated on the floor of the Senate following the bill’s ratification: “Lock the S.O.B.s up.” As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Stolberg and Herndon write, he helped shepherd “three of the most significant pieces of crime legislation of the 20th century.” These included the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and established draconian penalties for possession of crack cocaine, respectively. The subsequent crime bill, enacted under President Bill Clinton, effectively codified “three strikes and you’re out” by sending repeat violent offenders to jail for life, among numerous other measures.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society,” Biden told his fellow members of Congress in 1993. “I don’t want to ask, ‘What made them do this?’ They must be taken off the street.” Separately, the Delaware senator noted that “One of the things I want to do, in addition to end the crime, is end the political carnage that goes on when we talk about crime. This is one of these issues that I hope, after this bill, will be moved out of the gridlock category and into an emerging consensus.”
In the decades since, Stolberg and Herndon are careful to note, Biden has expressed a measure of remorse about some of the initiatives he helped champion. Even as he was whipping votes for the Clinton crime bill, he acknowledged that mandatory minimum sentencing was “counterproductive” and later, after the legislation was signed into law, that the three-strike provision was “wacko.” Biden has also recognized that his policies have disproportionately punished African Americans. (According to a paper from The Sentencing Project cited by the Times, the percentage of the black population incarcerated in some shape or form between 1989 and 1995 climbed from 23 to 32 percent.) “I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then,” he admitted in 2008, “because I think the disparity is way out of line.”
But what the Times report intimates, if not explicitly argues, is that despite extensive ties to the black community, Biden has consistently bent to the will of his white constituents—a first loyalty that endeared him to Dixiecrats like Eastland and Thurmond, the latter of whom he eulogized as a “consummate public servant, dedicated to the proposition that the political system is not an end in itself, but an arena for doing the public good.” And however he has evolved on criminal justice reform, Biden continues to defend the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, telling CNBC in 2016 that the legislation “restored American cities” even as it has decimated African American families. As Thomas Frank wrote for The Guardian during Hillary Clinton’s run for president that year, “Bill Clinton’s crime bill destroyed lives, and there’s no point denying it.”
Twenty-five years after the legislation’s passage, Queens County, whose population is bigger than the populations of 16 states, is set to elect a DA who has pledged to work toward “population zero” in the city’s prisons. “We have built the most powerful, the most diverse, the most beautiful coalition that a borough-wide race has ever seen,” Cabán tweeted early Wednesday morning: “From formerly incarcerated folks to sex workers to undocumented immigrants to community-based organizations & activists to local & national elected officials.” It’s a coalition that could spell the end of mass incarceration and, perhaps, a rebirth of the Democratic Party nationwide.
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