Though his consistently favorable ratings might suggest otherwise, Vice President Joe Biden forged his lengthy political career by convincing Americans that he is someone he is not. This was once again evident yesterday, when President Obama bestowed upon him the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The fact that Biden received the medal is problematic enough — the honor must mean little if it can be given to one’s vice president for no particular reason — but the reaction to the award was particularly telling. Liberals and conservatives alike took to Twitter to praise Biden for a long career of service to America, for rising above partisan politics, for showing us that there is reason to laugh amid tragedy.
Perhaps the constant laughter Biden evokes is the best example of how he achieved this supra-partisan status. The series of memes inspired by whimsical Biden pictures say it best: Americans view him as aw-shucks “Uncle Joe,” a man whose goofy, fun-loving ways and optimistic spirit transcend hostile partisanship and give us all something to love about our usually nasty political arena.
But in fact, Biden’s career serves as a neat summary for much of the ruthlessness that Americans hate about our government, and he has managed to use his gaffe-prone nature to disguise his record of intense, bitterly partisan politicking. This trick was perhaps never more evident than in his egregious treatment of Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork — whom he successfully prevented from reaching the Court — and his similar but failed effort to prevent Clarence Thomas’s confirmation. Biden treated these two men disgracefully and in doing so played a crucial role in distorting our judicial-confirmation process so severely that it will likely never recover.
Serving as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, Biden initially promised to vote for Bork’s confirmation but quickly fell in line with Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy, who lied about Bork’s character and described “Bork’s America” as “a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions.” Moreover, Biden leveled a number of deeply unfair accusations at Bork. Among them: “It appears to me that you are saying that the government has as much right to control a married couple’s decision about choosing to have a child or not as that government has a right to control the public utility’s right to pollute the air.”
The successful effort to torpedo Bork not only improperly politicized the confirmation process, it also led to the appointment of Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court, a decision that changed decades of American jurisprudence. For one thing, had Bork made it onto the Court instead of Kennedy, 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey likely would have overturned at least parts of the endlessly flawed Roe v. Wade decision, and several other key court cases would have been decided by a conservative majority. Biden also used his position as chairman of the Judiciary Committee to delay appeals-court nominees for months on partisan grounds, and he spearheaded the successful effort in 1986 to cast Jeff Sessions as unfit for a judgeship because of his supposed racial animus, going so far as to pressure a key witness into testifying against Sessions despite their friendship.
Biden’s career serves as a neat summary for much of the ruthlessness that Americans hate about our government.
And though he was unable to block Thomas’s confirmation, despite utilizing similarly distasteful tactics, Biden managed to tarnish the man’s reputation so badly that the justice has never quite recovered in the eyes of many Americans. Biden’s example set a trend for progressives, making it acceptable to label black conservatives as inadequate representatives of their race because of their views. This attitude likely fueled the Smithsonian Museum of African American History’s exclusion of Thomas from its displays, and it motivates racist attacks against conservative leaders such as Ben Carson and South Carolina senator Tim Scott.
Aside from these nasty instances of partisan politics, Biden bears some responsibility for permitting his party to increasingly dogmatize the issue of abortion over time, as he lionized the decision in Roe and since that time has consistently supported most “abortion rights.” Though the logic of progressivism is arguably such that abortion would have found a foothold in the Democratic party no matter what, Biden and his contemporaries made it nearly impossible for truly pro-life politicians to remain within their party. If they had set a principled example, their party might not have so quickly established a woman’s right to an abortion as a central plank of its platform and as a litmus test for all who call themselves Democrats.
Along with Kennedy, Biden pioneered the normalization of Catholic, Democratic politicians who were “personally pro-life” but who, in the words of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, refused to “impose” that view on the rest of Americans. He did continue to vote against partial-birth abortion and federal funding of the procedure, but Biden undoubtedly forfeited his opportunity to be a voice for the unborn and turn his party away from the evil of abortion. This moral recalcitrance reveals him to be a weak man, one who knew that abortion is the murder of the innocent and yet, for decades, did nothing. What’s more, he time and again spoke up in favor of a woman’s government-protected right to that murder.
Many people have related touching stories of Biden’s personal kindness to them, and his resilience in the face of his own tragic circumstances cannot be discounted. But the unequivocal suggestion that such a divisive politician — and one who played such a prominent role in the instantiation of the pro-abortion agenda — represents the best of American politics requires ignoring his record in favor of laughing at his memes.