There are some things worth losing over. Don’t be involved with this for the politics of it. Be involved only if you believe in something.
—Joe Biden to Delaware Democrats, March 1996.
It is no small irony that Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was born in the cradle of the New Deal order he would later help dismantle. Neither Biden nor the United States is unique in this respect. Look at just about any developed country’s generous postwar welfare state, and among its rich and powerful foes, you’ll find many who benefited most from its generosity, only to turn against the system that created them, convinced they had done it all on their own.
The Irish heritage Biden would stress throughout his public life was only part of his family history. His parents met in high school: Joe Sr was born to the daughter of a French family with roots in colonial times and a Baltimorian who may or may not have hailed from England; his mother, Jean, to the Scranton son of Irish immigrants and the daughter of a Pennsylvania state senator. “Your father’s not a bad man,” Biden later recalled his Irish aunt telling him. “He’s just English.” Though recounted in jest, Biden’s later approach to various foreign conflicts would suggest he had in fact internalized something from this family lore about the immutability of ancient sectarian grudges.
The hyper-focus on the middle class that would define Biden’s politics may well have been shaped by his own father’s struggles. Joe Sr had started out with meteoric success, brought into a burgeoning business by his wealthy uncle who held the patent for a sealant for coffins. Once the Second World War took off, so did the business, which by that point had moved beyond sealant to supplying armor plate, mostly for merchant marine vessels making the dangerous journey across the Atlantic. When Congress passed a law mandating their armor on every US ship trading in the North Atlantic, the business boomed, with Joe Sr, his uncle, and his cousin running the operation across three different locations: Boston, New York, and Norfolk, Virginia, respectively.
But once the war was over, so was the government largesse, and as Joe Sr searched for his next venture, he suffered a string of bad luck. Planning to buy a building in downtown Boston and turn it into a furniture store, his business partner absconded with their money. Purchasing an airport and a couple of planes for a crop-dusting business, Joe Sr. struggled to secure contracts, while his cousin, his partner in the venture, squandered what was left of his wartime fortune. His uncle (and financier) pulled his capital. After years of expensive and generous living as a federal defense contractor — hunting pheasant on the weekend and buying dazzling toys for his infant son — Joe Sr and the family, now mired in debt, moved in with Jean’s parents in Scranton only three years after the end of the war.
Though the young Biden and his three siblings spent their earliest years in that crowded but loving house in Scranton, their father’s employment prospects would force the family to relocate several times. They first moved when Biden was ten to the outskirts of Wilmington, where Joe Sr had been commuting every day — a nearly three-hundred-mile round trip. In 1955, they moved to Mayfield, a suburb of Wilmington populated by employees of DuPont, the family and company that had shaped and controlled Delaware’s politics and economy for more than a century.
“America seemed to be remaking itself for our postwar generation,” Biden later recalled. “There were new houses, new schools, new car models, new gadgets, new televisions, and new television shows with people who looked just like us.”
The Bidens benefited from this beyond just their father’s wartime business success. The suburban dream they were entering was the direct outcome of the postwar New Deal order, as the federal government subsidized a construction boom concentrated in the suburbs. And just as the US military would in essence become the largest government jobs program in the decades ahead, indirectly subsidizing the conservative activists in places like Orange County who leveraged this comfort to get the government off their backs, the government’s fingerprints were wiped just clean enough from all this to convince postwar suburban America it had been a happy accident.
But that dream was not all hunky-dory. Although Delaware, a former slave state that waited until 1901 to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, had a long history of racism, Biden would later explain that he “had just assumed everyone treated everyone fairly” until he worked as a lifeguard on the predominantly black east side of town during his first year of college. While no doubt an exaggeration — he also later told a biographer that he was “always the kid in high school to get into arguments about civil rights” — Biden’s naïveté was entirely plausible given that the government-subsidized postwar housing boom in Delaware and elsewhere was explicitly geared toward ensuring racial segregation, sending affluent whites scurrying for suburban communities that African Americans were excluded from. By 1977, Wilmington’s public schools were 85 percent black, while suburban schools were around 90 percent white.
The young Biden probably wasn’t aware of just how deep this went. He wouldn’t have known that Delaware’s public schools were explicitly and legally created to be segregated and unequally funded, or that the University of Delaware had only admitted its first black student around the time his family moved to the state. He may well have been oblivious to the way that the state, particularly Wilmington, promoted suburban, mostly middle-class white interests at the expense of inner-city, mostly poorer black ones; that the city’s public housing authority engaged in “urban renewal” and federally subsidized slum clearance that tore down black neighborhoods without replacing them, displacing countless families of color; or how the fiercely contested construction of the I-95 highway through the city in the 1960s did likewise, so that car-owning suburbanites could leapfrog a desolate downtown.
Biden may not have consciously internalized all this. But the city’s tendency to prioritize predominantly suburban, middle-class interests at the expense of its minority populations would come to embody Biden’s political approach.
From the Middle
Very few politicians come within a heartbeat of the US presidency without a lifetime of plotting out their rise, and Joe Biden was no different. After overcoming a debilitating stutter in childhood — the first in a lifetime of personal setbacks Biden would struggle to overcome — he set his sights on politics, startling those around him with his presidential ambitions.
“It was soon after we met him, before they were even married, before he even got into politics,” his first father-in-law, Robert Hunter, later recalled. “By God, he came up one day and said he was going to be governor first, and then president of the United States.” When his future mother-in-law asked the college junior the same question, the response was identical: “President.”
Biden would deny this again and again over the years, always insisting that he started out with no grand ambitions, that he was simply taking things as they came. During one speech in Wilmington, he repeated this claim only for a nun in the audience to produce a sixth-grade essay he’d written about wanting to grow up to be president. And he wasn’t the only one who believed the White House was his destiny. “From the first day I went to work for him, people said [to Biden], ‘You’re going to be president,’” his longtime aide Ted Kaufman later recalled.
By his own admission, Biden had entered law school because it was the best route to a political career. After graduating, he put politics aside for a while, teaching in the Delaware public school system, serving as an assistant public defender, and working for several Wilmington firms, including his own: Walsh, Monzack and Owens. The “Owens” was John T. Owens, a college classmate who had earlier been deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania and would soon marry Biden’s sister. But the political world was never far away: several of the lawyers Biden was associated with at this time, including Owens, were also prominent local Democrats.
As a public defender, Biden represented clients in various states of desperation seeing firsthand the frayed line between underclass and criminal. He pled with a judge to go easy on one defendant, a down-on-his-luck fisherman with four kids who had stolen and sold a cow. Another, he explained, had been “crazy drunk” and already brain damaged when he killed his roommate. The Washington Post would claim in 1975 that Biden had “a largely black, even black-militant clientele” as a lawyer, though it’s unclear how accurate this was, given Biden’s habit of embellishing his civil rights activism and the fact that the article came out at a time when he was especially eager to play up his relationship with the local black community.
A registered independent since the age of twenty-one, Biden was first courted by local Republicans to make a run for office before officially becoming a Democrat in 1969. At only twenty-seven, the party tapped him to run for the New Castle County Council the following year, a campaign for which he kept his party affiliation out of promotional material. The district where he was running was overwhelmingly Republican, and the county as a whole was shaped by the politics of suburban white flight: while its population increased fourfold between 1940 and 1980, Wilmington, the county seat, saw its numbers drop by 38 percent. Biden was perhaps the perfect fit. As a former state Democratic Party chairman who observed Biden’s career from the start later recalled, “He had lots of energy and idealism and was always assertive. But to my knowledge, he had no substantive ideology.”
Biden would later claim that civil rights and Vietnam had prompted his political career. In 1973, however, he told a local paper that a citizens’ campaign against highways had drawn him into politics. He won the council seat partly by railing against unchecked growth and industrial development swallowing up the county’s green spaces and partly by tapping into themes that would prove electorally fruitful in subsequent decades; he complained about the “rapidly deteriorating crime situation in the county” and the spread of drugs. Most crucially, he had been backed up by what one paper termed his “Children’s Crusade”: an adoring volunteer army of more than one hundred high school kids, college students, and young professionals “one squeak above the equal of a Beatle maniac.” Biden later admitted that as early as this county council campaign, he had his eyes on the presidency.
Although later described as a public housing advocate during this time, his was a less-than-full-throated advocacy. “Everybody’s opposed to public housing—no one wants it in their backyard, but damnit, if you have a moral obligation, provide it,” he told the press, while cautioning that he was “not a Crusader Rabbit championing the rights of the people.” The stance nevertheless earned him some enmity during the campaign, including the label of “nigger lover.”
Biden became the only county council Democrat elected from a suburban district. Despite winning by the slimmest margin of all the council members, his 2,000-vote victory in November 1970 made Biden the golden boy of Delaware politics — maybe even the state Democratic Party’s great hope for 1972, as a newspaper profile of the councilman-elect offered. Young, handsome, and charming, with a beautiful wife and young family, the Kennedy comparisons came thick and fast (he could be “Delaware’s JFK,” noted the profile).
Biden stressed that integrity was his most important quality. “The one thing I want to be known for in politics, in my law practice, in my personal relationships is that I am totally honest — a man of my word,” he said. The profile also gave a glimpse of what would arguably loom far larger in Biden’s political identity: the socially conservative streak he would wear as a badge of honor for much of his political career. “Samuel Clemens said ‘all generalizations are untrue, including this one’ and keeping that in mind, I am a liberal Democrat,” he joked.
A teetotaler in his personal life — Biden once even threatened to end a date if the girl didn’t throw away her cigarette — he rubbished the idea of legalizing marijuana. Acknowledging his wife was the brains of the operation, he nonetheless opted for her to stay home and “mold my children.” “I’m not a ‘keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant’ man,” he said. “But I am all for keeping them pregnant until I have a little girl.”
Biden’s short time in the New Castle County Council revealed a sharp, ambitious liberal politician genuinely concerned about poverty and environmental degradation and willing to stand up to corporate interests. He fought to block construction of oil refineries and protect vital wetlands, called for a halt to the dredging of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, denounced the destruction of tidal marshes, and tried to “de-escalate” the construction of a controversial superhighway that he called a “10-lane monstrosity.”
Biden also criticized a report on public housing for not paying enough attention to the very poor and spoke out against the bulldozing of the dilapidated homes of the county’s poor black residents. Seeing a balance between the county’s growth and the preservation of its natural resources, he worked to restrict development, or at least slow it. He called for more funding for mass transit and denounced the “senseless highways” being built in its place.
A county council seat was always going to be too small a pond for someone who had been eyeing the presidency since he was barely out of his teens, and Biden soon locked eyes on higher office. His hand was forced to an extent, with county Republicans scheming to redistrict him out of his seat. Consequently, it took less than a year after his victory for Biden to start mulling a run for the US Senate, a course he’d evidently decided on by the one-year anniversary, when he accidentally called himself a candidate in a speech. Biden’s ambition for higher office soon took priority above the issues that had supposedly animated his career in the first place. When the New Castle County Housing Authority made plans to buy an apartment complex in Biden’s district and convert it into public housing for the “nonelderly,” it did so with no involvement from the councilman himself, who was too busy campaigning to discuss the plan.
The daunting task of unseating Republican J. Caleb “Cale” Boggs fell to Biden thanks to a combination of reluctance and ambition. A string of more experienced Democrats passed on almost certainly losing to the sixty-three-year-old Boggs, who since 1946 had served as Delaware’s sole representative in the US House, governor, and now senator. When the opportunity to run consequently fell into Biden’s lap, the ambitious councilman took it, seeing in the race a perfect way to raise his profile, build a following, and set the table for a future campaign.
That he would lose was a given. Boggs, a liberal Republican who in 1960 had unseated a conservative Democrat with the help of Democratic voters, was a universally well-liked figure in the state and had won seven straight elections, a state record. Moreover, Delaware hadn’t put a liberal Democrat in the Senate since 1940, and even he had only eked out a single term. Biden himself gave Boggs “five-to-one odds” of being reelected.
Yet he ultimately wasn’t. How did Biden, a just-elected county councilman who had only recently decided he was a Democrat and wouldn’t even meet the US Senate’s age requirement when the polls closed, do it?
Biden vs. Boggs
On March 20, 1972, between two hundred and three hundred people gathered at the Hotel du Pont’s Du Barry Room, a venue for everything from wedding receptions to orchestra concerts. The occasion was a twenty-nine-year-old Joe Biden’s announcement of his Senate campaign. Biden delivered a brain-melting forty-minute speech — “a record of its kind in the state,” wrote the Wilmington Morning News’s Bill Frank — whose length and frequent digressions the public would soon know as Biden trademarks.
With a decade of government-sanctioned lies, cover-ups, and violence having battered Americans’ faith in their political institutions, Biden zeroed in on the themes of trust and honesty. “We must regain our confidence in our traditions and in our institutions,” he told the crowd. “And to do that, we must have public officials who will take bold positions on important questions, men who will stand up and tell the people exactly what they think. I mean to be that kind of candidate — and I mean to be that kind of senator.” A few days later in a speech to Delaware Young Democrats, Biden tried out this truth-telling, disappointing the youthful crowd by opposing marijuana legalization and amnesty for draft-dodgers who had fled the country. “You may not agree with me but at least you’ll know where I stand,” he said.
In truth, much of Biden’s announcement speech was pablum. Until prompted by reporters, he avoided the two hot-button issues of the day: Vietnam and busing. Delaware was solid Nixonland, and Biden carefully distanced himself from the president’s Democratic opponent, George McGovern. He called McGovern’s plan to pull all US troops out of Vietnam in ninety days “slightly impractical” and broke with the Democratic nominee on issues like defense cuts and welfare and tax reform. He continued to insist he wasn’t “as liberal as most people think,” and indeed, Delaware Democrats whispered that he was more conservative than his Republican opponent.
But Biden got bolder as the campaign wore on. Biden assailed Nixon for reescalating US involvement in Vietnam and slammed Boggs repeatedly for votes that kept the war going, coming out in July for a withdrawal of US ground forces by October and the total end of US involvement once all prisoners of war were returned. After receiving enthusiastic applause during his announcement for saying anyone found guilty of a serious crime should be sent to prison “promptly,” he also centered the issues of crime and drugs. “When we find the pusher, we must deal more severely with him than with any other element of the criminal society,” he told one crowd. “There should be no mercy.” But tough talk aside, Biden’s solutions then were mostly on the nonpunitive side of things: more money for rehabilitation and job training, more psychiatric care for prisoners, additional counseling centers and halfway houses, and a federal job program for at-risk kids.
Like many youthful candidates challenging an elderly incumbent, Biden subtly drew attention to Boggs’s age. A series of newspaper ads pointed to Biden’s platform while at the same time reminding readers of Boggs’s advanced years and subtly signaling to conservative voters. It was part of the campaign message developed personally by Biden: “Dear old dad may have been right for his time — and I love him — but things are different now.”
What history has forgotten about Biden’s 1972 campaign, however, was its economic populism, even if it targeted middle-class Delawareans who he claimed were “being attacked by both the rich and the poor.” Americans were most concerned with their pocketbooks, he stressed upon announcing his candidacy, calling for automatic cost-of-living increases for Social Security, something he repeated until Election Day. He told a crowd of United Auto Workers (UAW) members that Congress was debating mere “percentage points” when it came to such increases; rather, they should be raised “to a level where people can live in dignity,” he said, suggesting an income-supplement program to be carved out of the program for older Americans who were ineligible. Biden later demanded those payments be removed from the income formula used for Medicaid eligibility lest elderly Delawareans be thrown off its rolls, and he called for Congress to create an independent consumer protection agency “to serve as the lawyer for consumers.” At one stop, spirited applause interrupted Biden as he attacked corporate income tax structures.
Biden wasn’t afraid to name enemies. His criticism of the “millionaires who don’t pay any taxes at all” and the “billion-dollar corporations who want a ride on the public’s back” became a staple of his campaign. He ran full-page newspaper ads demanding the elimination of tax preferences for “special interests,” property tax exemptions for elderly people on fixed incomes, and freezes on prices, utility rates, and interest rates. “If you’re a working man, you cannot hope to escape taxes. If you’re a rich man, you may,” the ads charged. Biden hit Boggs for defending Standard Oil’s absurdly small tax bill, and in the middle of a debate, he criticized both parties for being “controlled by big money” and unresponsive “to the tax woes of the American middle class.” At the Delaware State Labor Council’s annual convention, he warned unions not to fall for the GOP’s sudden use of pro-labor talking points. “Don’t kid yourself that they have changed their minds,” he said. “All they changed was the date they are going to do it to you. That is after the election instead of now.” He won the backing of the AFL-CIO and the UAW.
“I believe he really thinks reducing the oil depletion allowance from 27 percent to 23 percent is something,” Biden said of Boggs. “He doesn’t question whether it should be eliminated altogether.” Such lines fed into Biden’s other major pitch: environmental protection. Building on his reputation in the county council as the defender of Delaware’s natural resources from heedless development and corporate rapaciousness, Biden released a plan for saving the nation’s wetlands and marshes as the election neared. Such moves bagged him the endorsement of the Washington-based Campaign Fund for the Environment, whose chairman, former Kennedy interior secretary Stewart Udall, made the pilgrimage to Dover and gave Biden his personal endorsement. Biden, Udall said, was “perhaps the most outstanding environmentalist in the whole country.”
When simply ignoring Biden failed to stop the upstart from closing Boggs’s once-insurmountable lead, a parade of prominent national Republicans dropped by, including Vice President Spiro Agnew and Robert Taft, Jr, who touted Boggs’s liberal record.
Crucially, Biden still had the energy and enthusiasm of a legion of grassroots volunteers from his county council campaign, and he dominated Boggs in fundraising. By the end of the campaign, Biden was both raising and spending twice as much as Boggs, thanks chiefly to small donations, where he had a five-to-one advantage. The campaign poured the proceeds into media, spending $268,000 in all to win, a huge amount for the time, and more than any other candidate in the state.
Come November 8, Biden had completed what everyone in Delaware had assumed was a suicide mission, beating Boggs by three thousand votes even as the state as a whole went for Nixon by twenty points. Just as he’d hypothesized, Biden’s path to victory had run through the GOP stronghold of Brandywine Hundred, which Biden lost by only nine thousand votes, compared to the usual trouncing that left Democrats an average of seventeen thousand down.
The postelection numbers revealed other factors, too. Despite endorsements for Boggs from the state NAACP and Edward Brooke, the first black US senator since Reconstruction, Biden had run away with the black vote. In an election that saw relatively low black voter turnout statewide and even lower in down-ballot races, Biden finished second only to McGovern in the state’s African American districts, getting the support of 65 percent of those who had voted for president. And Biden dominated in union support. Nationwide, only seven other candidates, three of them running for president, outpaced Biden in money from organized labor.
In front of a thousand-person-strong audience, Biden showered his fallen opponent with effusive praise, seeming almost apologetic that he’d won. Just as he’d campaigned, he told them, the Joe Biden of the Senate would be his own man, refusing to toe any party line, his highest loyalty to his voters and volunteers. “I may go down and be the lousiest senator in the world; I may be the best,” he warned them.
Most election victories are the products of a murky alchemy, and Biden’s was no exception. Was it his appeal to middle-class and Republican voters on the issues of crime and drugs that put him over the top? Or the enthusiasm he inspired among volunteers, small donors, and particularly black voters? Did his nonpartisan, middle-of-the-road image make the difference? His forthright opposition to Vietnam? Or did his economic populist campaign unite voters across racial and class lines? Maybe it was just his youth, charisma, and bombast, compared to the soft-spoken, elderly Boggs.
“The liberals thought I was holding back,” Biden privately mused in a Hotel du Pont corridor after the result. “Little did they know I’m not that liberal. The conservatives thought I was too liberal.”
This would be a common refrain for the rest of Biden’s career: running away from the label of “liberal” even as he strategically championed liberal values to select audiences. In a Wilmington Morning News profile released early in the new year, Biden insisted he was “really moderate to liberal and a social conservative.” He compared liberals to lemmings (“every two years they jump off a cliff”) and recounted telling one applicant who hoped to work for a senator who would fight for consumers, “I’m not going to be an activist for two years.” If Biden’s victory had suggested many possible roads for his future political success, his words suggested he was already decided on one. The election had another effect, too: his unlikely triumph forever lodged in Biden the fear that a similar dark horse could one day unseat him.
Biden and his wife Neilia sat in front of a fire in their living room, she writing Christmas cards, he pondering his future in Washington. He would later say they sensed something wasn’t right. “What’s going to happen, Joey?” he recalled her asking. “Things are too good.”
What should have been the biggest year of Biden’s life instead started with tragedy. The next day, exactly one week before Christmas, Neilia, who had decided to stay in Wilmington for one more day before joining Biden in DC, pulled away from a stop sign and was struck by a tractor trailer. She and thirteen-month-old daughter Amy were killed, and the couple’s two sons were injured. The mangled station wagon spun away and continued for another 150 feet before coming to rest against a tree. Campaign literature lay strewn across the road.
“I was mad,” Biden said later. “I was mad at you guys in the press, mad at the people, mad at God, mad at everybody. . . . I just wanted to take my boys and go.”
A devastated Biden ultimately decided against giving up his Senate seat and was sworn in at his sons’ bedside while they were still in the hospital. Though the truck driver was quickly absolved of all wrongdoing, Biden would repeatedly claim decades later that he had been drunk, to the distress and confusion of the driver’s family.
Neilia had been integral to Biden’s career; he had called her both the brains of his campaign and his closest adviser. He had planned on having her organize his Capitol Hill office. Managing to keep it together through the funeral, Biden paid tribute to his wife, who he recalled treating everyone the same, regardless of income, race, or social standing. “I was probably one of those phony liberals,” he said. “The kind that go out of their way to be nice to a minority and she made me realize I was making a distinction. . . . I’m going to try to follow her example.”
He didn’t seem to take the lesson to heart. Biden quickly ran afoul of the NAACP’s Wilmington chapter, which slammed recently elected Delaware officials for their failure to hire black employees. The group was most scathing toward the “utter disdain and gall” of Biden and two other “so-called liberal figures” who had “received the vast majority of the Delaware black vote on the basis of stated or strongly implied promises” to hire African Americans. They either believed “blacks are not qualified for professional positions in government services,” the NAACP charged, or they had “chosen to cowardly kowtow to the antiliberal, ultraconservative mentality which is emanating these days from President Nixon and the national scene.”
Biden instead looked to the DuPont company, Delaware’s overriding political and economic power, which he had praised during the campaign as a more “conscientious corporation” for paying taxes at the full rate. During the campaign, one of DuPont’s top lawyers served as Biden’s adviser and one of its top chemists his research and policy consultant. After Biden’s victory, Ted Kaufman, a veteran DuPont employee, joined the senator’s staff and stayed with him for twenty-two years, nineteen of them as chief of staff. Biden and the company settled into what he later called a good relationship; twice a year, he would meet with DuPont’s executive committee and those of Delaware’s other chemical giants, Hercules (a DuPont subsidiary) and ICI (a future subsidiary). Biden didn’t make a point of fighting either the company or the family, he explained, opting instead to find common ground.
The newly elected senator Biden was a fairly standard liberal politician for the early 1970s, albeit one whose lack of filter tended to either endear him to observers or annoy them. This may well have been part of his success: a gifted speaker, Biden’s knack for shooting off at the mouth with controversial, even inflammatory lines fed into his self-styled image as an unapologetic truth-teller. Just as he had promised, he was a reliable liberal vote on Vietnam, checking Nixon’s overreach on executive power and especially environmental protection.
Biden’s first decade in office foreshadowed many of the hallmarks of his politics. He quickly took to the controversial congressional practice of giving paid speeches, mostly at fundraisers, colleges, and high schools, supplementing his senator’s salary by as much as tens of thousands of dollars a year. He would be a prolific, high-earning speaker for the rest of his career. After initially voting to limit such earnings, he soon declared this “one of my biggest mistakes” and reversed course.
Biden established himself as an implacable friend of Israel from the get-go. During the campaign, a mini-scandal had flared up when a graduate student hired by Biden to write a Middle East policy paper told the press he had been instructed not to include the candidate’s personal views because that would mean “political suicide.” According to the student, Biden had argued in an August staff meeting for the internationalization of Jerusalem and a settlement that would involve Israel returning the land it was illegally occupying after the 1967 war — with Biden adding that any pro-Israel position he took now would be the one he stuck to for the rest of his career. Biden stopped just short of denying the student’s claims, saying he had merely been playing devil’s advocate. He would indeed spend his Senate career showering Israel with unquestioning support, even when its behavior elicited bipartisan outrage. He helped to secure an unparalleled amount of US aid for Israel early on and to scuttle a 1998 peace proposal with Palestine, and he told an assembly of lobbyists that Americans “cannot afford to publicly criticize Israel.”
Meanwhile, the Watergate scandal that had been roiling Washington since 1972 revealed Biden’s credulous faith in consensus, unity, and bipartisanship for their own sake. He warned fellow Democrats not to celebrate damage to the GOP because “the demise of the Republican Party means your own demise . . . means the demise of the two-party system.” He chided Democrats for trying to blame Watergate on the Republican Party as a whole, warning that political institutions were the “fabric that keeps us together” and if the public came to blame the GOP for what happened, “the system goes under.” After dragging his feet on calling for impeachment, Biden eventually delivered an April 1974 speech he had planned for weeks, calling for fairness to Nixon, attacking the press and government leakers, demanding “restraint” from reporters, and telling their sources “to shut up.” “Impeachment is too important a matter to be left to the press,” he said.
Biden’s future troubles keeping his day job and his family’s business dealings separate had their seeds in this period, too. Soon after his win, Biden’s younger brother James, with a net worth of only $10,000, was approved for a string of loans from the local Farmers Bank that were worth sixteen times that sum, money James used to open a club. According to three former bank officers, the hope had been that the Biden name would attract a hip, big-spending crowd. Instead, the club was a failure, and James left his debts unpaid, prompting Biden to personally call the bank and complain about his brother’s treatment by debt collectors. Impatient bank officers, meanwhile, threatened James with using the delinquent loan to embarrass his senator brother.
Farmers Bank’s near-collapse shortly after triggered a federal fraud investigation into Norman Rales, a financier linked to the bank, which dredged up far more embarrassing details, including senator Biden’s personal and business connections to Rales. The investigation also revealed that James inexplicably held $600,000 worth of loans from First Pennsylvania, a large Philadelphia bank, which he received through a recommendation by the office of Pennsylvania governor Milton J. Shapp, who Biden had publicly endorsed for president in 1975. John T. Owens, Biden’s brother-in-law and former law partner, had also supported Shapp and worked in the governor’s administration while holding a minor stake in the club. To top it off, Biden at the time held a seat on the Senate Banking Committee, then notorious for being a hotbed of graft.
More than any of that, however, it was the twin issues of the economy and civil rights that defined Biden’s fundamental approach to politics for the rest of his career.
The Liberal Who Killed Busing
The recession of 1973–75 and the decade’s seemingly never-ending inflation crisis loomed over Biden’s early political career. After three decades of prosperity and rising incomes in the United States, the 1970s saw it all crash back down to earth. In the same decade, the United States would experience its worst peacetime inflation and its worst postwar recession. Skyrocketing food and energy prices hollowed out paychecks, and the days of carefree consumerism that marked Biden’s formative years ended. Millions of Americans lost their jobs in waves of unemployment, which hit 9 percent by mid-decade.
Though the crisis had many roots, including the 1973 oil shock, it became the impetus for the building of a new political coalition aimed at a total rejection of the New Deal and its social-democratic counterparts abroad. With unemployment climbing and inflation spiraling out of control, free-market economic ideas found a friendlier reception. Combined with a bubbling panic among white suburbanites over issues like taxes, integration, and drugs and crime, the crisis would help usher in the era of neoliberalism that brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
Even so, Sen. Biden started off as a solid, if somewhat ambivalent, New Deal Democrat. He voted for controls on rent and prices for everything from food to petroleum products. In his freshman year, he criticized Nixon’s budget cuts that would “mean the difference between life and death to some people,” and he voted against the president’s nominee for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) for designing them. He frequently voted to improve and expand federal entitlement programs, the kind of “social legislation” he said upon Lyndon Johnson’s death would be the late president’s lasting legacy. This included a 1973 law that approved cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security benefits.
When stagflation hit, Biden initially opted for the vigorous approach liberals had once taken to fight the Depression. His 1974 anti-inflation plan involved bailing out the construction sector, taxing excess profits of industry, and a huge standby public jobs program — it would not be the last time that decade he’d call on the government to put jobless Americans directly to work. That same year, he introduced a tax package aimed squarely at taxing the rich and the fossil fuel industry. Balancing the budget, he said, would have a minimal effect on inflation while potentially worsening the economy. “Biden is simply not very popular with free marketers and the oil interests quietly hate him,” wrote one newspaper.
Yet a fiscal scold always lurked somewhere within Biden, coming closer to the fore as the recession worsened. By 1975, he was warning that deficit spending would run the economy further into the ground, and he reluctantly backed the first-ever resolution to impose a ceiling on federal spending. Within a few years, this reluctance would evaporate.
The country’s governing institutions were still wrestling with this recession when the furor over busing exploded in Delaware. In truth, the state’s busing “crisis” was really one part of a larger white, suburban rebellion against racial integration taking place around the country. And this itself was one piece in a larger story: the more-than-century-long struggle by the descendants of slaves to claim the full rights of American citizenship they were owed. That struggle had culminated in a nationwide mass protest movement in the middle of the twentieth century that extracted major concessions from the country’s corridors of power, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ordered the desegregation of public schools.
The Brown decision had, in theory, smashed the racist status quo, striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had made American apartheid legal and declaring it not only a sham in practice but a contradiction in terms. Ordered to desegregate “with all deliberate speed,” governments came up with a variety of tools to end racial separatism. Busing — the transportation of black and, sometimes, white kids to schools outside their neighborhoods — was one of these.
Once implemented, busing also proved one of the most contentious. This was especially so in the North, where racist attitudes were less overt but segregation was actually worse, owing to the decades of racist policies that had kept African Americans out of the suburbs. As historian Matthew Delmont has explained, it wasn’t so much the issue of shipping their kids off in school buses that infuriated Northern suburbanites. Twenty million kids took the bus to school by 1970, sometimes to farther-off neighborhoods for the express purpose of maintaining segregation. “With ‘busing,’ northerners found a palatable way to oppose desegregation without appealing to the explicitly racist sentiments they preferred to associate with southerners,” Delmont wrote.
Wilmington was no different. While busing had been successful in a number of cities, by the time it came to Delaware, resistance was intensifying, and Biden — who genuinely cared about civil rights but perhaps cared more about being reelected — found himself in a bind.
Biden had deftly avoided the issue during his 1972 campaign while trying to placate busing foes. Announcing his run, he termed busing “a phony issue which allows the white liberals to sit in suburbia, confident that they are not going to have to live next to a black,” something that made “great discussions at cocktail parties but do[es] not change the direction of this country.”
He threaded a perilous needle. On the one hand, he opposed redrawing school district lines for the sake of racial balance (a concept, he said, which “in and of itself means nothing”), maintained that “nobody supports” busing for that purpose, and wrongly insisted, as he would for years after, that Wilmington’s was a question of de facto, not de jure, segregation — meaning segregation that supposedly developed “naturally,” not as the result of explicit laws and policies. At the same time, he balked at voting to limit the Supreme Court’s power to deem what was and wasn’t de jure, and he refused to back a constitutional amendment banning busing. Such careful waffling got Biden through the election.
Consequently, for his first two years in the Senate, Biden cast mostly pro-busing votes masked by anti-busing rhetoric. Two days before the twentieth anniversary of the Brown decision, he put his weight behind the single-vote defeat of the Gurney amendment, a measure that, by limiting busing to a student’s second-closest school, would have barred virtually all busing for the purpose of desegregation.
Then the outrage started.
Incensed by this vote, local anti-busing groups began confronting Biden about the issue — in one instance for two hours as a hostile audience of hundreds interrupted and heckled him without pause. Nothing worked in this environment: not Biden’s insistence that he really did oppose busing, not his usual reminder that his liberal friends weren’t happy with him either, not even partially reversing course by repeatedly promising to back a constitutional amendment limiting busing.
This anti-busing activism had been inflamed by a 1974 court order forcing Wilmington to desegregate its schools. In that year’s Milliken v. Bradley decision, a divided Supreme Court had ruled that suburbs could only be forced to participate in such actions if it could be proved that “racially discriminatory acts of the state or local school districts” had been “a substantial cause” of segregation, effectively insulating Northern cities from having to do anything about the problem.
Biden insisted that only de jure segregation needed remedying, but proving intentional racism in court was a tall order, as today’s activists and lawyers continue to find. Even proof didn’t necessarily matter: in the Milliken case, one mayor had placed his fondness for segregation on the record in print, and the Supreme Court still ruled there was no evidence of intentional racism. And contrary to Biden’s protestations that segregation in Wilmington was simply a “long-standing pattern of racial isolation,” not de jure segregation, it was one of the few cities that met the court’s stringent post-Milliken criteria.
Nevertheless, for the next three years, Biden cast only a single pro-busing vote and nineteen against. He had, as the Wilmington Morning News put it, become a “born-again convert to anti-busing,” one who, like many such converts, “has embraced his new faith with an almost messianic zeal.” Ending his fence-sitting by August 1975, he compared busing to the quagmire in Vietnam and preemptively signed on to the anti-busing bills put forward by his Republican counterpart from Delaware, William Roth, with whom he teamed up. He was against segregated schools, Biden said, but didn’t support integrated schools as a matter of course either, because there was a “conceptual difference between desegregation and integration.” He elaborated:
If there were a gas station which served fifty people on a given day and twenty-five of them were white and twenty-five of them were black, you don’t shut down the gas station because it can’t prove that exactly half of the people who used the gas station toilet were from each race. What you do is make sure there is no sign on that gas station toilet which says “No Negroes.”
Biden’s analogy made no sense; no one was talking about shutting down schools, and there was ample data proving that Wilmington schools were heavily racially imbalanced. But of course, that wasn’t the point. Biden often twisted himself up in such knots to justify what he was now doing.
Biden still claimed to oppose discrimination. “You shouldn’t hate black kids,” he said about busing to a visiting troupe of Delaware fifth graders in the US Capitol. “They had nothing to do with it.” He warned the children not to let their parents teach them to hate either, congratulating himself on his audacity. That comment, he said, “loses me 5,000 parents’ votes, but I don’t give a damn.”
Even as experts and officials told Biden desegregation was impossible without busing, he maintained it didn’t address “the real issues.” He even claimed it was integration in some of its forms that was “racist and insulting.” Besides, he said, his anti-busing crusade was really in the interest of saving civil rights. “The civil rights movement will come to a dead halt,” he warned. “When you lose the support of that great unwashed middle class, of which I am a part, no social policy in this country will move.”
But Biden was also clearly worried about reelection. “He knows the votes are in the suburbs where whites turn red when they see a yellow school bus,” the Wilmington News Journal noted. Biden himself said that Sussex County, Delaware’s most anti-busing county, was critical to winning the state.
His comments also touched on a belief, hinted at elsewhere, that racial separation was natural. At a 1975 Greenville, South Carolina fundraising dinner, he had disparaged liberals who attributed America’s strength to its status as a “great melting pot.” “That is just a bunch of poppycock because we know being black and white and Christian and Jew breaks us apart,” he told the more than three hundred Democrats in attendance. The same year, Biden indicted both busing and the idea “that we are going to integrate people so that they all have the same access and they learn to grow up with one another and all the rest” as a “rejection of the whole movement of black pride.”
In May 1975, Biden had promised to stand in the way of “unconstitutional” attempts to restrict the power of courts to order busing. By February the following year, he had introduced just such a preposterous bill, aiming to allow only state courts to order remedies in school cases. Another amendment he authored that year prohibited the Department of Justice (DoJ) from using its funds to seek busing. A fellow Democrat charged that the “disastrous” measure would tie the DoJ’s hands in advising courts on the scope of desegregation redresses. A third bill, this one imposing on federal judges a “priority list” of desegregation remedies that put busing at the bottom, was opposed even by anti-busing Democrat Robert Byrd, who called it unconstitutional and charged it would have no impact on court-ordered busing. The unsuccessful 1977 Roth-Biden bill — which would have delayed busing until all court appeals were exhausted and conditioned its use on a court finding that intentional racism was the “principal motivating factor” in school segregation — was harshly criticized by the attorney general, who charged that it would “unnecessarily and detrimentally complicate the area of school desegregation” through litigation and delay.
Biden’s lasting achievement would instead be the 1977 Eagleton-Biden amendment, which barred HEW from using its funding for busing. So effective was it in halting the department’s desegregation efforts that civil rights groups challenged its constitutionality. A superintendent in Ocala, Florida, was informed by HEW that the district’s “voluntary compliance” with a school desegregation plan couldn’t be completed because the tool of busing was now forbidden by the law. On the 25th anniversary of the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Commission published a report bitterly noting the lack of progress on desegregation and criticizing the amendment. The commission’s chairman called for citizens to campaign for its repeal and charged that its passage had “aided and abetted” forces obstructing the advance of desegregation. “This is one of, if not the major civil rights issues confronting the country at this time,” he said. Ironically, since busing in Wilmington had been court-ordered, the amendment had no effect on the policy there. Still, Biden said he was pleased with its effects.
Biden’s efforts were key to cracking the Democrats’ post-1960s commitment to civil rights. His 1975 amendment barring HEW from forcing school districts to assign pupils or teachers by race may not have become law, but civil rights advocates watched in horror as it drew votes for the first time from prominent Northern liberals. It signaled the end of the narrow but reliable Senate majority that had defended desegregation efforts from assault. Biden “will be remembered for his amendment that first illustrated the Senate’s tilt,” wrote the Wilmington Morning News. The Congressional Quarterly noted that its adoption by the Senate was a major watershed for this same reason, as well as the fact that the upper chamber, usually an obstacle to anti-busing efforts, had led the way this time. Biden himself boasted he’d “made it — if not respectable — I’ve made it reasonable for long-standing liberals to begin to raise the questions I’ve been the first to raise.”
When even a former Klan recruiter like Byrd thought Biden was taking things too far, it’s not surprising that liberals and the civil rights community were apoplectic. Calling the 1977 Roth-Biden bill “so shabby an attack on the desegregation of school systems,” civil rights attorney Joseph L. Rauh Jr charged Biden with embracing “the Nixon antibusing spirit.” The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 140 civil rights, church, and liberal organizations, opposed it unanimously, a rare development. Six civil rights officials personally testified against the bill, with Charles Morgan Jr of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) comparing Biden’s motives to George Wallace’s “segregation forever” campaign (“I don’t think I like you very much Mr. Morgan,” Biden interrupted). When one NAACP leader commented that the bill was the product of the “sad history” of racism in Delaware, Biden became upset. “My heart is heavy,” he said, his voice cracking. “For the first time, I have heard an indirect insinuation that I’m a racist.” The official clarified that Biden, too, was a victim of racism — namely, the “harassment and abuse” that had led him to oppose busing.
It didn’t end there. Biden eventually convinced the Justice Department to intervene in Wilmington, though it returned a decision not to his liking. He later grilled two historic nominees about their views on the intervention and busing generally: US Appeals Court Judge Wade McCree, who stood to become the first black solicitor general since Thurgood Marshall, and Drew S. Days III, a black New York attorney tipped to be assistant attorney general for civil rights. On a Judiciary Committee stacked with former Southern segregationists, Biden, the young liberal from a Northern state, became the lone vote against both.
By November 1980, Biden had backed every anti-busing measure in the Senate over the previous five years. That included repeated votes for anti-busing measures put forward by archconservative Jesse Helms — votes that all came after his reelection. He and Roth even came within a hair’s breadth of passing their 1977 bill to restrict the federal courts from ordering busing, which black Republican Edward Brooke called “the most pernicious amendment that has been introduced in this whole field.” Meanwhile, to Biden’s delight, Congress extended his Biden-Eagleton amendment year after year with ever-bigger majorities, even as HEW officials complained it had taken away one of their key tools — withholding federal funds — to pressure school districts refusing to desegregate. “The erosion [of busing] is on,” Biden said after one such vote. “It gets easier every year.”
Biden insisted that none of this had hurt his relationship with the local black community. “I still walk down the street in the black side of town,” he said in 1975, “and you get — maybe they’re my clients — Mousey and Chops and all the boys at 13th and — I can walk in those pool halls, and quite frankly don’t know another white man involved in Delaware politics who can do that kind of thing.” Newspapers covering the controversial subject noted his history as a civil rights activist, joining sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, a staple of Biden lore he would repeat for years. Only a decade later was he forced to admit that his activism consisted entirely of his summer job as a lifeguard.
Whatever one’s thoughts on busing — and polling suggested even African Americans were split on its merits — there was no doubt that it had worked as a tool for dismantling segregation, nor that it was peacefully accepted in many communities. Its end contributed to a situation today in which school segregation is worse than it’s been for nearly five decades. In working to defeat it, Biden didn’t just help stop busing in Delaware — he showed he was willing to go much further, jeopardizing the wider mission of desegregation and sacrificing the continued march of civil rights in order to stay in power.
Biden’s zealous turnabout on busing presaged the anti-crime and anti-drug crusades he embarked on in subsequent decades for similar reasons of political survival. These, too, were issues abstracted from, but deeply tied up with, America’s long struggle over racial equality, ones that greatly worried the suburban, middle-class, white voters whose opinion pre- occupied Biden. This was a pattern for the rest of his career: whenever a right-wing hysteria would grip the public, Biden would be swept up in the frenzy, going further than even some of his conservative colleagues, typically to the detriment of the most vulnerable. For now, however, it was just one part of Biden’s transformation.
Year of the Conservative
Looking back in 1981, Biden said he had been persuaded to evolve by his fellow lawmakers.
“I have been made a believer over the last nine years in the Senate,” he said. The teachings of economists, he continued, had made him reluctant to listen to his Republican colleagues about the dangers of deficit spending, particularly when he was just an impressionable twenty-nine-year-old “not too long out of college.” But eventually he was worn down. “As I listened over the years in this body, I became more and more a believer in balanced budgets,” he said.
In truth, there was more to it than this. Biden had always chafed against being labeled a liberal. Perhaps it was something in the distinct character of Delaware, a slave state that stayed with the Union in the Civil War, literally and figuratively straddling the Mason-Dixon line. “Given a choice of Philadelphia or Virginia, I suspect a majority of Delaware would go South,” Biden once joked at a meeting of regional movers and shakers, earning a stern rebuke from a local columnist, which wouldn’t keep Biden from recycling the comment in later years.
He spoke with pride about political hacks’ inability to put him in a box. In a 1977 interview, Biden explained that his “lack of orthodoxy” bamboozled older generations who still thought “you’re either a New Deal Democrat or you’re a traditional conservative Republican.” A memo from Pat Caddell — Biden’s friend and pollster who had moved on from helping him enter the Senate to helping Jimmy Carter enter the White House — had just been unearthed, warning Carter that “young Turks” like Biden could be his undoing. Caddell saw Biden as “part of a new generation of leadership that has some significantly different views than the basic Republican and Democratic philosophies that are prevalent today,” Biden reported after a conversation between the two.
The irony was that Biden had been the very first senator to endorse Carter’s insurgent run. Long before Carter had announced, Biden had been advising party apparatchiks to give the cold shoulder to old-guard liberals like Hubert Humphrey and look instead to “Southern governors,” a preview of the conservative strategy the party would adopt in the Reagan years. When Carter made clear he was seeking the Democratic nomination, Biden gave his backing and swiftly became the chairman of his campaign’s steering committee.
Carter was just the kind of unorthodox Democrat Biden aspired to be: socially conservative but enlightened on race and waging a fight against the corroded culture of Washington with the help of a small circle of hometown advisers. Biden likely saw much of his own 1972 run in Carter’s unlikely bid. The perennial outsider even after winning, Carter waged a lonely, unpopular war on government spending and fought the ongoing economic decline that defined his administration partly through deregulation of trucking, airlines, banking, and other industries.
Even so, Biden’s habit of spouting deliberately, some would say obnoxiously, contrarian talking points sometimes made an awkward fit for the role of campaign surrogate. Biden criticized the Carter campaign to reporters and at one point told the Associated Press at an Iowa rally that independent candidate Eugene McCarthy “would be the best qualified” for president. Carter would later lose Iowa by the barest of margins, partly because McCarthy got 2 percent of the vote.
That Carter, the Democrat, became the country’s first neoliberal president anticipated where US political culture would swerve in the coming decade. It also mirrored Biden’s own evolution away from the New Deal tradition. As early as 1974, Biden had started to describe himself as a social liberal who was conservative fiscally, a subtle change to his earlier self-classifications. Two years later, he rapped Humphrey for not being “cognizant of the limited, finite ability government has to deal with people’s problems” and lacking “the intestinal fortitude to look at some programs and say ‘no.’” His 1978 reelection campaign would push him more completely in this direction.
Biden’s chances looked good. With polls suggesting he would be a tough opponent, his most formidable potential rival, former House Rep. Pierre “Pete” du Pont, had instead run for and won the governor’s office. The current House Rep. Thomas Evans declined for the same reason. The state’s GOP was left with two options: the ultraconservative anti-busing activist Jim Venema, who had vowed to take Biden’s seat after his pro-busing vote on the Gurney amendment, or some less embarrassing Republican to stop Venema from taking the nomination. The party ended up going with James Baxter, a Sussex County farmer who, despite Venema’s grassroots support and dominance in small-dollar donations, became the nominee by just under two thousand votes in a low-turnout primary.
Biden had already covered his right flank on social policy. “I don’t know how in God’s name Jim Venema is going to be able to paint Joe Biden as a pro-buser,” he remarked. He bristled at suggestions he’d been pushed to where he now stood. “Venema’s full of crap,” he said. “I am not a political charlatan who does not operate out of principle.” Now he started the same covering maneuver on economics, introducing in 1977 an even more stringent version of William Roth’s “sunset” bill requiring all federal programs to be reauthorized every four years or automatically cease to exist — what he termed “spending control legislation.” (The final compromise bill stretched this to ten years). Casting one of twenty-one votes against a bill to keep Social Security solvent, Biden complained that the bill put “a disproportionate burden on the middle-income folks.”
The election took place in the shadow of the “taxpayers’ revolt” of 1978, one which had been rumbling before then. As inflation squeezed the wages of middle- and upper-middle-class earners — caught between incomes that rose to keep up with inflation and tax brackets that stayed the same and already leery of redistributive programs that seemed to mostly help other people — property owners around the country seethed. In California, Ronald Reagan’s home state and ground zero for the revolt, popular anger helped pass Proposition 13, which put severe limits on the state government’s taxation powers.
In the long term, Prop 13 would create a fiscal crisis in the state and ravage its public services and institutions. In the short term, it lit a fire under middle-class homeowners across the country, producing imitators in state after state. Less than three years after its passage, eighteen states had placed limits on taxes and/or government spending, including Michigan’s 1978 Headlee Amendment to the state constitution.
“1978 has turned out to be the year of the conservative,” wrote the Wilmington Morning News. Biden, who a year earlier had confidently predicted no one “more conservative than Bill Roth” could win statewide in Delaware, now fretted about the upcoming election in interviews and snapped at questions about where exactly he sat on the political spectrum. “What kind of question is that?” he told a reporter. “Are you still beating your wife?”
The federal tax cut introduced by Roth and New York Congressman Jack Kemp was a child of this taxpayer revolt: a measure that would have slashed personal tax rates by 33 percent and corporate rates by 6 percent. At Baxter’s urging, Biden — now insisting that “on fiscal matters I’m a conserva- tive” and making a cap on government spending the crux of his pitch to voters — became one of a small group of Senate Democrats pledging to vote for it. “We need a massive tax cut this year,” he said, reasoning that it would turn up the pressure to cut spending.
Despite his popularity and the clear lack of enthusiasm for Baxter, Biden’s strategy against his Republican opponent was to snatch his platform. At a September candidate forum, they took turns criticizing federal spending, with Biden talking up his “sunset” legislation and boasting that he’d been rated the sixth most fiscally conservative senator by the National Taxpayers Union in 1974. In their first debate later that month, the two agreed on everything but abortion, and Biden informed the crowd he was already doing the things Baxter was calling for: cutting taxes, spending, and regulations. His campaign took out full-page ads touting his fiscally conservative record, including blocking pay raises and automatic cost-of-living increases for the nearly three million federal workers. They christened Biden “one of the stingiest senators.” Biden later repeated that line in a candidate question-and-answer, in which he talked about balancing the budget by 1983 and tying tax cuts to spending decreases. As he explained, the primary difference between him and Baxter was that he at least still believed government had “social obligations” to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.
Biden’s anti-spending proselytizing won him the endorsement of Howard Jarvis, the anti-government California businessman who championed Prop 13. “You have shown yourself to be in the forefront of the battle to reduce government spending and bring relief to the overburdened taxpayers of this country,” Jarvis wrote. Biden’s office released a statement saying he was “delighted” with the endorsement. Yet Biden clearly recognized this rightward swing might disappoint the loyal Democratic voters he still needed. At a candidates’ forum a few days later, Biden told a mostly black audience about the dire consequences of measures like Prop 13. When confronted about the apparent hypocrisy, Biden, who six years earlier had made truth and integrity the cornerstone of his campaign, said he didn’t “have any feeling about [Jarvis’] endorsement” and couldn’t “help it whether someone endorses me or doesn’t endorse me.”
Back in Washington, Biden showed why he’d received Jarvis’s support, becoming one of nineteen senators to vote against Hubert Humphrey’s watered-down full employment bill, which merely asked that the president meet certain unemployment and inflation targets by 1983. “I do not think the government ought to make promises it cannot keep,” Biden said. While he’d voted with a GOP majority against the Democrats only 13 percent of the time in his first five years, now that rate leaped to 22 percent.
With Biden’s rightward lurch leaving Baxter little to work with, the Sussex County GOP chairman resorted to a series of desperate, manufactured scandals. All of it went nowhere. Baxter floundered in the polls, which revealed that not only did a measly share of voters (9 percent) vote for him due to his conservatism, but that Delawareans were well aware of Biden’s flip-flopping on issues like busing and planned to vote for him anyway. “In spite of his horrendous record, like all Delaware politicians, of opposing busing, he will vote the way I would want him to most of the time,” one liberal voter said.
Like Boggs had in 1972, Biden secured major newspaper endorsements, including the neighboring Philadelphia Inquirer, and he made a clean sweep of labor endorsements; Biden was still a relatively reliable liberal vote, at least more so than his opponent. With the help of his dedicated volunteer network, Biden won easily in every part of the state, beating Baxter in not just his own county but his own district, his 16-point margin of victory the largest since du Pont’s 1972 reelection to Congress.
There was another factor in Biden’s victory. He had said in 1973 that “the only reason Biden is not beholden to any fat cats is the fat cats didn’t take me seriously.” Having proved himself a serious political player, he no longer faced this problem.
Biden’s staff were determined to recreate the big-spending ways of his 1972 run, setting an even bigger target of $350,000. This time, however, the campaign would rely increasingly on the well-heeled. In February, President Carter took twenty-eight minutes to swing by a $1,000-per-couple Biden fundraiser at the Hotel du Pont’s Gold Ballroom, netting his early backer a cool $52,900. The price of admission alone was almost as much as Carter had raised in a three-county campaign trip in the state three years earlier, and it served to skirt campaign finance laws: $1,000 was the legal limit for donations, but divided among couples, it left the door open for donors to give more later on. The campaign also exploited a legal loophole that treated primary and general election campaigns as separate but allowed “excess campaign contributions” to be carried over for the candidate’s next race. This allowed donors to give as much as double the legal limit to Biden, who wasn’t actually facing opposition in the primary.
By end of March, Biden had raised nearly a third of his $350,000 goal, and his donor lists were full of the names of the wealthy and powerful, Democrat and Republican, who had maxed out for the junior senator: businessmen, lawyers, executives, investors, and more, in descending order of fre- quency. The name “DuPont” in particular littered the lists of donors, as various top executives of the chemical company gave generously to Biden, including its chairman, Irving S. Shapiro.
Almost 70 percent of Biden’s donors would come from outside Delaware, with businessmen in California, the epicenter of the taxpayers’ revolt, especially well represented. This included Walter H. Shorenstein, a California real estate executive and major party benefactor who happened to employ Biden’s brother and whose company would greatly benefit from Prop 13’s virtual freezing of property taxes. Thanks to this support, coupled with the financial backing of labor unions, Biden’s donation totals dwarfed every other Delaware candidate, and he outspent Baxter three to one.
Could this help explain Biden’s dramatic shift to the right? The Biden of old would have certainly thought so. A frequent critic of the role of money in politics, Biden had made his maiden speech in Congress about public financing of elections. He had spoken derisively in 1974 of trying to “prostitute” himself to big donors, complaining that “people who have money . . . always want something” and wondering aloud how long the public would “put up with a small group of men and organizations determining the political process by deciding who can run.” As he had told the Wilmington News Journal six months into his first term, there was always an “implicit” suggestion of a quid pro quo when officeholders solicited campaign donations. He recalled that just a few days before the 1972 election, a group of wealthy businessmen had met with him to ask if he was serious about his vow to eliminate the capital gains tax exemption. “If I wanted to raise money, I knew what I should say,” he recounted.
The 1978 election helped solidify Biden’s ideological turn. Now fifth-ranked on the Senate Budget Committee, he pledged to keep the cost of government down as he tackled Carter’s budget proposals, which Biden said needed less spending, fewer taxes, and a lower deficit. He talked about imposing across-the-board cuts to federal agencies and employment ceilings for the bureaucracy, and potentially supporting a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget. Where he had started off his time in Congress endorsing the idea of national health insurance, Biden now vowed to fight such a program.
There comes a point in any politician’s career where they must balance their ambitions against political realities and decide what they are comfortable sacrificing for the sake of expediency. The 1978 election was a learning experience for Biden in this respect. It taught him he could court wealthy donors and businesses and still get union backing. It taught him he could move way to the right and still count on the support of Democratic voters, at least as long as a scary conservative was the only other option. And it taught him he could — in fact, he needed to — strategically sacrifice the cause of civil rights to win over the fabled political center.