Underestimating Joe Biden Now — and Then

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(I avoid writing about politics in this blog and it’s not my intent to engage in punditry. But I do have a special insight into what made Joe Biden Joe Biden, and I thought I’d share that here..)

Most everyone was surprised when Joe Biden, certain of defeat in the primaries, swept South Carolina and then the field in what seemed an overnight surge of support. 

Still, that’s not his most stunning victory.  That came when I was a 25-year-old reporter for a Delaware newspaper and Joe was a 29-year-old New Castle County councilman.  

This was in 1972, a year when George McGovern and the Democrats carried just one state. Top Democrats passed on the Senate candidacy.  This left Joe as the sacrificial lamb in what seemed a certain Republican down ticket landslide.

I covered the council and Joe. In a conservative county in a “Company State” dominated by Du Pont corporate execs and their families, Joe stood out because he was a liberal Democrat and also cut a dashing figure – a bold splash of color on a gray political horizon.

He was, as he is now, a paradox.  He talked too much. But he listened carefully.  He was a bold critic at the council. But respected his elders and worked with them.  He stood up against zoning and sewer plans that hurt his district. But he was also a deal maker, willing to cross party lines and help a Republican councilman take a bill over the finish line. 

In short, at a time when the New Left scorched the earth with a moral bleach that wiped out as many friends as enemies, Joe was an old fashioned liberal, a Patrick Moynihan pragmatist. The revolution wasn’t coming.  But one could evolve step by step. 

The rough quote I recall that summed up his approach?  Asked if he would decriminalize marijuana as McGovern proposed, he would aggressively push back on the reporter.

“I’m not going to answer that because it’s not a real issue. It’s not going to happen for years and we all know it.  If I say I’m for it, I alienate one group needlessly. If I say I’m against it, I alienate another group. Over nothing.  

“Ask me a real question,” Biden said.  “Ask me what I can do to help these working class families in Christiana Hundred who make $15,000 a year and struggle. That’s a real question.”

This wasn’t just a talking point with Joe.  He put some real passion into it – even hostility when the trick questions were asked by reporters. 

And in doing so, he avoided the trap other down ticket Democrats were making that year.  Then, as now, they were counting on a surge of youth voters, of newly minted 18-year-old voters.  Then as now, that army never showed. 

But Biden’s youth army did show and that was because his campaign had passed on the New Left organizers and sought out the kids of “regular people.”  This army not only delivered pamphlets and knocked on doors, they delivered their parents to Joe.  Not everyone was happy with a choice between Nixon and the ultra-liberal policies of McGovern.  Joe split the difference. He was aggressive on Vietnam, but restrained on other issues on the liberal check list.   It was a Goldilocks campaign, neither too hot nor too cold for swing voters.  

The incumbent, Cale Boggs, never saw it coming.  He was seeking re-election reluctantly to avoid a Republican primary for what was seen as a safe seat in the Senate. The Republican leaders pressured Boggs to run and he did. 

But he didn’t run hard. He expected to coast to re-election.    

We’d been out in the field ahead of time, a team of journalists canvassing key districts. What we were seeing was that Biden’s campaign was working. It did not seem a walk-away but he was actually leading Boggs in many of those precincts and that in itself was a small miracle.  I wrote a piece saying as much – that it wasn’t just flash-in-the-pan showboating. Biden’s chances were real. I was razzed thoroughly in the newsroom after that piece and offered a number of real estate deals that involved bridges.

Election night, I looked at the returns from those districts first and called it for Joe.  No one, including me, quite believed it.  In a landslide Republican year, in a conservative, company state, a 29-year-old county councilman had won a seat in the US Senate.  (You had to be 30 to hold a seat; Joe’s birthday fell between election day and swearing in.)

Of course, the victory was followed by the worst tragedy.  Joe’s wife and child were killed in a car accident shortly after the election.  That heartbreak was horrible. And then the voters in Delaware at that moment gave their hearts fully to Joe.  They still do. 

He returned the favor and scored at least one huge surprise victory. There were big bills, events and hearings he championed, but the most significant may have been his quiet work to keep the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard open long past its expected death. 

President Reagan had vowed to create a 600-ship Navy – a huge expansion.  In that proposal was $800 million to refit such carriers as the SS Saratoga. The Service Life Extension Program as it was called would no doubt go the way of most shipyard work: It would go to a yard in the South. 

This was so because of an iron alliance.  The southern shipyard states looked after each other. Alabama would get a contract one year, Virginia the next. Then Louisiana.  The combined Senate votes could not be overcome in the North where no such alliance occurred. 

Biden put one together.  The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard employed 10,000 people in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  These weren’t burger flipping jobs. They were real blue collar middle class jobs that paid for houses, college educations, maybe even a boat or a vacation at the shore. 

To win them meant a sound regional economy. To lose them, the belt was cinched a bit tighter around the collective waist of three states. 

Not unlike how he worked with Republicans in the New Castle County Council, Biden and his team began building bridges and coalitions among the congressional delegations from the three states.  

All were more accustomed to fighting each other than working together. If one bridge was built over the Delaware River to please Philadelphia another bridge needed to be built farther south to appease Jersey interests.  The competition among the ports was cut-throat, each state striving to build a better facility to steal the cargoes of the others. 

Biden’s people were able to bring the tristate delegation together. And then they were able to strike bargains with neutral states that put the Philadelphia shipyard over the top. 

The result was as surprising to the southern alliance as Joe’s victory was to the Boggs campaign. They’d under-estimated him. The tristate northern alliance might have been just as surprised, but for nearly 20 years the shipyard underpinned the regional economy as one great ship after another deployed from the yard. 

From that time, Joe’s weaknesses survive along with his strengths. His gaffes were notorious back then.  They are again today.  He can move from charming candor to malaprop in a split second. Those moments have been covered to death. 

Not so much his strengths. 

He was a whip smart young politician then who thrived in an atmosphere where he needed to convince a conservative majority.  He connects with voters with candor and sincerity. 

And that leads to a strength his opponents and pundits seem not to understand.  Over the years, he has thrived on being discounted. 

Cases in point. This year, he lost every debate and was just too damned old. Or so it was said. 

In 1972, he was too brash and just too damned young. Or so it was said.  

There is a common thread to these victories. In the words of the Bruce Willis boxer character talking to himself in “Pulp Fiction:”

“That’s how you’re gonna beat ’em, Butch. They keep underestimating you.”

Sub in “Joe” and you have it.  

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