When journalists, including me, point out that Joe Biden is running as a candidate of nostalgia, it’s usually a reference to his argument that he can return things to a pre-2016 idyll of American unity and happiness. But the former vice president’s backward look has taken a weird turn this week as Biden delivered a confusing story involving a long-dead Democratic segregationist senator from Mississippi.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said at a fundraiser. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
The anecdote made no sense, either as storytelling or as politics. “Boy” is a well-known situational racial epithet in the South, but why would Eastland have called Biden by it? What substantive difference between the two terms was Biden trying to underscore? As it turns out, Biden has used the story in the past, in a much less garbled version, saying the much older Eastland called him “son” rather than “senator.”
Yet in a broader sense, Biden’s invocation of Eastland still makes no sense. Biden is obviously not endorsing Eastland’s segregationism. The point was to recall a time when “civility” in the Senate could overcome political differences, which complements Biden’s message that the country needs a more tempered, friendly political discourse. As Jonathan Chait notes, the post–World War II consensus was built in part on a mutual agreement by leaders to move slowly on civil rights. However clubby things were in the Senate, Eastland’s black constituents did not experience the racial discrimination he repeatedly voted to uphold as “civility.”
Recriminations came quickly. The Washington Post reported that staffers had pleaded with Biden not to talk about Eastland. Other Democratic presidential hopefuls criticized Biden, led by Senator Cory Booker, who said he should apologize. Biden fired back, saying that Booker “knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body,” and saying Booker was the one who should apologize. (He did not.)
There are several ways to read Biden’s response. One is that Biden’s temper got the better of him, as it has, to his detriment, in past presidential races. Another, more cynical view is that Biden is acting quite deliberately—calculating that he’s strong enough among black voters and core Democrats to withstand the controversy, and that refusing to back down will play well with white voters who might go for either Trump or Biden.
When I have pointed out the dissonances of Biden running on a nostalgia ticket, a common response has been, So what? He’s way out in front of the Democratic field, so clearly it’s working. Yet his invocation of Eastland is a concrete demonstration of the risks of the nostalgia campaign. Biden’s coalition fuses together support from African Americans and from older white voters, and his supporters remember the past in two different, perhaps mutually incompatible, ways.
Any time you start waxing nostalgic, someone’s going to ask which golden era you’re recalling—and someone’s going to have a good reason why that era wasn’t as golden as you say. Older white voters who don’t like either the crassness of Trump or the combative liberalism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may indeed look fondly on the late 1970s and early 1980s as halcyon days. But black voters are unlikely to look quite so fondly on mentions of Eastland—or on the other examples of Biden praising Dixiecrats that have resurfaced in the past couple days.
Biden could have made the same point in a less inflammatory way by citing more recent examples of working with Republicans to pass bipartisan bills. Perhaps he simply resorted to the shopworn Eastland anecdote because it’s familiar and comfortable. Perhaps he really believes it’s the best illustration of how compromise works.
But compromise in the service of what? Biden’s anecdote is a tactic in search of a strategy. While his rivals offer vast reimaginings of the political landscape, Biden has centered his campaign on opposing Trump. Yet it’s hard to see how even the relatively modest proposals Biden offers fit into this paradigm. Biden wants to address climate change, make it easier to vote, reform campaign finance, and improve labor protections. All of these are anathema to the current Republican Party, and without a unifying common cause—like defeating the Soviet Union, for example—it’s not clear what compromise Biden could offer to entice GOP politicians to work with him.
Biden ought to know this better than anyone, having been involved in the Obama administration’s health-care push. Democrats borrowed the individual mandate from conservative think-tank plans, largely adopted a plan modeled by Republican Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, and made accommodations with the private-insurance industry. This didn’t entice GOP crossover support.
Given Biden’s history, the press has been standing watch for The Gaffe that could blow up his front-running campaign. Bringing up one now obscure senator is probably not that gaffe, but it’s the sort of problem that could spell real trouble for him. Biden is obviously confident in his rapport with black voters, especially older ones, but those voters aren’t an immovable monolith. Twelve years ago, they were strongly in Hillary Clinton’s corner and wary of the newcomer Barack Obama—until they were not. Perhaps Biden should keep that more recent history in his mind, rather than reaching back to the 1970s.