Vice President Joe Biden is reportedly considering throwing his hat in the ring for the presidency, spurred on by frontrunner Hillary Clinton's declining poll numbers and Bernie Sanders's rise.
Early polls have Biden eating away at much of Clinton's lead and playing well with black voters in states like South Carolina. But it remains to be seen how a Biden candidacy would deal with a rising issue among Democratic voters: Black Lives Matter and the criminal justice reform movement.
Although Biden has largely been in the background during his time as vice president, it is worth revisiting his pivotal role in creating the mass incarceration we see today. Out of any Democratic or potential Democratic candidate for president, he bears the greatest responsibility for the state of today's prisons.
Making the Democrats the Party of Prisons and Police
Up until the 1990s, the Democratic Party was known to be an institution committed to civil liberties. Presidential candidates like Michael Dukakis were pilloried for their opposition to the death penalty, while Republicans were widely seen by the public as the defenders of the police and American neighborhoods.
The arrival of the New Democrat president Bill Clinton changed that. He made passing a crime bill one of his top priorities and worked with many in Congress on both sides of the aisle to pass legislation that dramatically increased the number of cops on the street. The legislation also led to a rise in the prison population, ended federal education funding for prisoners and increased the number of people executed.
His point man for this legislation in the congress was former Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Democrat. Biden was the prime mover of the Senate version of the bill, and he spent much of 1994 standing on the floor of the Senate boasting about its contents and how he was getting it passed.
While today mass incarceration is a topic that receives bipartisan criticism, for Biden it seemed to be a point of pride. From his remarks on Aug. 23, 1994:
Just as it is no longer legitimate to say the Republican Party is against, as a matter of course, Social Security, the Republicans are finding out it is no longer legitimate to say the Democrats are soft on crime. Because guess what? What has every major crime bill that has gotten this far been? A Democratic crime bill. A Democratic crime bill. That is the secret. A Democratic crime bill. A Democratic President wants 100,000 cops. A Democratic President wants to build 125,000 new prison cells. That is the secret. And, boy, is that bothersome.
Biden also bragged about courting police unions — one of the primary lobbying groups for more police, more prisons and harsher sentences for street crime — to get the bill passed:
I want to point out when I wrote the original bill that started this whole process, the so-called Biden crime bill that passed out of here … about which the Senator from Utah stood up and said, as it was going out the door, "Can we call it the Biden-Hatch bill?'' — do you know how I wrote that bill? I asked the police organizations in this nation — the Fraternal Order of Police — "Give me the list," because I invited them all in before I wrote the bill.
But I invited the police organizations in and I said, "What do you need? You guys and women out in the street are getting the living devil beaten out of you.'' In the last 10 years we have increased the number of urban police by less than 1.1 percent, I say to my friend from California. They are getting beat up. They are putting their lives on the line for us and they are getting beat up.
We needed to have a special bill passed through here, Mr. President, to allow enough money to let the FBI agents buy weapons as powerful as the drug cartels have. They are getting beat up.
So I invited them in. I did not sit up in a room and write this. I did not go visit with the ACLU — which I have great respect for — and write it. I did not call a liberal confab and write it. I did not call Johnsonian liberals, if there are any still alive, and write it. I did not call any big society people and write it.
I called the cops. And they sat in my office, at my conference table: the Fraternal Order of Police, Dewey Stokes and Don Oakhill, the National Association of Police Organizations, Mr. Skully and his executive assistant, the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, national sheriffs, International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, national troopers, major cities chiefs, International Union of Police Organizations, the Police Foundation, Police Executive Research Forum and Federal law enforcement officers.
I called them all and they came in and sat in my office and I said, "What do you need?''
They said, "The first thing we need is we need more cops.'' And they said, "The second thing we need is we need more prisons.''
Towards the end of his remarks that day, Biden summarized his efforts on crime as part of a long game, saying that even in the days of Richard Nixon he was dismissive of social justice — he just wanted to lock people up:
Just like when I first got into politics, even though I come from this background and ran on a law and order platform, I remember the liberals used to say, "Biden is an iconoclast.'' That was what my newspaper called me, an iconoclast, because how can he really be progressive and want to lock these people up? I am sure my friend from California gets hit with that all the time. How can you be a progressive and be tough on crime? I was not wedded to the notion. Every time Richard Nixon, when he was running in 1972, would say "law and order," the Democratic match or response was "law and order with justice," whatever that meant. And I would say, "Lock the SOBs up.''
Two years later, Biden artfully summarized how he and Clinton had changed the nature of crime and civil liberties debate in America, saying, “Someone asleep for the last 20 years might wake up and think Republicans were representing Abbie Hoffman and Democrats were representing J. Edgar Hoover.”
American politics is not known for its accountability. Few elites are ever held responsible for the policy errors they make. But Joe Biden happens to be pondering a presidential bid at the same time the criminal justice issue is resonating more intensely than ever before. Biden may feel that voters will simply forget the fact he led the charge for more police, more prisons and disregarding the root causes of crime. He may feel that he can claim an evolution and be absolved for his role in the mass incarceration crisis. But just as Hillary Clinton was unable to avoid the backlash from her support of the Iraq war in 2008, there may be unexpected accountability coming Biden's way.
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