On Tuesday, Joe Biden once again fondly recounted his warm working relationship with a white supremacist responsible for some of the fiercest opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Biden waxed poetic about former Mississippi Sen. James Eastland for calling him “son” and then hit with this line: “At least there was some civility. We got things done.”
James Eastland was a fucking monster. Among the plethora of horrible things Eastland did was baselessly accusing black American soldiers in World War II of the widespread rape of women in Stuttgart, Germany, at the end of the war. He was a vicious and effective opponent of civil rights legislation throughout the entirety of his career, and a very open racist:
Eastland took to Biden, though, and Biden took a liking to him. When Biden and fellow Delaware Sen. Bill Roth pushed an end to desegregation busing in the late 1970s, Biden considered Eastland a top ally on the issue.
Anyone who knows Joe Biden’s history shouldn’t be surprised by this in the slightest. In addition to his affinity for Eastland, Biden was so fond of the notorious segregationist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond that he eulogized Thurmond at his funeral in 2003. In his 2008 autobiography Promises to Keep, Biden mentions Eastland numerous times, saying that he and segregationist Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge advised him to “demagogue the shit out of” the busing issue in his home state when Biden ran his first campaign for re-election. Biden also mentions that Eastland offered to come to Delaware to help out Biden’s campaign: “I’ll campaign for ya or against ya, Joe,” Eastland told Biden. “Whichever way you think helps you the most.”
Why is Joe Biden like this? What goes on in the man’s brain to convince him that he could both make common cause with some of the worst, most powerful racists in the 20th century and also be a champion of civil rights, as he’s so often claimed? There are numerous theories, including that Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate, still suffers from a particularly difficult case of Senate brain. Another theory is that things really were different and more civil back then, although again, that extension of civility clearly didn’t apply to Edward Brooke, the first popularly elected black U.S. senator who vigorously fought Biden and his Southern allies’ attempts to stop desegregation.
But there is another key to Biden’s disturbing myopia: his home base of Delaware—specifically, a longstanding, idealized, relentlessly “centrist” and ultimately destructive political tradition that has come to be known as the “Delaware Way.” As Biden said earlier this year, at a fundraiser for the Delaware Democratic Party: “We need a little more of the Delaware Way. We got to make it more the American way and it’s lost. Our politics has become so mean, so petty, so vicious that we can’t govern ourselves, in many cases, even talk to one another. It can’t go on like this, folks.”
Here is the Delaware Way in a nutshell, as described by the News Journal, the state’s biggest daily: “We are so small, the line goes, that we can get all the right people in one room and get things done.”
What this idea means, in political terms, is that the ultimate solution to any political or social problem should involve heavy doses of consensus, compromise, and moderation by both Democrats and Republicans. Temperament is valued above ideology; civility above principles.
This is how Delaware politics have been conducted almost since the founding of the state. Two days after every federal election, Republicans and Democrats in the state come together for a parade known as “Return Day,” where they eat ox sandwiches and bury a literal hatchet to signify the end of the campaign. This has been going on for at least two centuries.
The Delaware Way is all Biden—who was elected to the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29—has ever known. It’s all anyone alive who’s from Delaware, like me, has ever known.
In 1992, for example, then-Gov. Mike Castle, a moderate Republican, was term-limited out of office and looking for his next gig. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Tom Carper—a moderate who was the prototype of a Third Way Democrat in the early ‘90s—was tired of Congress. So the two simply ran for each other’s jobs, with neither facing serious opposition. (Neither Carper nor Castle has commented about the “swap,” but it’s been widely reported for decades. Carper is now in the Senate; I interned for him in his Senate office in Wilmington for a summer when I was in college.)
Like the rest of the country, Delaware’s politics have become much more polarized in recent years. Castle’s 1988 gubernatorial re-election was, to date, the last time a Republican has been elected to top office there; when Castle left the House in 2010, having lost his Senate primary in an upset to not-a-witch Christine O’Donnell, it gave Delaware an all-Democratic congressional delegation that they’ve had ever since. Delaware Democrats have also maintained a so-called “trifecta” in the state for over a decade, meaning they control both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor’s mansion. It is, in every sense of the word, a blue state.
And yet the state’s politics, and the politicians who come out of it, have remained the same. Sen. Chris Coons, the junior senator from Delaware who won the special election to replace Biden in 2010, is a frequent critic of the left wing of his party, and has been praised by conservatives for his undying commitment to politeness and his fierce opposition to changing the structure of the Senate. In a profile last year, Politico called Coons “the GOP’s favorite Democrat.” (Coons endorsed Biden before he even announced he was running for president.)
Similarly, the state’s Gov. John Carney—who was perhaps best known during his six years in Congress for starting a “bipartisan breakfast club”—has infuriated some Delaware Democrats over the past few years with his constant plays at compromise and consensus. After the Carney administration faced a backlash over the draft of a rule aimed at protecting transgender students, the state’s Department of Education so thoroughly weakened the rule in the interest of finding a middle ground that trans groups were relieved when it was pulled altogether. Additionally, Carney has championed bringing back the death penalty for those convicted of killing police officers, a position that brings him solidly in line with the Republican governor of Massachusetts.
When Biden was accused earlier this year by Nevada politician Lucy Flores of kissing her head and smelling her hair before a campaign event in 2014, Carney defended him at a town hall and implied that in Delaware, people would be mad if you didn’t sniff their heads. Per the News Journal:
“I know Joe as well as I know anybody. Joe is a politician that reaches out, puts his arms around folks,” Carney said at the town hall. He noted that in Delaware, politicians know many of the people they meet, who expect that kind of familiarity.
“If you don’t do that, don’t reach out, people are like ‘Who’s this guy? What did I do? Why am I not favored?’” Carney said.
It’s only recently that tiny cracks have begun to show in the Delaware Way’s armor. In 2018, Carper—who has never lost an election in Delaware—was primaried by war veteran Kerri Evelyn Harris, a Justice Democrats-backed progressive whose campaign was linked heavily with that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The Harris campaign only gained momentum very late in the race and ultimately lost by 30 points, but the race garnered substantial national coverage and was closely watched in the aftermath of Ocasio-Cortez’s upset. So much so, in fact, that Carper was forced to roll out an endorsement and robocall from—you guessed it—Joe Biden.
Biden has been no different. From the very beginning of his career, he has marketed himself as a consensus-builder above all else, and has prided himself on his relationships with conservatives, whether they be from his own state or the segregated South. Even before starting his presidential campaign, Biden was slammed for praising his successor, the virulently anti-LGBTQ Mike Pence, as a “decent guy.”
Earlier this year, the New York Times found that three weeks before the 2018 election, Biden had praised an embattled Republican congressman during a $200,000 speech in Michigan. The congressman, Fred Upton—a man who helped write the Republican bill which would have repealed the Affordable Care Act in 2017—narrowly won his race. “I read in the New York Times today that one of my problems is if I ever run for president, I like Republicans,” Biden said of the story. “OK, well, bless me father, for I have sinned.”
This instinct for compromise and civility came up again in the most contentious episode of Biden’s current run for president so far: the Hyde Amendment debacle. Biden has been a strong supporter of the rule, which bans federal funding for abortion, since the 1970s. At the time, the Hyde Amendment was heralded as a compromise between Republicans who wanted to ban abortion and liberals who wanted to keep it legal; things, however, have changed. After his campaign responded to an NBC News inquiry by reaffirming his support for the ban, Biden reversed his position the next day. The Hill reported later that Biden and his allies were shocked at the backlash. “It all happened really fast,” one source said.
One reason the Delaware Way has been so immune to the national political mood—even if the state’s voters aren’t—is that almost from the beginning, Delaware’s economy has been heavily reliant on big business, particularly financial interests. Biden himself was derisively called “the Senator from MBNA” by his opponents, after a now-defunct bank headquartered in Delaware. But the label had merit—MBNA was Biden’s biggest contributor for the final two decades of his career, and was a key supporter of the infamous bankruptcy “reform” bill, a version of which passed in 2005. (Biden was a key driver of removing bankruptcy protections from student loans throughout his Senate career, a fight where he found more Republicans on his side than Democrats.)
Even when Biden has found himself on the right side of an issue, this overwhelming desire to find consensus outweighs his convictions. Earlier this year, Mother Jones’ David Corn recounted a Biden-led effort to impose restrictions on the invasion of Iraq after CIA Director George Tenet admitted in a Senate hearing that the CIA had no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. But after then-House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt embraced the Bush administration’s push for war, Republican senators abandoned the Biden effort, and it died.
Biden’s response to this development according to Corn, emphasis mine:
Biden’s attempt to impose conditions on Bush’s march to war had been killed by a fellow Democrat. And Biden was upset with Gephardt: “I was angry,” Biden said years later. “I was frustrated. But I never second-guess another man’s political judgement.”
Biden eventually voted for the war himself, resolving that his vote could be a “march to peace and security” if then-Secretary of State Colin Powell could use the vote to help strong-arm the UN Security Council and Iraq into more inspections. “Thank God for Colin Powell,” Biden said on the floor of the Senate. We all know what happened next.
Biden has frequently pointed to the Delaware Way as an asset in his national career, and he may still believe that’s the case. But his close partnership with segregationists is no longer seen as an asset; on Wednesday (a day in which he also spoke at a hearing in support of reparations for black people), New Jersey Senator and fellow presidential candidate Cory Booker—who has been often criticized by the left throughout his career for being too conciliatory to Republicans—denounced Biden’s associations.
Biden responded to this by saying that it was actually Booker who should apologize to him. For the former vice president, impugning the character of a fellow politician is an offense far more egregious than making common cause with white supremacists.
The simple fact is that running for president is not the same as running for office in his home state. America is not Delaware, and you can’t get all of the important people from all sides together in one room and simply hash out your differences over some beers and a hoagie. Politics, Joe Biden is quickly finding, have changed. It’s not 1978 anymore, he’s not in the Senate anymore, and—above all else—he’s not in Delaware anymore.