It's official: Joe Biden is running for president. He started in signature bumbling fashion, claiming that he asked Barack Obama not to endorse him, putting out a tone-deaf fundraising email talking about how "all men are created equal," and releasing a very awkward picture of himself with Obama.
But here we are: the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination are two elderly white men — Biden and Bernie Sanders (at least in terms of polls at this early date). Nevertheless, their political legacies are poles apart. Biden represents the old party orthodoxy, while Sanders represents a new ideological force trying to displace it. Their records make for a good illustration of the political stakes in this primary.
Let's examine three major policy areas.
Certainly the biggest difference between Sanders and Biden is in their economic views. Sanders has been a die-hard advocate of unions, taxing the rich, regulating corporate abuses (especially in finance), fair trade, and social insurance for his entire career. It's what he cares about most, and where his messaging is most consistent. (In an amusing interview on the Today Show from 1981, Sanders said: "In our society, theoretically a democratic society, you have a handful of people who control our economy. You have maybe 2 percent of the population who owns one third of the entire wealth of America, 80 percent of the stocks, 90 percent of the bonds.") As Mayor of Burlington, he worked to preserve public housing, enable worker and consumer cooperatives, and ensure public ownership and control of the city waterfront.
Biden, by contrast, has been a bag man for big corporations for his entire career. Delaware is like the Luxembourg of U.S. states — a tiny tax haven and flag of convenience for corporations who own the local political system outright, and Biden is no exception. His economic policy career has been one disgrace after the next — sponsoring or voting for multiple rounds of financial deregulation, trade deals that savaged the American manufacturing base, and bankruptcy "reform" that made it much harder to discharge consumer debt (and nearly impossible to get rid of student debt). It's no surprise at all that on the same day he launched his campaign, Biden held a fundraiser including several corporate lobbyists and Republican donors at the home of a Comcast executive.
Though it's not his prime area of concern, Sanders has a real record of civil rights activism. As a student at the University of Chicago, he was a bit player in the 1960s civil rights movement, helping organize protests against segregation and racist abuses, and was even fined for resisting arrest at a sit-in. As a representative and senator, he has a very good voting record on civil rights legislation.
Biden, by contrast, openly courted white backlash to the civil rights movement to keep himself in office in the 1970s, working with southern segregationists like Strom Thurmond and James Eastland to stop school integration. "I think the Democratic Party could stand a liberal George Wallace," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1975. Biden was also key in helping Clarence Thomas get onto the Supreme Court, harshly questioning Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexually harassing her, and did not call witnesses who could have supported Hill to testify, one of which also accused Thomas of harassment. Since that time he has supported many civil rights bills, but he was also one of the driving forces behind racist mass incarceration (see below).
Here Sanders' record is not quite as good. He was clearly somewhat caught up in the crime panic of the 1980s and 1990s. He voted for the infamous 1994 crime bill, saying in a speech: "It is my firm belief that clearly there are people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them." More recently, he voted for the terrible SESTA/FOSTA bill, which has endangered sex workers across the country.
Still, Sanders has also attacked the wildly over-punitive criminal system. He says he voted for the 1994 bill not because he agreed with it entirely, but because it contained money to combat violence against women and a 10-year assault weapons ban. In the same speech noted above, he said "How do we talk about the very serious crime problem in America without mentioning that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, by far, with 22 percent of our children in poverty, and 5 million children hungry today? Do you think maybe that might have something to do with crime? … We can either educate or electrocute. We can create meaningful jobs, rebuilding our society, or we can build more jails."
Sanders also voted against the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, against banning Pell grants for prisoners, and against the 1991 crime bill. In a speech about the latter bill, he responded to other politicians who were arguing that America wasn't tough enough on criminals by noting that the U.S. already had locked up more of its population than any other country. "[W]e have the highest percentage of people in America in jail per capita of any industrialized nation on Earth. We've beaten South Africa. We've beaten the Soviet Union. What do we have to do, put half the country behind bars?" (He now says he regrets his 1994 vote, and wants to allow ex-cons and prisoners to vote.)
Biden, by contrast, was a war on crime die-hard. Where Sanders grudgingly voted for the 1994 crime bill, Biden actually wrote the thing, and pushed hard for its passage. As Jamelle Bouie details, he again teamed up with Strom Thrumond to write and pass the Comprehensive Control Act of 1984, which expanded civil asset forfeiture (where the police can take your property without charging you with a crime). He sponsored the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which among other things created the hugely racist sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, the similar drug war bill of 1988, and the 2003 RAVE Act. As Bouie writes, "Joe Biden, in other words, is the Democratic face of the drug war."
To sum up: For many of the worst problems bedeviling American society today — corporate corruption, extreme inequality, wild over-imprisonment, financial oligarchy — Biden either enabled or directly helped create them. While this was happening (with some exceptions), Sanders was out on the political fringe, yelling that Biden and company were leading the country into ruin. Biden's opening video only plays into this point, portraying Trump as some bizarre aberration and promising to return to the supposedly-idyllic pre-2016 status quo.
For Democratic voters, the choice — at least between these two candidates — seems clear.