Former Vice President Joe Biden’s run for the White House is unique, because unlike anyone else on the long list of Democrats challenging him for the party’s nomination, he’s campaigning against a younger version of himself.
As a young and ambitious U.S. senator, Biden, 76, made a name for himself as a tough-on-crime advocate. Most notably, he aggressively supported a 1994 crime bill promoted by the Clinton administration that is believed to have ushered in a generation of criminal justice abuses, including the mass incarceration of black and poor people convicted of relatively minor drug offenses.
In a 10-page document released Tuesday, Biden fired a direct shot at the criminal justice policies he spent his career proposing, supporting, and defending during his 30-year legislative career.
“The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice” calls for federal legislation to abolish the death penalty and offers incentives for states to do likewise. The plan would remove criminal penalties for marijuana use and expunge past cannabis-related convictions; eliminate disparate sentencing that exists for convictions related to the use of powder and crack cocaine; and get rid of mandatory-minimum sentencing.
Biden’s plan also would create a $20 billion program to offer states grants for moving away from incarceration and toward crime prevention programs, as well as eliminate mandatory minimum sentences.
In announcing the sweeping proposals, Biden said his plan would reduce “racial, gender and income-based disparities in the system.”
This is an about-face from the days when Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when the nation was more willing to lock people up without too much thought about the root causes of criminal behavior.
As head of Judiciary, Biden played a key role in writing and passing legislation that pushed more prisons and longer sentences for drug offenses, especially those related to crack cocaine use.
As Naomi Murakawa, associate professor of African American studies at Princeton, wrote in a 2014 book “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America,” Biden competed with the Bush administration to see who could be tougher on crime.
For example, Murakawa noted that during a 1991 debate over legislation that eventually morphed into the 1994 crime bill, Biden insisted his proposed bill was “much tougher than the [Bush administration’s]” and “provides for more penalties for death for more offenses than the [president’s] bill.” Responding to Republican claims that Biden was too soft on crime, Biden pushed back, saying his ideas “do everything but hang people for jaywalking.”
Today, such views — and policies — are anathema in the progressive and Democratic circles that Biden needs to win the nomination. It’s not a good look for Biden to be too closely linked to those past policies, however popular they might have once seemed. By current standards, drug addiction is viewed more as a disease than a crime and the presence of the nation’s jails filled with poor, black, and brown bodies is widely accepted as emblematic of class-based and racist federal policies.
For Biden, it’s a move that is necessary to rebrand him as a progressive champion. But as cynically valuable as it might be to distance himself from his former self, it’s equally necessary for Biden to shape a modern-day visage to compete against a younger and diverse field of challengers nipping at this heels.
To be sure, other Democratic challengers are priming to debate Biden on his past as a means of advancing their own campaigns.
Responding to Biden’s release of his criminal justice plan, Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey wasted no time in attacking his rival, accusing Biden of creating the problem that he now wants to solve.
“Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right,” Booker said in a statement he tweeted on social media. “The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
Nevertheless, for Biden, an argument framing his political goal is just starting to take shape. It shouldn’t be too big a surprise that as he fights against his party rivals to win the nomination, he will also have to defeat the man in the mirror, who is barely recognizable to anyone save those who know and remember his political history.