Toward a More Balanced View of Joe Biden’s Legacy

To the extent that polls conducted a full year before a presidential primary is underway have any validity, it’s true that Joe Biden is the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic nomination. While I have already suggested that the former vice president is mostly a placeholder as voters learn more about the rest of the field, Biden’s lead means that he will be the subject of intense media scrutiny, even though he hasn’t formally declared his candidacy yet.

Given that Biden served as a senator from Delaware for 36 years, as vice president for eight, and has run for president on two previous occasions, there will be a lot of fodder from his past to be dissected. In addition to his role in the Clarence Thomas hearing, we’re already seeing issues raised about things like his earlier approach to criminal justice and school desegregation.

Because our conflict-driven press is more inclined to focus on stories that paint an assumed front-runner in a negative light, those reports will flourish. But it’s helpful to get a more balanced view of presidential candidates. While it’s clear that Biden has many flaws, he has also had moments of courage and brilliance. To give you one such example, I’d like to talk about something that happened back in 1986.

For some historical context, Ronald Reagan was president and the biggest foreign policy issue at the time was the scourge of the apartheid government in South Africa. As violence against black citizens was on the rise, governments all over the world were being called upon to condemn apartheid and impose sanctions against the deplorable regime.

On July 22, 1986, Reagan gave a speech in which he soft-pedaled South Africa’s racist oppression and insisted that his policy of “constructive engagement” was best for that country’s black majority. He also refused to impose sanctions, which he described as “immoral and utterly repugnant” because they would hurt the people most in need of help. In response, Archbishop Desmond Tutu—who had won the Nobel Peace Prize two years earlier—issued a statement calling Reagan’s speech “utterly racist and totally disgusting.”

The next day, Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to explain the administration’s position on South Africa. That is when Joe Biden had a defining moment of justified outrage.

Within a month of that exchange, Congress began debate on the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed sanctions against South Africa and included five preconditions for lifting the sanctions that would essentially end apartheid. The bill passed in both chambers but was vetoed by President Reagan. When the veto was overridden, it marked “the first time a sitting president had been so rebuked on foreign policy by Congress in the entire span of the 20th century.”

I don’t share this bit of history in an attempt to suggest that Biden should be the Democratic nominee, or even that he should enter the race. But if we are going to be subjected to reports about his failures in the past (which are fair game), we need to balance that with his successes. When someone needed to call out the Reagan administration for their racist policy on South Africa, Joe Biden stepped up to the plate in a profound way. That’s part of his legacy, too.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.