Uncle Joe is not so bad

March 10, 2020 6:00 am
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Super Tuesday campaign event at Baldwin Hills Recreation Center in Los Angeles, California. Biden is hoping his make- (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Super Tuesday campaign event at Baldwin Hills Recreation Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A few years ago, I wrote an “Uncle Fred” column.

I was seeking an explanation for why Donald Trump could be attracting so much support, even though he was saying and doing outrageously offensive things. 

Partly, I reasoned, it was because many Americans have an Uncle Fred in the family. You know, the guy who says things you wouldn’t dare to say in public — but that kinda, sorta resonate. You, after all, come from the same social and cultural milieu. So, he’s the guy who “tells it like it is.” Even if you would never say what he says (damn political correctness!), he’s Uncle Fred and you love him.

Let us now posit that Joe Biden is the Bizarro Uncle Fred — Uncle Joe, if you will. (And, no, this isn’t to slam Biden’s age. If either Bernie Sanders’ or Trump supporters go there, they will need to be checked for irony deficiency). 

Many progressives in the Sanders camp are in a lather about Biden’s recent ascendancy to frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary.

And to them, all other progressives should say, “for pity’s sake, chill.”

Think of Uncle Joe.

The knock on Biden seems to be that past positions and statements reveal him to be insufficiently progressive, that he fails some purity test.

This denigrates the value — or the possibility — of changes demonstrably made, of personal political evolution and of redemption.

The Biden of 1978 is not likely the Biden of 2020. He isn’t, in other words, your old Uncle Joe. 

True, Biden’s improved fortunes for the nomination likely have a lot to do with voters’ strategic decision that he is a more potent competitor than Sanders to oust the current White House occupant. 

And it could also be that the Democratic electorate’s preference is, so far, for incremental change driven by practicality rather than revolution. But it also assuredly comes with acceptance that, no matter Biden’s past positions and statements, he is, in fact, a progressive — as are, by any definition, so-called “moderates” and post-Super-Tuesday dropouts Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Mike Bloomberg? Well, that’s a tougher sell. 

Back to Uncle Joe.

The Uncle Joe of your youth — or from the time before you were even born in the case of many Sanders supporters — held views that would be considered wacky by today’s standards.

The old Uncle Joe thundered over school busing to achieve integration. But for white males back in the day, this was conventional political thought — to abhor busing while not considering even the remote possibility of racist undercurrents in your conclusion.

Likewise, you could view with alarm the “urban” crime rate and not bat an eye at automatically equating “urban” with black. You could view as “reasonable” the mass incarceration and other misfortunes that would disproportionately afflict those “urban” residents. We now call these outcomes the “new Jim Crow.”

Abortion? It would have been pretty conventional thought, particularly for Catholic white men such as Biden, to initially believe Roe v. Wade went too far, or to support the Hyde Amendment prohibition on the use of federal funds for abortion. Now, there is more consideration for choice control of their own destiny and decisions for women unexpectedly and unwelcomely pregnant.

And, in not-such-ancient history, a lot of people in both political parties believed in the righteousness of invading Iraq to get those weapons of mass destruction. We were sold a bill of goods and have been reaping the whirlwind ever since.

But here’s the difference between Uncle Fred and Uncle Joe.

Uncle Fred has not abandoned his anti-intellectual tripe. He’s still a true believer. He blames political correctness for all this snowflake hyper-sensitivity to what he views as universal truth. Facts don’t stand a chance — don’t even get a hearing — when it comes to his universal truths.

Uncle Joe, on the other hand, has had little difficulty saying, “I was wrong. Facts and consequences matter.” Or, “I don’t believe that anymore.”

Uncle Joe evolves. Uncle Fred never will.

Understand, Biden isn’t my first choice for nominee. But it is not particularly useful to demonize him for his past views, given that, speaking broadly, today you can check a lot of the same boxes for him as you do for Sanders. Universal health care? Check. Addressing income inequality? Check. Climate change a real and urgent problem? Check and check.

And if you are going to hold past statements and views against a candidate, for the sake of consistency you might hold your preferred candidate to the same kind of for-me-or-against-me litmus test. Sanders and guns, anyone? (He, too, has evolved on this).

I get it. Some progressives see Biden’s evolution more as a matter of political opportunism. And there are real differences between the candidates. One represents gradualism, the other revolution.

Because of polls and patience wearing thin for gradualism, many don’t necessarily buy that Sanders is unelectable against Trump. But choosing Biden does not mean choosing the lesser of two evils. There is nothing even remotely evil about Biden (or Sanders). Both profess the same basic principles. 

In November, there will necessarily be starker night-and-day comparisons. Uncle Fred will be on the ballot. But as far as the Democratic primary goes, think of Uncle Joe. 

He’s that family elder who used to have some off-putting views and behaviors, but doesn’t now. The capacity to change and admit he was wrong should inspire you. And anyway, he always meant to have your back.

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O. Ricardo Pimentel
O. Ricardo Pimentel

O. Ricardo Pimentel has been a journalist for about 40 years. He was most recently the editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express-News in Texas; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before that. He has also worked in various editing and reporting positions in newspapers in California, Arizona, Texas and Washington D.C., where he covered Congress, federal agencies and the Supreme Court for McClatchy Newspapers. He is the author of two novels and lives in Wisconsin.