In 1972, when Joe Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate – at the barely legal age of 30, and to general surprise – it seemed the Democratic Party was about to break in half between its blue-collar and tie-dyed wings. At the Miami Beach convention that nominated George McGovern for president, there seemed to be open warfare between the social issue forces on the one side, eager to talk about drug laws, abortion and women’s liberation, and the actively unhappy party core of organized labor.
Last week, when Vice President Biden – the only member of that 1973 Senate still pounding the campaign trail – came to Portland to stump for Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Convention Center crowd gave equally loud roars to Biden’s testimonial, “One thing I like about Jeff, he and I both know how to pronounce the word ‘union,’” and to Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s call to end “the failed prohibition of marijuana.”
The lesson may be that if you’re in politics as long as Biden – or Blumenauer, who was elected to the Oregon state House in 1972 – you will eventually see everything. But there may be another explanation for the apparently seamless merger of Democrats’ economic and social agendas, an explanation as clear as the giant poster on the wall behind the podium: “Jeff Merkley: Fighting for the Middle Class.”
In 1972, the middle class was considered the establishment, a bulwark of the values the young social protesters were attacking. These days, “middle class” is a code for economically embattled, and everybody speaking at the Convention Center Wednesday used the phrase at a rate that could send calculators spinning.
Biden stressed the country’s economic progress in returning from the Great Recession, and the need to “finish what Barack and I started in 2008.” (Only Joe Biden, and possibly Michelle Obama, refers in public to someone called “Barack.”) But, he stressed, “The middle class is still hurtin’… The middle class has not recovered.”
Middle class identity has always been the core of Biden’s rhetoric; his roots in Scranton, Pa., came up as often during the course of the afternoon as Merkley’s origins as the son of a millworker. Merkley further embraced his identity by wearing Kitzhaberian jeans with his jacket and tie.
(When the governor wore jeans to welcome Obama, there was some muttering about dressing that way for the president, but nobody seemed to consider it inappropriate style to greet Biden.)
But just because language is expected doesn’t deprive it of power. When Biden delivered his account – standard in his speeches – about the longest walk in a parent’s life being up the stairs to a child’s room to say that he’s lost his job and the family has to move, the convention center got very quiet.
There’s always something to say for the classics.
But there were also messages that wouldn’t have come from the early Joe Biden, deep incursions into the social agenda. He forcefully declared his pride in writing the Violence Against Women Act, and thundered that domestic violence “is never, never, never the woman’s fault! Never!”
The audience liked that part, too.
And the Joe Biden of the earlier years was never preceded by a House member, like Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, endorsing contraceptive equity, LGBT rights, abortion rights and “our great senator who really believes in the rights of women, Jeff Merkley.”
So now Democratic rallies are about both transgendered rights and an increased minimum wage, mingling marijuana legalization and support for organized labor, in a way that would have astonished all sides of the party back when Joe Biden and Earl Blumenauer were getting started in politics.
Maybe the young rebels of that day have just grown up and taken over the party, especially since all the white Southerners have left. Maybe it’s that union members, like other middle class Americans, are feeling embattled, and seeking allies more than fights over social issues.
In Elizabeth Warren’s book, “Fighting Chance,” she recalls talking to the head of the firefighters’ union about their decision to endorse her in the 2012 Senate race. He began by of noting that the Harvard Law professor wasn’t really the firefighters’ kind of person, and that he’s rather have a beer with her Republican opponent.
“But,” he concluded, “(predictable obscenity), we gotta raise our families.”
It was Joe Biden’s kind of conversation.
It was also Biden’s style to dive into the crowd after his speech Wednesday, to bask there for long minutes while people swarmed around him seeking keepsakes.
Not autographs, of course.
They weren’t around in 1972, either.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/12/14.