Biden pushed Reagan on mass incarceration -- Parsing the WFP endorsement of Warren

Joe Biden is often challenged on the campaign trail to defend the 1994 Biden Crime Bill. The legislation, he responds, can’t be blamed for the out-of-control war on drugs or mass incarceration because the interlocking phenomena were already well underway at the time, and driven primarily at the state level. He’s right about that -- yet he’s still responsible. 

We have a new report out from historian David Stein who goes over Biden’s record in the 1970s and ‘80s and shows that, in fact, it was Biden who was pushing first President Carter and then President Reagan to get tougher on drugs and crime. 

Reagan, initially, wasn’t interested. Biden, the top-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee at the time, persuaded the panel’s chairman Strom Thurmond -- a racist, segregationist and Dixiecrat-turned-Republican -- to craft a Thurmond-Biden crime bill that would back Reagan into a corner. Yet Reagan vetoed it, risking being called soft of crime in order to oppose the federal spending that would come with the mass incarceration envisioned by the legislation. From there, Biden relentlessly pushed for more money for police and prisons at the federal level, and, importantly, at the state level, too. Ultimately, history bent his way (away from justice) and here we are.

The fascinating story, with a lot of history I didn’t know, is here.

As the campaign rolls on, we’re still more than four months away from the first Iowan braving the cold for a caucus, and Biden’s first-place position continues to hover at around 30 percent. The newest NBC poll, conducted after the last debate, has Warren rising to within five points of Biden -- at 31 for him, 26 for her, and 14 for Bernie Sanders. Nobody else is close. (Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang are basically tied, at 5% and 4%.)

The better news for Warren is that when you factor in enthusiasm, negative opinions, and second choices, she has the most room to grow. If Biden fades, his supporters are likely to move to her to stop Bernie, and if Bernie fades, his supporters are likely to move to her to stop Biden. That’s a good place to be. 

The Working Families Party on Monday announced it was endorsing Warren, which set off a firestorm of protest from Sanders supporters, largely because of how the endorsement was presented. The WFP had tried to draft Warren into the 2016 presidential campaign, but when she declined, they ended up endorsing Bernie Sanders. When they did, they announced that more than 80% of their individual members voted to make the endorsement. The WFP released that figure in part, I suspect, as a signal to the Clinton campaign that it had no choice but to buck her and endorse Sanders, perhaps staving off some of the anger that would be directed their way for disloyalty. 

This time around, the WFP has yet to release its membership vote breakdown, instead noting that she won 60.9 percent of the overall vote, which was a 50-50 combination of the party’s leadership and its members. People, understandably, want to know if there was a split between the leadership and their members, but the party leaders aren’t saying. 

Mike Casca, a spokesman for Sanders, told me the WFP should release the figure. “Publicly releasing the tallies for the committee vote and the member vote is perfectly consistent with what the WFP did in the past. Last I checked, transparency isn’t a radical idea,” he said.

The WFP has gotten itself in a bind. It appears clear from the numbers, and the reluctance to release them, that Sanders won the membership vote, but WFP leadership sided with Warren by a sizable enough spread to lead to an endorsement of Warren anyway. 

Joe Salazar, a former Colorado state representative, is a Sanders supporter and a member of WFP leadership in Colorado. He said people are fuming there, as the Colorado chapter cast its leadership committee votes for Sanders, and was stunned at the result. “Bernie Sanders represents everything this organization is supposed to stand for,” he said. Jacobin, the pro-Bernie socialist magazine, declared that the WFP has written itself out of history.

The structure of the debate going on inside the Democratic Party -- with a party base in conflict with its establishment leadership -- has framed this dispute in an unhelpful way for the WFP. The WFP, for its part, doesn’t want to diminish the input or role of its leadership, or accede to the assumption that a handful of elites, with echoes of superdelegates, overrode the popular will of the party. It’s important to understand who that leadership is. The New York Times reported it as “56 people,” but that’s not exactly right. The national committee indeed had 56 votes, but those votes represented state chapters and other organizations that themselves have broad bases, and in some cases represented multiple groups, all of whom also had broad membership, made up of the committed grassroots activists. Why did those folks -- who perhaps numbered in the thousands -- go for Warren, while the base membership leaned Sanders? 

I’m gonna try to write more on this situation later today (though I’m in a management training from 9 till 5), so if you have insight into it, please reach out at or reply to this email.