From Delaware to the White House: How half a century in politics equipped Joe Biden for this moment

Janet Hook, Evan Halper
·9 min read
President-elect Joe Biden attends church at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware.
President-elect Joe Biden, flanked by a grandson and daughter Ashley Biden, visits the grave of his son Beau Biden, whose 2015 death was one of many personal tragedies that shaped the Democrat's signature empathy. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Soon after a young Joe Biden stunned Delaware by toppling one of its political giants with a scrappy, outsider Senate campaign, he was already planning a quick exit from Washington.

Biden was too grief-stricken for the job. His wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash just weeks after he won the election. His boys were still in a hospital. He wanted to quit before being sworn in.

Yet Biden would experience a phenomenon inside the Senate that kept him coming back: Nearly five decades later, it would serve as the foundation of his presidential run.

Ideological adversaries showed him unrelenting empathy and became lifelong friends. They dragged him to the clubby Senate gym and set a place for him at cozy weekly dinners. They helped launch Biden into the kind of across-the-aisle working relationships that became a hallmark of his career.

In recent years, that affinity for the center nearly toppled Biden. In 2008, when he launched his second run at the party's nomination — his first came in 1988 — voters quickly cast him aside in favor of a man almost two decades younger, Barack Obama. Earlier in this campaign cycle, his rivals in the party primaries branded his approach anachronistic and naïve.

He was derided as a 77-year-old throwback, a clueless Beltway insider and two-time presidential campaign loser.

But Biden placed a bet that the years of patient consensus building, the lessons he learned from his many missteps, and the personal tragedies that shaped his signature empathy would appeal to millions of voters exhausted by four years of partisan warring and White House chaos.

In particular, he and his advisors believed his centrist style would allow him to win back voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the three "blue wall" states that Trump had won in 2016 which became a singular focus of Biden's campaign.

Now that he's won, he's betting again — this time that his approach will allow him to pull the nation together after the crisis-riddled Trump era.

Biden calls that approach the “Delaware Way” — a brand of consensus-oriented politics that has guided lawmakers from a tiny state where moderation dominates politics. It is the path he will pursue as he tries to push the nation in a new direction despite likely opposition from Republicans, who may hold control of the Senate.

Biden’s many years in that institution — and his eight years of working with it as vice president — offer a glimpse of how he will go about the task.

On climate change, for example, Biden prefers to frame the policy debate around the jobs that can be generated by new investments in areas such as solar power. Democrats say he's likely to push for large-scale infrastructure repair that would aim to greatly increase the U.S. supply of renewable energy. On healthcare, he has pushed for a public option that would give Americans an additional choice and has resisted "Medicare for all" proposals that would eliminate employer-provided insurance.

Even if Democrats do manage to win a Senate majority, he's not likely to embrace progressive ideas such as expanding the Supreme Court.

Pete Buttigieg, a former Democratic primary rival who is half Biden’s age and had argued for a generational change in political leadership, says that the evolving crises of 2020 have now made Biden more than ever the man of the moment.

“Not only did the need for consensus building grow even more urgent ... so did the need for consoling, for healing, for those instincts that are so exquisitely part of what makes Joe Biden who he is," Buttigieg said in an interview. “The fact that he’s been through so much in terms of the Senate and the process of the vice presidency also makes this more his moment than any of us could have guessed.”

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Soon after the tragic 1972 car crash, then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana began calling Biden daily to urge him not to quit the Senate. He persuaded Biden to give it six months. He stayed for 36 years.

The empathy shown toward Biden across party lines when he arrived left a lasting impression.

“When I look back, I realize how lucky I was to work in a place where so many people watched over me,” he wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep.”

Biden was already inclined to reach across the aisle, but the early relationships pushed him to reach further — even to Southern segregationists — as he built his influence. He courted Sen. James Eastland (D-Miss.) to get a seat on the Judiciary Committee. He aligned with opponents of busing during his first term as white suburban constituents angrily protested federal orders to integrate schools.

Mansfield helped him hone his political instincts with advice that Biden continued to quote even in this fall's campaign: “It’s always appropriate to question another man’s judgment, but never appropriate to question his motives.”

Biden’s mantra was that character would always eclipse ideology.

“I don’t think the issues mean a great deal in terms of whether you win or lose,” Biden said in a 1974 talk to the Democratic Forum, a liberal group, as reported that year in Washingtonian magazine. “I think the issues are merely a vehicle to portray your intellectual capacity to the voters ... a vehicle by which the voters will determine your honesty and candor.”

By 1980 Biden was already mulling a presidential bid. But at age 37, he felt he lacked a compelling reason to be in the presidential race. He wrote in his autobiography that he felt the same when advisors raised the prospect four years later.

In 1988, however, as the Reagan administration came to a close and Democrats looked to take back the White House, Biden felt that his common-sense approach to governing would return his party to power. The moment turned out to be premature, and the politician unprepared.

His loose discipline became his undoing. Biden made remarks about marching in the civil rights movement; they gave way to revelations that he hadn’t marched. His failure to attribute debate lines he borrowed from a British politician sparked a plagiarism scandal that drove him from the race after journalists learned Biden’s law school record was also clouded by a plagiarism charge.

Restoring his reputation would take years, but Biden worked at it. Gaffes would keep coming fast in the decades that followed — an indelible part of Biden’s political identity — but he steered clear of catastrophic flubs and grew adept at maneuvering through the smaller ones.

He rose steadily through the Senate, becoming chair of the Judiciary Committee, where he presided over two of the most contentious political battles of the 1980s and 1990s, the Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. He then moved to the Foreign Relations Committee, where he gained national security expertise.

By the time he ran for president a second time in 2007, Biden was no longer the young upstart calling for generational change. He told reporters as he announced his second candidacy that he was running on “my experience and my track record — both on the foreign and domestic side."

Voters weren't interested. Instead, they were inspired by the hope-and-change message from Obama, who was just two years into his first Senate term. But Biden’s experience was exactly what drew Obama to him as a running mate. Older and savvier in the ways of Washington, Biden was seen as a reassuring complement to the precedent-shattering change Obama represented.

Initially, Biden balked at the offer because he was not sure that being vice president — the butt of many jokes about powerlessness — would be a better job than being chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He wrote later that after he discussed the decision with his family, his mother set him straight and he accepted.

Obama, no fan of legislative horse-trading, often tasked his vice president to work on Capitol Hill when especially thorny negotiations were needed. When a debt crisis loomed, tax cuts were lapsing or an economic recovery package had to be carried across the finish line — Biden was the man on point.

That gave him extensive — and now especially valuable — experience dealing with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Biden became known around the White House as the “McConnell whisperer.”

Among some liberals, however, Biden got a less positive reputation. On the left, many fretted that he gave away too much at the bargaining table and that McConnell sought him out as a negotiating partner because he was an easy mark.

The coming months will test that relationship and Biden’s ability to navigate a capital where most lawmakers have no experience with the kind of bipartisanship that Biden remembers. Of the Republicans who will be in the Senate in 2021, only 15 served with Biden.

In the eight years since Biden cut his last big budget deal with McConnell, partisan lines have hardened. McConnell has honed the art of obstruction and used his power to help Trump remake the Supreme Court, beginning with his refusal to allow a 2016 vote on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland and extending through last month's election-eve confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett.

The kind of pragmatic Republican Biden needs now is a vanishing breed. Twenty-four hours after the Associated Press and television networks called the race for Biden, only two Senate Republicans — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah — had offered Biden congratulations on his victory.

The central question for Biden is whether he is, once again, correct that his long-standing brand of deal-making is what the public demands. Some Democrats are optimistic that his bet once again will pay off; the success of his administration could ride on whether they are right.

"Biden has a vision that is backed by the House and by the public," Buttigieg said. "The public is being underestimated right now."

For the record:
7:40 AM, Nov. 09, 2020: In an earlier version of this article, a woman in a photo was incorrectly identified in a caption as Joe Biden’s daughter-in-law Hallie Biden. The woman is his daughter Ashley Biden.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.