September 9, 2020


President Trump calls him "Sleepy Joe." If his senatorial colleagues were to come up with an epithet they would dismiss him as "Slacker Joe" because his major accomplishment in a 36-year tenure was getting elected once in 1972 and re-elected six times. He's left no legislative imprint on any major issue and the right-wing media deride him for hiding in his Delaware basement.

But the right epithet in my mind is "The Serendipity Man." Joe Biden has had a lifelong knack for being in the right place at the right time, beginning in 1972 and then nationally in 2008 and 2020. Serendipity is defined as an aptitude for making fortunate discoveries accidentally, which means being fortuitous, as in a happening by chance, or simple luck.

Long ago a legal mentor once told me that 75 percent of being a competent lawyer is just showing up. That's the essence of Biden. He's been there for 48 years, albeit with minimal distinction. But he's always been affable and loquacious. At age 77 he still has a pulse. And on Nov. 3 that will likely be enough to defeat Donald Trump. How lucky can Biden be?

Two phrases characterize Delaware politics: Be Nice and Wait Your Turn. The state has a dense but small population of 925,749 packed in 1,982 square miles, with about 640,000 registered voters, nearly half concentrated in the north third of the state, in New Castle County, including urban Wilmington (where Biden resides) and Newark, both essentially suburbs in the Philadelphia-Baltimore orbit. The remainders are suburbanized Kent County (Dover) and Sussex County (Georgetown). The Delaware River abuts the entire east coast of the state. This area was once agricultural and had a slave population through the 1860s. It thought and behaved much like Virginia, while the north was more like Pennsylvania.

The infamous Mason-Dixon Line is the southern border of Delaware as it abuts Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was named after two English surveyors who did the deed to create the colony in 1767. Pre-Civil War compromises used that line and extended it west beyond the Mississippi River, decreeing no slavery in new territory north of it. In 1861 Delaware did not secede from the Union, but it remained a racially segregated state well into the 1960s, with Jim Crow laws (separate but equal) on the books. The 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. assassination unleashed prolonged riots in Wilmington, keeping the National Guard there for a year. The state is now one-fifth African-American and one-tenth Hispanic.

Biden graduated from Syracuse law school in 1969, and was elected to the New Castle County Council that year at age 27. Until the 2010s Delaware politics was not a blood sport. Ideology was absent and politicians got along. They were all part of "the Club," and in their small state they knew each other and the voters knew them. They traded offices. There was a political ladder which all were expected to patiently climb. The parties were of even strength. There were ebbs and flows, with one party losing in trend years but then recovering. A Delaware politician of necessity maintained a lot of personal contact, as the out-of-state media markets are too expensive and ineffective. The scourge of complacency breeds defeat, as it did for J. Caleb Boggs (R), and serendipity precipitates victory, as it did for Biden (D).

1972: Boggs, then age 63, was an institution in Delaware, having been its single at-large congressman 1946-52, governor 1952-60, and then beating two-term senator Joseph Allen Frear Jr. (D) 98,824-96,090 in 1960 while the Kennedy-Nixon vote was 99,590-96,373. Boggs made no secret of his desire to retire in 1972. And congressman Pierre (Pete) du Pont (R), scion of the paint/chemical family, and Wilmington mayor Harry Haskell (R), a former congressman (1956-58), both wanted Boggs's seat. Du Pont was the conservative - an early Reaganite before Reagan. To avoid a nasty primary, President Nixon pressured Boggs to run again. Du Pont was told to "Wait 'til '78."

It is never wise to "retire" and then "unretire." Voters get the message. Incumbent Bob Griffin (R) pulled that stunt in Michigan in 1978, and lost. If he'd stayed, he'd probably have gotten on the U.S. Supreme Court under Reagan.

Boggs was thought a "lock" for reelection, and no prominent Democrat emerged - only Biden. Biden had no money, but was energetic and personable, excelling at retail politics. Boggs was AWOL, Biden campaigned relentlessly, and money didn't matter - there were no media markets to flood. Biden won 116,006-112,844, a margin of 3,162 votes. The Nixon-McGovern race in the state went 140,357-92,283, so Biden outperformed McGovern by 23,723 votes, and Boggs underperformed Nixon by 27,513 votes. Voters wanted change, but not McGovern's version, although Biden wanted to withdraw from Vietnam (where he didn't have to serve because of his asthma deferment).

Biden turned age 30 on Nov. 30 of that year, so he was constitutionally eligible to serve the next year. Biden's 1972 win was considered a fluke similar to Democratic upsets in IA, ME, SD and CO (which all flipped back in 1978).

XX 1976: And then Pete Du Pont came to Biden's rescue by running for DE governor in 1976, instead of against Biden in 1978. Biden won with 58 percent that year. Du Pont went on to a failed presidential run in 1988, and was succeeded by lieutenant governor Mike Castle (R) in 1984, who then swapped jobs with congressman Tom Carper (D) in 1992, who then beat senator Bill Roth (R) in 2000, and was succeeded by lieutenant governor Ruth Ann Minner (D) in 2000, who was succeeded by state treasurer Jack Markell (D) in 2008, who was succeeded by congressman John Carney (D) in 2016 (who was Minner's LG). Carney will be succeeded in 2024 by his LG, Bethany Hall-Long (D). Roth was a congressman and Carper the state treasurer before "moving up" the pipeline. Castle was supposed to take Biden's vacant seat in 2010 and keep it warm for Beau Biden, the state attorney general (D) elected in 2006, but Castle lost his primary to a conservative who claimed she was a witch. Chris Coons (D), an obscure member of the New Castle County Council who was supposed to lose (sound familiar?) then won.

Joe Biden managed to leapfrog to the top of Delaware's cloistered political pyramid without any wait-time (as did Coons). There's lots of pent-up ambition, but only 9 statewide offices, all Democratic-held. Everybody wants to "move up" (or sideways, like Castle in 1992), but there is a traffic jam. Lisa Blunt Rochester won Carney's House seat in 2016 and is waiting for Carper, age 73, to retire (maybe 2024, certainly 2030).

Conspicuous by his absence is AG Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015. Beau Biden was deployed to Iraq in 2008 as part of the DE Army National Guard, and didn't run for senator in 2010. He had announced his candidacy for governor in 2016 before he died.

Another tragedy struck Biden: In late 1972 his wife was killed in a car crash and toddler sons Beau and Hunter were gravely injured. He kept and raised his sons in Wilmington and commuted 90 minutes twice a day to and from Washington. He was called "Amtrak Joe" by the local media, having made 7,000 round-trips. He became politically invulnerable.

In Washington in the 1970-80s Biden voted his self-interest - what he thought his constituents wanted -- not his conscience. He was "flexible." He was anti-busing and anti-abortion, and "tough" on crime. He co-sponsored with Jesse Helms a bill to limit the scope of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which mandated school desegregation and defunded non-compliant school districts - like Wilmington. The bill, which passed, forbid the federal HEW department from collecting racial data regarding class composition in those districts and using it to defund them. The courts later overturned the bill. Biden at that time called busing a "bankrupt idea."

1988: Biden had a rough patch. He announced for president and was doing creditably until it was disclosed that he plagiarized a British politician's speech. The campaign was over. He later had two brain aneurysms - a pulmonary embolism and an intracranial brain aneurysm. It took him 7 months to recover after surgery.

In the early 1990s he was manager of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which gave police broad stop-and-search powers, and the 1994 Crime Bill, which banned assault weapons. He supported a ban on gays in the military and the Defense of Marriage Act, which outlawed same-sex marriage. (Editor's note: Biden has changed his tune since then and supports LGBTQ issues). He opposed the Bork and Thomas Supreme Court nominations, Clinton's impeachment and the 1991 Gulf War authorization. But he supported U.S. military action in the Yugoslav and Kosovo wars, intervention in Afghanistan and the Iraq invasion. Biden had mastered the art of going with the flow, ever affable and adaptable.

2008: After Barack Obama (D) won the presidential nomination he needed a White guy for vice president; someone with Washington experience, an insider both presentable and inoffensive. Who better than Joe Biden?

The same Biden who extolled Obama as "You got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate, bright, clean, and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Can you say "President Biden" without cringing?