Opinion

Joe Biden’s Washington is vanishing. Does America want it back?

Former vice president’s friends a force to be reckoned with

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden greets supporters at a campaign rally at Teamsters Local 249 Union Hall on Monday in Pittsburgh. Biden began his first full week of campaigning for president by speaking on how to rebuild America's middle class. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

One by one, Joe Biden is losing his friends from the Senate. 

On Sunday, longtime Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar died. For years, Lugar had been the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was the top Democrat.  Three weeks ago, Sen. Fritz Hollings, one of Biden’s best friends from his more than three decades in the chamber, also passed away. Last month, another longtime Indiana senator, Birch Bayh died. 

In 2018, Biden not only delivered Sen. John McCain’s eulogy, he helped counsel McCain and his family through his battle against brain cancer, which also killed Biden’s son, Beau.

As Biden kicks off his third run for the White House, the senators he was closest to are not only not out campaigning for him, they are dying. With them, the Washington they populated is dying, too. Whether voters want to bring it back by putting Biden in the White House will be the central question of his candidacy.

Lugar joined the Senate in 1977, four years after Biden was elected from Delaware. The Indiana Republican had been both the mayor of Indianapolis and a Navy intelligence officer before entering the Senate, where he gravitated toward work on foreign policy. 

Together with Biden, Lugar moved legislation to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS around the globe and to work for a peace deal in Darfur. He pushed for sanctions to end apartheid in South Africa and worked with Sen. Sam Nunn to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. As the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar also demanded that presidents— both Republicans and Democrats — get permission from Congress to declare war.

Always more cerebral than salesman, Lugar lost his GOP primary in 2012 to the hard charging, ultra-conservative state treasurer, Richard Mourdock.  But Lugar said Mourdock would have to abandon his partisanship to get his support.

“His embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate,” Lugar said on the night he lost.  

On that same night, Biden was among the first to call Lugar to commiserate and wish him well.  

“We never had a cross word,” Biden told The Washington Post of his Republican colleague. “In matters of foreign policy, we seldom disagreed.” 

‘He was there’

Just before Lugar passed away, Biden was in Charleston delivering the eulogy for Hollings, another of the Senate’s old guard. Hollings chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee when Biden first ran for the Senate in 1972. 

Biden called Hollings one of the reasons he decided to join the Senate, even after his wife and young daughter died in a car accident just before his swearing-in.

“He was there then,” Biden said of Hollings during his eulogy. “Aside from my family, the first people to bring me back from that black hole I found myself in were Fritz and (Hollings’ wife) Peatsy.” 

Along with Hollings, Biden described a Senate that seems gone as well, like the group of five senators (from both parties) who would go to each other’s houses for dinner with their wives once a month.  To give the then-single Biden a place to eat, Hollings and his wife would bring him along, too.

The two would go on to sit next to each other on the Senate floor for the next 32 years, when Hollings would call him “Joltin’ Joe.”  

Like Biden and Lugar, Hollings eventually rose to chair a major panel, the Budget Committee, where he oversaw the first balanced budget in decades.  With a focus on domestic policy, he also worked to create the nutrition program for women and children known as WIC. He helped create the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor and study weather patterns.  

“He started the Green Deal, in a way, long before anybody thought of it,” Biden said of Hollings.

A different time

Of the 99 men in the Senate that Biden joined in 1973, not one is in the chamber today.  Some are alive, like Bob Dole and Sam Nunn. Others, like William Fulbright, Barry Goldwater, Ted Kennedy and John Glenn, live on only in history and the legacy of the work they did.

Their Senate was a contradictory mix of valor, tradition, power and exclusivity. Women in Congress were rare, while minorities were rarer still. And for all that was wrong with it, the Congress in those years also got some very good work done.  

Were the Lugars, McCains, Hollings and Bidens still serving, Donald Trump might still be the president. But it’s hard to believe he would be rolling over Congress the way he is today.

Lugar, who came of age during the Cold War with the Soviets, would hardly have tolerated the assertion that Russia “bought a few Facebook ads,” as Jared Kushner claimed last week. Lugar knew too well the march toward world domination that Vladimir Putin has been plotting for decades.

Hollings would have been hard-pressed to stay silent about a budget that grew the debt by trillions of dollars, and McCain, assuredly, would be fighting on to force the Trump administration’s hand on sanctions against Russia for trying to meddle in America’s elections in 2016.  And knowing those senators, they’d be working together to make sure that the 2020 elections were safe from the same thing.

They were committee chairmen and power brokers, White House hopefuls and friends.  They, along with Biden, came of age in a Washington and a political system that seem not to exist anymore. 

Joe Biden’s bet, as he launches his third bid for the White House, is that a majority of Americans want that Washington back again.  

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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