During the fourth Democratic debate on Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden — the ostensible moderate in the race — bragged about his role in the acrimonious political attack that first made Supreme Court confirmation battles as vicious as they are today. While Democrats often blame House Speaker Newt Gingrich for coarsening America’s political rhetoric, the character assassination of Robert Bork first ignited the partisan political warfare that hit a fever pitch with Trump.
Biden is campaigning on a platform of “restoring the soul” of America, aiming to reverse the influence of Trump, whom he blames for the white nationalist riots in Charlottesville, Va. Yet the former VP played a key role in the political declaration of war that turned Bork’s last name into a verb. On Tuesday, he bragged about that.
Asked about abortion, the former senator — and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman — bragged, “When I defeated Robert Bork, I made sure we guaranteed a woman’s right to choose for the better part of a generation.”
Biden may be correct. When Reagan failed to confirm Bork in 1987, he nominated Anthony Kennedy, a far more liberal jurist who spearheaded the effort to legalize same-sex marriage — and sided with the Court’s liberals on abortion.
Yet bragging about Bork is a bad strategy, especially for a candidate who aims to present himself as a return to political civility.
As Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) wrote in his excellent book Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal, the “Borking” of Robert Bork helped create the “angry constituency” that spurred on Gingrich’s success.
“In one of the more influential speeches of Twentieth-Century America, liberal lion Ted Kennedy declared to the public in a planned nationally televised speech that Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan’s nominee to fill a High Court vacancy in 1986, was quite simply a monster. Here’s Kennedy: ‘Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are at the heart of our democracy.'”
“This was a gross and malicious mischaracterization,” Sasse wrote. To make matters worse, Ted Kennedy had joined a unanimous Senate in voting to confirm Antonin Scalia, a very similar justice, just one year earlier. So what happened?
“Liberal activist groups had decided, for the first time in American history, to wage an electronic-era political campaign against a Supreme Court candidacy, and the media aided the effort, covering the nomination not as a debate over competing ideas about the role of the American judiciary, but as a battle of good versus evil,” Sasse explained. “It is unusual for a sitting justice to comment publicly on politics at all, let alone on a court confirmation battle, but left-of-center Justice John Paul Stevens not only defended Bork against Kennedy’s accusations, but recommended his confirmation.”
Biden played a large role in the character assassination.
Stage management was a key part of this made-for-tv political drama, and one of the central cast members was the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Delaware Senator Joe Biden. His former staffers later admitted that chairman Biden hatched a plan to work with outside advocacy groups to heighten the visibility of the Bork hearings. Biden thought a Supreme Court fight could be a key lever to boosting his name recognition in advance of the 1988 Democratic primary.
Following Bork’s defeat, the Oxford English Dictionary added the verb “to Bork,” defined as “to defame or vilify a person systematically.”
Despite his elevated rhetoric, Biden has shown his willingness to play dirty in the 2020 campaign. Late last month, he wrote a letter to television news outlets, demanding they blacklist former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now Trump’s personal lawyer. During the LGBT town hall earlier this month, he called for a terror watchlist to monitor groups that oppose LGBT activism — echoing the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which demonizes conservative Christian groups as “hate groups” on par with the KKK.
Biden is no real moderate. He would not bring conservatives and liberals together and restore America’s soul. His decision to brag about Bork merely solidifies this fact and undercuts his key campaign message.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.