'Middle Class Joe' Is Scared of Elizabeth Warren

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Joe Biden loves to self-mythologize, and “Middle Class Joe” is just one of the stories he likes to tell about himself. It is by all appearances a self-given nickname that he continues to use on the campaign trail, despite earning a cool $15 million in the years since he was vice president. It’s also “not a compliment,” he’s fond of saying, in that it supposedly means he’s “not sophisticated” by D.C. standards. This is a common kind of downward class misidentification, used equally among the privately wealthy and the publicly wealthy.

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By rooting himself firmly in the mythology of the middle-class, Biden is attempting to distance himself from what he actually isa member of a highly elite class, a former senator and vice president who was and remains extremely cozy with wealthy donors and business interests. (During his time representing Delaware in the Senate, he was so close with bank executives that critics gave him a more apt nickname, the “senator from MBNA.”) 

But the myth of “Middle Class Joe” is no longer just about Biden—the former vice president has lately taken to claiming that the real elitist running in the Democratic primary is Elizabeth Warren. And Biden is increasingly using this line of attack against Warren in an effort to undermine her campaign and paint her as someone who does not, and who cannot, understand the plight of working people.

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These attacks were spurred by Warren’s comments on Biden the previous week, after his campaign criticized her newly released Medicare for All financing plan by calling it “mathematical gymnastics.” “So if Joe Biden doesn’t like that, I’m just not sure where he’s going,” Warren responded on Friday, noting that “Democrats are not gonna win by repeating Republican talking points.” She added, “But if anyone wants to defend keeping those high profits for insurance companies, and those high profits for drug companies, and not making the top 1 percent pay a fair share in taxes, and not making corporations pay a fair share in taxes, then I think they’re running in the wrong presidential primary.”

It was an astute dig, and it clearly got under Biden’s skin, as he’s been railing against her all week.

A Medium post Biden published on Tuesday never mentions Warren by name, but is clearly targeted at her. He writes that the “my way or the highway” approach to politics—which is to say a leftist vision for how our government and the economy can work—is “condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view.” He added, neglecting to mention that a significant number of working-class and middle-class Americans support Warren’s policies, “It’s representative of an elitism that working and middle class people do not share: ‘We know best; you know nothing.’ If you were only as smart as I am you would agree with me.”

To Biden, this is “no way to get anything done. This is no way to bring the country together. This is no way for this party to beat Donald Trump.” (That he has deployed this criticism of Warren’s elitism, apparently devoid of any self-awareness, at fundraisers with the rich and connected, is almost too on the nose.)

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In an interview with SiriusXM’s Urban View, Biden again went on the attack. “If you don’t agree with Elizabeth Warren, you must somehow be not a Democrat. You must somehow be corrupt. You must somehow not be as smart as she is,” Biden said. “It’s just an elitist attitude that it’s either my way or the highway.”

One of the many ironies here is that Biden, in attacking Warren for her supposed “elitism,” sounds remarkably like her Republican opponents, who as Politico noted, used the exact same playbook against her during the 2012 Senate race. A campaign memo by Scott Brown, Warren’s Republican opponent in 2012, derided her as “an out-of-touch elitist whose ideas are informed by two decades on the campus of Harvard, but don’t work in the real world.” As one of Brown’s campaign staffers described their strategy against Warren to Politico, “Every day, the message was elitist, elitist, elitist.”

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Warren’s rise in the polls has been built on a winning combination of her own personal story—growing up in a family, as she often puts it, “on the ragged edge of the middle class,” struggling to find daycare as a working mom—and the belief, captured in her many detailed policy proposals, that she knows both who deserves the blame, and what fixes we need. She may have been a Harvard professor, and her personal wealth may run into the low millions, but Warren’s stump speech, filled with references to her childhood and her own struggles to balance her professional life and her work as a mother, is meant to remind us that Warren, as my Jezebel colleague Kelly Faircloth put it, is “actually is from down home.” And more than that, since where they come from means less for a candidate than where they want to take the rest of us, Warren’s policies are meaningfully redistributive. It’s hard to call someone “elite” when they’re also making billionaires get choked up at the idea of losing some of their immense wealth. All of this combined has been Warren’s campaign strategy, and it’s working.

Biden’s campaign has tried any number of ways to derail Warren’s rise, from calling her a liar and attacking her credibility to describing her ambitious plans as unrealistic. None of that has quite stuck, and it’s no surprise that his strategy is now, as a source familiar with Biden’s campaign described it, to call her a “smarty britches who thinks if you don’t agree with her, you’re an idiot.” None of that has quite stuck, and it’s no surprise that his strategy is now, as a source familiar with Biden’s campaign described it, to call her a “smarty britches who thinks if you don’t agree with her, you’re an idiot.” You can all but smell how much his ego’s been wounded. It’s hard not to think here that what Biden really wants to call her is a bitch.

Senior reporter, Jezebel

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“But if anyone wants to defend keeping those high profits for insurance companies, and those high profits for drug companies, and not making the top 1 percent pay a fair share in taxes, and not making corporations pay a fair share in taxes, then I think they’re running in the wrong presidential primary.”

So, of course, the solution is to double down.

This is a phenomena I first saw described in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas almost fifteen years ago: Republican propaganda managed to hijack the term “elite” by describing the word in cultural rather than economic terms. Warren Buffett is “one of us” because he lives in a middle-class neighborhood and lives pretty modestly, just like one of us folks. Never mind that the man could also buy Sierra Leone on a whim if he wanted to, and has specifically said that he’s not middle-class. Meanwhile, your average associate professor may struggle to keep a roof over their head while trying to make tenure, but they’re still “elite”, because they’re snooty and know more than you and look down on you for not eating arugula.

And fifteen years later, he’s Joe Biden wholescale importing that very same propaganda mindset. The man’s running as if he’s a Republican.

In truth, elite means elite. It is defined purely and wholly in terms of economic interests, and one of the major problems with our body politic is that there are millions of Brents out there who think that, just because they are white and male, that they have more interests in common with Warren Buffett than they do with LaQuan, the head janitor for their company, who happens to be African-American and is no one’s conception of elite, or with Kristen, the head paralegal for the firm who supervises all the other paralegals. And while Elizabeth Warren uses polysyllabic words while Joe talks like a seventh-grader, she nevertheless serves the interests of LaQuan, and Kristen, and Brent. And that’s why she’s winning.