Goodbye to Middle Class Joe

It is a fact of American politics that whoever is the frontrunner in a campaign can expect relentless attacks on him by rival candidates and the media, and the attacks are not always fair.

Sometimes, though, they are simply ridiculous.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife earned over $15 million from books, speeches and academic positions since leaving the Obama White House, according to tax returns and other documents released on Tuesday.

There was no suggestion of anything illegal or unethical. The earnings were duly reported to tax authorities and, although not required by law, released to the public this week, as well. And if you must know, Biden’s adjusted gross income was $4,580,437.

What, then, is the problem?

Well, there isn’t really. Except that Biden’s popular image over the years has been that of “middle class Joe.” He often used to poke fun at himself as being the “poorest person in Congress.”

No more. As The Associated Press observed, Biden’s newly acquired wealth “catapults him into millionaire status and dent[s] the working-class aura he’s developed over decades.”

“Biden embraced the folksy moniker of ‘middle-class Joe.’ He’s middle-class no more,” decided USA Today. This was likewise the verdict of National Public Radio: “Middle Class Joe No More,” declared its headline.

None of the other Democratic presidential candidates have picked up on the financial disclosure to use against Biden, at least not yet. That may well change the next time the former VP refers to his humble socioeconomic status. Given the fact that their financial disclosures show that Biden is far and away the wealthiest of the crowd, he can’t hit back at their wallets either.

In the meantime, though, they don’t have to mention it. Every major media outlet in the country has done the work for them, and each with the identical theme, how his current affluence doesn’t fit the poor-boy image.

But if Biden himself used his humble origins to political advantage, there is nothing wrong with moving up in the world. Many of America’s presidents, from Washington to FDR, and from John Kennedy to Barack Obama, were either wealthy before entering public life, or made their fortunes from being famous. Jefferson liked to act like the common man, but he was also a landed aristocrat.

Joe Biden bears the burden of the frontrunner. Only weeks ago in the Democratic debates, California Senator Kamala Harris (adjusted gross income: $1,884,319) lashed out at the former VP for his friendly association with racist Southern senators and for opposing forced busing for integration (decades ago).

The attack was highly personal and highly dramatic, and subsequent opinion polls have shown Biden slipping and Harris climbing.

While Harris caught Biden off guard, the argument she used to attack him is on the weak side. After all, as divisive as forced busing was, in the end, after years of turmoil, the country was united, black and white, in overwhelming repudiation of the whole idea, which did nothing to improve education for African-Americans and only succeeded in antagonizing whites, not necessarily because of racism.

The moral of this story is not that Joe Biden is a worthy candidate for president. There are sufficient reasons not to vote for him, even if his newly elevated income and his position on busing aren’t among them.

Biden was part of an administration that blamed Israel for the failed peace talks with the Palestinians, and advanced a social agenda anathema to the values cherished by the Jewish community.

But a lesson can be learned here: that so much of the campaign rhetoric is designed not to clarify issues or get at the truth about anything, but solely and exclusively to promote the interests of a candidate or a party.

The latest reports say that Joe Biden, who has tried to act presidential, staying above the fray and not attacking other Democrats, will now have to strike back if he still intends to capture the nomination.

No more Middle Class Joe. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Regardless of what one thinks of any individual candidate, America loses when the level of hostility and personal attacks among candidates rises.