Zachary R. Wood: Farmers tough sell for Biden

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NEW YORK— Former Vice President Joe Biden's plan for Rural America is dubious.

This inadequacy matters precisely because many Americans believe Biden is uniquely positioned to claw back voters in rural areas who defected to Donald Trump in 2016.

So let's take a look at the plan.

His framing is clear, focused, and suspiciously ambitious. Biden reminds us that rural communities are a main staple of our economy. A locus of leisure and relaxation. Bucolic geography underappreciated, areas often if inadvertently underserved. His (stated) goal: to grow America's middle class by "revitalizing" a "healthy, vibrant" rural America.

So far, so good (mostly).

It could have been useful at the outset to enfilade Trump's Trade War, which is causing American farmers very real pain. But fine, maybe later. Biden's lead measure essentially says, hey, I'll help rural communities get more bang for their buck, a greater return on their investment. Several items here as described are fairly persuasive, such as supporting beginning farmers, boosting regional food systems, and bringing cutting-edge manufacturing jobs back to America. But, Biden's opening gambit exposes a soft spot that could become an unsalvageable limb.

Here we see credibility shrivel.

Biden says he's going to "pursue a trade policy that works for American farmers." Does he strafe Trump's Trade War? No. He barely lays a glove, only a passing reference to Trump's tariffs as "damaging" and "erratic." From a front-runner whose political experience touches the tail end of the distribution, I expect sharper barbs indicative of leaner, more capable force. Is it asking too much for a short paragraph? (It would be one thing if Biden were as witty as his opponent: Finally, as Kamala Harris said, President Trump is not trying to make America great, he's trying to make America hate.)

TROUBLING VOTES

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A more devastating volley of blows contact the spine of Biden's plan with a long look at his Senate record: Biden voted four times to assign Most Favored Nation status to China, including one vote foreseeably cementing MFN status and facilitating China's entry into the World Trade Organization. In 1999, Biden voted against an amendment to restrict market concentration in the agricultural sector. In 2000, he voted to kill an amendment devised to thwart anticompetitive behavior in the poultry industry. Following passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, Biden voted against a bipartisan amendment to transfer farm subsidy savings to USDA conservation programs. That year Biden also voted against an amendment to enforce contract producer rights aimed at empowering farmers to negotiate fairer deals. In dispute over the 2007 Farm Bill, Biden meekly abstained.

So, what should we make of all this? Well, it depends. Voting for or against legislation can be a complicated matter. In fairness, Joe Biden might be seriously interested in helping farmers and strengthening rural economies. No 76-year-old career politician could honestly boast an unblemished record of success. But this resume of 36 years of public service in the Senate hardly illustrates a deep or consistent commitment to addressing grievances and advancing interests of rural communities. If critics hound other Democratic candidates over every wrinkle in the fabric of their political history, Biden should be challenged and tested with equal intensity.

To his credit, Biden's plan contains other thoughtful and potentially effective policy ideas such as buttressing antitrust enforcement, expanding Medicaid eligibility and more adequately resourcing rural hospitals. These prescriptions warrant review.

But Biden should be made to answer some tough questions about his past. If I were moderating the next presidential debate, I would put it to him this way: Vice President Biden, you pride yourself on strength in the Rust Belt. In a house party in Des Moines, Iowa, last month, you told an audience that you've always been known as "Middle Class Joe." Many rural farmers object given your voting record on legislation concerning their livelihood. In the Senate (not the White House), specifically what battles have you fought and what victories have you won for rural farmers?

To press the point more fully, I would call upon Biden to explain what about his resume so distinguishes him in demonstrated ability to connect with middle America.

How specifically does he plan to "work with our allies to stand up" to China and "negotiate from the strongest possible position?"

What is the strongest possible position? And how does all of this square with evidence his voting record stacks against him?

Rural voters should demand more from Uncle Joe than a wink and a finger gun.

Zachary R. Wood is an assistant curator at TED and author of "Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America."


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