It was a moment of civic pride when Joe
Biden came to town to give the commencement address at Syracuse
University on Mother’s Day. The touching tales of his law school years
living in Strathmore, of how he defended a stuttering kid against
bullies, brought flowers to his beloved new bride at school, and how he
stayed in touch with the neighborhood after he went to Washington,
D.C., moved us all. It was a gorgeous homecoming.
I watched a video of him at Bellevue
School trying to connect with the kids who came in on a Sunday to meet
the vice president. They asked him great questions like, “What do you
do for a living?” and “Do you ever play basketball with President
He spoke at the SU and SUNY-College of
Environmental Science and Forestry commencement, reminding students
that even in difficult times they can make a difference. It was a good
speech. But here’s the speech I wish he had given:
“Hi, I’m Joe Biden, vice president of
the United States. I am here during a week when my boss, Barack Obama,
and your congressional representative, Dan Maffei, have launched a
campaign to pass legislation curbing the worst abuses of credit card
companies. Rep. Maffei has been all over the place talking about a
pastor in Baldwinsville who saw the interest rate on his church’s
credit cards go up to 30 percent for no reason at all. There are no
doubt parents in this audience who have used plastic to finance their
child’s education because they thought they had a good rate locked in,
only to find out that the fine print on their credit card agreement
allowed the company to change the terms at any time for any reason.
Biden his time: A pledge to reform the way money
dictates political campaigns could have made for a more effective
commencement address from the vice president.
“Many of you young people graduating
today owe credit card debt to companies who never should have issued
those cards to you in the first place. If this campaign succeeds, we
will trim some of the greatest abuses of our credit card industry.
“I’m glad to be part of this effort, but
I have a little bit of explaining to do. I used to be the senior U.S.
senator from Delaware. Delaware is the credit card capital of the
United States, and I was frequently referred to as the senator from
MBNA. MBNA was the second largest bank dealing with credit cards in the
United States. MBNA has since been bought by Bank of America.
“I was close to MBNA. They gave me tens
of thousands of dollars for my campaigns. They hired my son Hunter for
an executive position. A top executive at MBNA, a man by the name of
John Cochran, bought my house at what some think was an inflated price.
For the record, I disagree, as does my appraiser.
“But for years, I carried water for the
credit card industry, putting my political survival ahead of what I
know was the people’s interest. I didn’t commit any crimes; I followed
the letter of the law. But I was a shill for the banks that helped
create the economic mess that my boss and I have promised to clean up.
In particular, there was one moment in 2005 when I joined with Senate
Republicans to push through changes to our bankruptcy laws that made it
easier for credit card companies to get money from people who should
have been able to declare bankruptcy.
“Those very companies that are now using
your tax dollars to keep themselves out of bankruptcy conspired to deny
bankruptcy protection to working people whose credit card debt put them
over the edge—and I helped them. (By the way, the No. 1 reason
Americans can’t pay their debts is that they get sick and they don’t
have health insurance so the medical bills pile up. That’s another
battle we want to fight on your behalf, but leave that for another day.)
“Why did I do it? I’m known for long
answers, so I’ll keep this one short: It’s all about campaign money. I
will tell you adamantly, as every legislator and every public official
including Rod Blagojevich will tell you, that my vote is not for sale.
But you know better. People can be very persuasive when they are
writing the checks to fund your campaign.
“We have to stop the flow of private
money into political campaigns. We need a system that makes an economic
reality out of the Voting Rights Act principle of ‘One Person, One
Vote.’ If you want the president and me to succeed in reigning in the
banks, give us campaign reform. If you want us to enact genuine reform
to our health care system, make us enact campaign finance reform. If
you want us to really trim that federal budget, starting with the
massive waste in the Pentagon, demand campaign finance reform that will
keep the contractors from stacking the deck.
“Government should not be for sale. Your
legislators want to do the right thing, but this system of private
financing often puts us in the position of choosing between what we
know is right and what will pay the bills for our next campaign. It’s
not a partisan issue. Two good men have represented this district in
recent years. Jim Walsh the Republican wanted campaign finance reform
even as he raised hundreds of thousands in private money. Walsh called
the Supreme Court’s equating campaign giving and free speech ‘crazy,’
and I agree with him.
“Dan Maffei the Democrat has both a
proposal for campaign finance reform and one of the biggest campaign
war chests ever raised by a freshman congressman. Your congressman, in
addition to working very hard on legislation and constituent services,
has been running around raising more than $5,000 every single day he’s
been in office. Just the fact that we spend so much time with people
who have money to hand out means we spend that much less time with the
folks who really need a hand from us. For that reason alone, we need
campaign finance reform. It’s the foundation of everything else we want
“Here’s my point: These are both good
people who want to serve you. I’d like to think that I was, as a
senator, a good person who wanted to serve. But this crazy way we
finance campaigns amounts to legalized bribery and it makes good people
spend far too much time on our knees—and I’m not talking about going to
church. Get us off this treadmill of raising private money, and we will
give you a government you can be proud of.
“Now, let me just say a few things about swine flu . . .”