I hear the humidity in Houston this September can be cut with a knife and served up like brisket. It is weather designed to make you sweat, and Joe Biden is likely about to do just that. The third Democratic primary debate is going down tonight, and with Biden having barely fended off Kamala Harris in prior contests, the pressure is on the front-running former vice president to show he can hold his own next to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as they continue their ascent in the polls.
I know the Reverend Dr. Alyn Waller will be paying attention, and I wish I could pull up a chair next to him as he watched. I’d want to talk with him about what he saw and heard from the former vice president. I’d love to continue the conversation we had been having.
The pastor of Philadelphia’s massive Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church since 1994, Waller supports Biden’s candidacy, as evidenced by his description of the former vice president’s appeal as “like getting back into old comfortable shoes that will allow us to get our footing back.”
That’s how Waller was quoted in an August 24th Washington Post report that focused on the black electorate in Pennsylvania and Democratic hopes for its increased turnout in 2020. Before publishing a column critiquing that “old comfortable shoes” framing, I’d called Waller’s office for comment, but I didn’t hear back until after it was published.
I thought it would be a good idea to check in with Waller to take the pulse of a black community leader who believes in Biden as I weigh the doubts I have arising from my reporting and research.
“I just want to be very clear,” Waller told me at the start. “I am going to work feverishly hard for whoever the presidential candidate from the Democratic Party is. When the smoke clears, whoever’s at the top, I’m going to be as forceful for them as I would be for Biden. It’s very clear that I think we gotta win. And whoever the Democratic candidate is is gonna get my full support.”
With that stipulated, why is Biden the guy who is getting his support now — along with 42 percent of black voters, according to a new CNN poll released Wednesday? Waller doesn’t come off as if he is entranced by the talk of Biden’s “electability”; I can hear in his voice how important it is for his black congregants, living under the scourge of a white-nationalist president, to see Trump defeated next year. But if winning is the top priority, what has Biden shown Waller to prove that he is best equipped to do it?
“I think that there are two strategies,” he said. “One strategy is [to] find someone that can produce an Obama-like candidacy and excite the community. Then, find someone who can get a good turnout from the Democrats, bite into the independent and moderate Republicans who went for Trump because of Clinton fatigue the last time.” Biden’s more likely to do the latter, Waller admits, but it’s “his long-term relationships” and the totality of the vice president’s public service that gives him confidence Biden can get it done.
The combination of Waller’s singular focus on defeating Trump and rather amorphous reasoning justifying his support are not atypical, given what many have heard from black Biden supporters since the campaign began.
“We kind of know what comes with the car, with Biden. And I think he was a good vice president to Obama, and he was strategic.” I’d disagree, since that didn’t work out so well when Biden was heading negotiations on tax cuts in 2012, when Mitch McConnell worked him over, but I let Waller keep rolling.
As we talk, I sense that Waller has been buying the image of Joe Biden, at the very least. He also appears to believe in a version of Biden’s oft-professed model of a quick fix to Trumpism, the idea that everything will go back to normal if we simply elect him. “I’m thinking about real systemic change. If we defeat Trump, we can fix the stuff that he’s done over his last three years; it hasn’t set in. You know he’s changed a lot, and it doesn’t feel good. But getting him out of there, we can reverse this.”
I simply disagree with that thinking. For one, with McConnell’s help, Trump has given out lifetime appointments to far-right judges at a record pace — 37 appellate court judges thus far already, whereas Barack Obama got only 55 confirmed during both of his terms in office. That can’t be fixed. But Trumpism isn’t something that Biden, were he to be elected, could wipe away with a snap of Thanos’ gauntlet. It’s not only likely that the scourge of Trump’s deeds would be more difficult to eradicate than Biden and his believers make it out to be, but Trump may even try to run again in 2024. He says he’s only joking, but why should anyone trust him? He would have a groundswell of support to stage such a campaign.
Waller admits his siding with Biden may be a generational thing. I learn in the course of our conversation that he’s about 10 years older than I am, and that we went to the same high school back in Shaker Heights, Ohio; Waller graduated in the early 1980s, I graduated in the early 1990s. That puts him in his early fifties, and the CNN poll has another fascinating revelation: Biden’s support from black voters is coming primarily from those age 50 and older. Just more than half of the people in that age group support him, while only 30 percent among those younger than age 50 do.
In an August 30th podcast interview, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart asked Biden about the generational split. Referring to himself in the third person, the former vice president replied, “I’ve not seen the data that people under 40 in the black community don’t support Joe Biden or support somebody else a great deal more. If it’s there, it could be, I haven’t seen it; I haven’t felt it.” Now we have a poll giving Biden, and us, the data he was missing.
“There’s definitely an age tension,” Waller told me. “My son-in-law, who is also a pastor, sounds a lot more like you, saying, ‘We can’t just settle. This is the time to go for it, we gotta get somebody in there that’s gonna turn over the tables.’ And so, I think that I’m as much a product of my age.”
However, as I tell Waller, that isn’t quite my argument. I certainly think that if Democrats hope to defeat Trump, rushing to settle upon a candidate in the fall of 2019 is a sucker’s bet. It’s the exact wrong thing to do because a vetting process should produce the strongest candidate to run against the incumbent, a person who proves herself or himself ready to oppose a white-nationalist president and beat him at his game. And yet rushing to settle seems to be exactly what Biden is pushing for voters to do.
When Capehart quoted part of my column to Biden, a section in which I questioned “whether he and his campaign consider it too risky to put Biden in front of black folks who may have a particular image of him as a sidekick to their beloved Obama,” the former vice president dismissed me out of hand. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said, suggesting that “maybe he should come with me” when he goes to speak in black communities. (I’m in communication with the Biden campaign about that invitation.) Arguably, Biden is behaving as though he has the black vote wrapped up.
Waller, an Army National Guard veteran, may be a Biden supporter now. But he is no sycophant. He is still open to the field, especially Harris — “I think that she’s part of the answer for the future” — and is waiting to hear more from Biden. It doesn’t appear that the pastor will be impressed merely by the former vice president’s comfort in black crowds, either. Nor should he be.
“What he would have to show me is a real commitment to addressing concerns that I, and the constituency that I represent, have,” Waller said, noting that he ministers to a congregation of about 14,000 people at two separate campuses every Sunday. Does that mean Biden doing the typical front-pew politician act, something he brought up with Capehart?
“I don’t do the politician-in-the-pulpit thing that a lot of black churches do,” Waller said. (Thus far, he said, the Biden campaign has not reached out to him or his church.) “That means I’m expecting that if he comes to Philadelphia, I’m going to be at the table, and I expect him to show me that he takes seriously the concerns of black communities.”
And what would that look like? “That he’s had some real concern about black communities beyond prison reform because, you know, justice reform is one of the hot topic items. I think that too many people think that that is the ‘black issue.’ I’m wanting to see that he’s going to put people in his administration that look like us. More about public education. How he’s going to untangle North Korea, Russia, Iran. I’m involved in a foreign mission, so I travel abroad — and as former military, I have a lot of concerns about our foreign policy now.”
I tell Waller that he seems to have a lot of questions about a candidate he has regarded as a set of “old comfortable shoes” to slip back into. If Biden has a considerable amount of black support now, what does he need to truly earn it and secure it?
“Number one, is he’s got to be more thoughtful in his public demeanor. He’s got to slow down and start thinking about what he’s saying,” Waller said.
“Number two,” he added without much of a breath, “he’s got to start putting ink to paper and commitments around how he’s going to staff and fill his administration with new faces and people who represent the black community. Joe, you got us right now, but you need now to show us how we’re going to be a part of your administration.”
“Diversity” and “inclusion” make for good buzzwords, Waller said, but he needs more action. “I’m wanting to see the people, the personnel, and specific policies that are going to impact our community. And I’m wanting to hear him begin to say that.”
Tonight’s debate seems like as good a time as any to get start making this a habit.