Biden vs Warren: The epic showdown that didn’t happen

The former law professor and the professional politician.
The former law professor and the professional politician.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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The 10 qualifying Democratic presidential candidates met on a stage in Houston for the third round of primary debates Thursday night. Two of the leading contenders, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and the former vice president Joe Biden, have a history.

The meeting tonight was expected to be explosive. It was not. Although things got a little testy during a debate over health care proposals, by the end Biden was expressing his admiration for Warren, saying she was correct when it came to articulating changes to trade policy, like giving unions, farmers, human rights activists, and environmentalists a seat at the table in negotiations. The senator from Massachusetts looked surprised by Biden’s endorsement of her ideas.

Perhaps Biden learned from their past infamous encounter, way back in 2005.

Back in the day

Warren, at the time a law professor and to this day a policy wonk, became interested in politics after researching US bankruptcies in the 1980s. By the late 1990s she was a nationally-recognized expert on bankruptcy and a Democrat who successfully lobbied to block the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA), which she argued targeted families but should target corporations.

Biden, meanwhile, was a senator from Delaware, a state that attracts corporations with its friendly laws, including favorable bankruptcy proceedings. He supported BAPCPA and in a 2005 senate hearing about the legislation Biden got feisty with Warren. She criticized a part of the bill that enabled the energy company Enron to conduct its bankruptcy in Delaware, making it difficult for its employees to challenge decisions that included the future of their pension fund.

The senator grilled the Harvard Law School professor, defending his state’s legal process and assailing her critique of its bankruptcy laws. He argued that the usurious interest rates charged by credit card companies was the real problem, not the bankruptcy bill that would limit individuals’ ability to seek relief. “But, senator, if you are not going to fix that problem, you can’t take away the last shred of protection from these families,” Warren replied.

Biden had to concede. “I got it, OK. You are very good, professor,” he said.

The bankruptcy bill eventually passed anyway. And that’s when Warren got political. She called for the creation of a federal Consumer Financial Protection Agency to shield Americans from unsafe financial products. After the 2008 financial crisis, the need for it was apparent. In 2012, Warren ran for senator in Massachusetts. Now, she and Biden are fighting for the same job. But so far the epic clash everyone expected hasn’t materialized.