Vice President Joe Biden in Wytheville, Va. Biden has recently come under… (Don Petersen / AP Photo )
Joe Biden’s comment that Republican bank deregulation is “going to put y’all back in chains” kept the presidential race in a lather Wednesday, with GOP candidate Mitt Romney accusing the Democrats of “division and attack and hatred.” Biden responded that his remark played off a Republican refrain about “unshackling” the economy.
The vice president might also have noted that he has used the “chains” rhetoric before, as have conservatives, in a different context.
Responding to a primary-season debate in October, Biden said the Republican proposals would return the country to the policies of the Bush era, which he said “put the middle class in chains.” The full comment was: "The last time we liberated the economy under their proposals, the last eight years, put the middle class in chains," Biden said, in reference to the presidency of George W. Bush. "My lord, how many times do we have to go back to that horror movie?"
The response got considerably less attention than Biden’s speech Tuesday in Danville, Va., before a racially mixed crowd. As Politics Now noted earlier, it’s hard to see how Biden’s remark didn’t have a class and race twist to them. National political figures (from Delaware) don’t make appeals to “y’all” unless they are reaching for folks a little outside their social set.
But it’s also apparent that Biden previously has rebutted the Republican claims that they would “free” or “unshackle” the economy with a similar retort. GOP policies don’t free Americans, they oppress them. A difference in the two “unchained” episodes was that, the last time Biden rolled the metaphor out, he specifically said it was the middle class he believed had been mistreated. His comments Tuesday got more attention because the presidential race is in full swing and because there were many African Americans in the Virginia crowd.
Biden’s full comment about Romney’s proposal to loosen regulations: “Romney wants to, he said in the first 100 days, he's going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street. They're going to put y’all back in chains.” Romney took great umbrage at this, he said Wednesday. Though the one-time investment manager did not make clear if he was insulted on behalf of bankers, African Americans, the middle class … or all the above.
The “unchain” rhetoric is not the preserve of Biden, alone. About a year ago, campaigning at the Iowa fairgrounds, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum described how President Obama’s healthcare law represented “the end of liberty,” adding: "They will put you in chains called 'Obamacare,' and you will never break away."
The bondage created by excessive regulation is a familiar one in conservative commentary. “All of us are bound in chains of laws and petty regulations,” John Stossel, the libertarian and Fox News personality, said earlier this year.
The difference in the rhetorical gambits is who is marked as the oppressor. Conservatives say it is the government, meddling in American’s lives and stifling freedoms and commerce. Liberals say it is big business, visiting jobs and economic benefits on the few, while the many work hard for little gain.
The two sides seldom represent a sensibility probably shared by many Americans, who feel big institutions — in both the public and private sector — often don’t have their interests at heart. And it’s not easy getting either to reform.