ABOARD AMTRAK ACELA #2166 — Joe Biden has been an influential figure in American politics for more than four decades. He won a U.S. Senate seat from Delaware in 1972, and took office the following year despite losing his wife and young daughter to a post-election auto accident.
Biden rose to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he presided over the explosive Supreme Court confirmation fights over Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, and later the Foreign Relations Committee. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and again in 2008, when Barack Obama tapped him as his running mate.
The 73-year-old vice president considered a third try for the presidency this year. But he bowed out of the race after losing his son Beau Biden, himself a rising Delaware politician, to brain cancer last year.
He sat down with me for an interview aboard a Washington-to-Wilmington Amtrak train, part of his daily commute while serving in the Senate, to reflect on his career, the 2016 debate and the future of American politics. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of the conversation.
HARWOOD: So George H.W. Bush was weak, Dan Quayle was dumb, Al Gore was wooden, Dick Cheney was Darth Vader. Do you feel sympathy for those guys, having done this for seven years? And are you comfortable with Goofy Uncle Joe?
BIDEN: No, I'm not comfortable with Goofy Uncle Joe. But one of the things that's important to know — and one of the reasons why, when I first got asked about this job I said no — is there is no inherent power in being vice president.
And so when the president asked me to consider this again — and I said yes — he said, "What do you want?" I said, "I want to be the last guy in the room." Every assignment he's given me, I've not had to check back. I ran the Recovery Act — beginning, middle and end. I did the Iraq thing.
And by the way, the so-called Goofy Uncle Joe — if you notice, I beat every Republican in every poll when they thought I was running. You notice that my favorability was higher than anybody that's running for office in either party.
HARWOOD: As you reflect on the span of your career, both in the Senate and in the administration, what do you think of as things that you and your peers got done, succeeded at? And what do you think you haven't gotten done, left on the table?
BIDEN: Back in the '70s, we ended that damn war. That's why I ran, the Vietnam War. We really did begin to put America back together again in terms of how divided it was. We began to roll out a foreign policy that was more rational.
We focused on education. We provided for more opportunity to get access to college. And maybe the biggest change was the work that I'm proud to be part of (in) changing the circumstances for women in America.
HARWOOD: But here's one thing you guys haven't gotten done. And I don't mean you specifically, the whole political system. The stagnation of middle class incomes began shortly after you came to the Senate. How do you feel about the failure of our political system to do that?
BIDEN: I feel that is a failure.
HARWOOD: On your side, Bernie Sanders is pointing to that stagnation in middle class income. And the argument that he's making is that you guys have done some good things, but you've been playing small ball. That we're not thinking big enough, and that we can't have fundamental change. Do you plead guilty to playing small ball in this administration?
BIDEN: No. Here's what I plead guilty to. We had about eight atom bombs dropped on our desk. It took us the auto recovery, it took us Dodd-Frank, it took us the Recovery Act, it took us all those God-awful difficult things we had to do, including raising the top rate for the wealthiest Americas so there's $600 billion more income now — it took us five years to get that done.
HARWOOD: When you hear (Sanders) say Dodd-Frank didn't go far enough, break up the banks; not just free community college, free college; bigger tax increases, bigger programs — is that just campaign talk that can't possibly be realized?
BIDEN: No, it can be. It can be. But what I don't see enough of is the explanation of how to do that. But I do think that Bernie has raised a very legitimate issue that has consequences beyond the way Bernie talks about it. We have maybe 24 percent, 24.1 percent of all the income in America earned by 1 percent of the people. That hasn't happened since 1922, I believe.
HARWOOD: Forty years, good times and bad, you rode this train both ways. What has it meant to your life?
BIDEN: It's basically meant everything in my life. Everyone from the guy at the shoeshine stand to the ticket folks, they became my friends and my family.
And you look out and I used to think, when things were tough, you'd look out at night, going home, and you'd see people in their dining rooms or in their kitchens, and I used to wonder what they're thinking. Because this is sort of a middle-class path. It's been literally my lifeline between Wilmington and Washington.
HARWOOD: You guys have tried consistently through the administration to tax what they call carried interest as ordinary income. When you started doing that, a big Wall Street guy, Steve Schwarzman, said the Obama administration's like Hitler invading Poland. How do you react to criticism like that? And I would note: You guys haven't been able to get it done.
BIDEN: I'd say it's like us liberating death camps. The truth of the matter is, there's no justification for a hedge fund paying at 15-17 percent. There's just no justification. Everyone from Warren Buffett …
HARWOOD: Why haven't you been able to get it done?
BIDEN: Two reasons. I kid the president, "Mr. President, everything's landed on your desk but locusts." We haven't had the clear space to do nothing but talk about how unfair the tax system is as it relates to the tax expenditures, loopholes we want to eliminate.
And consequently what happens is a lot of people can go home, if you're a Republican, and say, "These Democrats are just going after business." Well, if I sit here and explain to everyone — I don't have to, your camera crew and everybody's really bright — and I say, "Well, let me tell you what carried interest is, this means that you're paying at 30 percent, they're paying at 17 percent, and some of them made $1 billion. Twenty-eight made $1 billion." Think that's fair?
They'll say, "Well, maybe, if they do something super special with that $1 billion that makes it why they should be rewarded." They're playing with other people's money. If you take a risk to start a business and you make money, you pay less taxes — because you took a risk. Well, that's because you used your own money.
HARWOOD: You see the next president winning on that? (Donald) Trump said he wants to get rid of it.
BIDEN: Yes. It's not going to be sustainable. But every time we started to focus on our budget, and we're talking about how we really want to focus on the unfair elements of the tax expenditures, then along comes Zika. I mean, literally.
It's not an excuse. My father used to have an expression, "Never complain, never explain." Well, there is a context here. The context is that the first five years of this administration have been essentially just figuring out how do we keep us from going over the cliff? How do we get us back up and running?
HARWOOD: Another thing about how perspectives change over time. Bobby Rush, member of Congress, said the other day, "I'm ashamed that I voted for the '94 crime bill." Are you ashamed of that bill?
BIDEN: Not at all. And in fact, I drafted the bill, as you remember.
We talk about this mostly in terms of Black Lives Matter. Black lives really do matter, but the problem is institutional racism in America. That's the overarching problem that still exists. And we should be talking about it, and looking at the legacy of racism in housing and in jobs and so on.
Having said that, take a look at the crime bill. Of the money in the crime bill, the vast majority went to reducing sentences, diverting people from going to jail for drug offenses into what I came up with: the drug courts. Providing for boot camps instead of sending people to prison so you didn't relearn whatever the bad thing that got you there in the first place. Put 100,000 cops on the street.
When community policing was working, neighborhoods were not only safer but they were more harmonious. The reason why the cops originally opposed my 100,000 cops, this community policing piece, is because it's high intensive and it means they've got to get out of their cars. So they literally got out of their cars and learned who owned the local drugstore, the local neighborhood bar, whatever.
And they were engaged in the neighborhood, which built confidence so that the African-American woman, living in a corner alone where the drug deal's going down in front of her house, literally used to have your phone number as a cop. She'd call you and say, "John, they're out in front of my house. But you're not giving me away, right, John?" And he didn't. So we had enormous success.
Now what's happened is we've cut the funding 85 percent. We're going through Baltimore now. Look at the areas we're going through here. I'll lay you 8-to-5, the Baltimore Police Department is considerably smaller than it was in 1985.
There are things I would change. I opposed, for example, the carjacking provision that the administration wanted in. But by and large, what it really did: It restored American cities.
HARWOOD: You guys are hung up on the Garland (Supreme Court) nomination right now.
BIDEN: Yeah, we are.
HARWOOD: Some people say this is evidence of this nomination process being broken. Bork, Thomas — do you feel responsible at all for helping break it?
BIDEN: Not at all. What we did in Bork and Thomas — and there's a couple law review articles I wrote at the time — Haynsworth and Carswell before that, when they went after folks they'd used to always say it's on ethical grounds when they were really, legitimately opposed to the ideological component.
The reason why there's a Federalist Society is that there are strict constructionists, and there are those who think it's a living Constitution, to oversimplify. So all I did was to say, "You can vote. The Senate has a right to vote against someone based upon if they think they're misinterpreting the Constitution."
I presided over more Supreme Court nominees than anybody living. Every single person who got nominated got a hearing. Everyone got a vote in committee. Even the ones who weren't voted out of committee, which required a majority vote to get out, I insisted they go to the floor to get a vote. Liberals were mad at me at that time because they said we could block (a nominee) in committee.
But the Constitution says the Senate shall advise and consent. Everyone got a vote on the Senate floor, even those we could have blocked by a filibuster, because it says the Senate shall advise and consent and not use Senate rules to avoid the intent of the Constitution.
HARWOOD: You gave a speech at Gridiron (dinner) and said politics were broken. Do you think that politics are broken equally in both parties? Because I think if you asked President Obama, he would say, "Look at the Republican nominating process. It's more broken over there."
BIDEN: I think both parties are responsible. But I really do think it started most on the right within the Republican Party. Remember when the Gingrich revolution happened, and all those new guys came? And then a lot of those guys got elected to Senate. They ran against the institution. I'm not making a value judgment — they ran against the institution. Hard to make it work when you run against it, talk about how bad it is.
And two of my Republican colleagues, very senior, said, "The crazies are coming." The people who thought that the Senate role was no different than the House. They were essentially the same institution, should operate the same.
But here's what has happened. Democrats and Republicans, and you saw it in the way some Democrats went after George W. Bush. I learned a lesson early on when I came on the floor one day going to a meeting with the majority leader. I was there four months. Jesse Helms was excoriating Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole for the precursor legislation to Americans with Disabilities Act.
I walked in for my weekly meeting with the majority leader, Senator Mansfield. In retrospect he was taking my pulse to see how I was doing. And he said, "What's the matter, Joe?" And I just ripped into Jesse Helms. I said, "He has no social redeeming value, this guy."
And he looked at me and he said, "Joe, what would you say if I told you Jesse and Dot Helms two years ago sitting in their living room in December and read an advertisement in the Raleigh paper, a picture of a young man in braces up to his hips, both legs, with crutches, saying, "All I want for Christmas is someone to love me and adopt me." What would you say, Joe, if I told you they adopted that young man?
I said, "I'd feel like a jerk." He looked at me, he said — and I've never violated it since — "Joe, it's always appropriate to question another man's judgment. It's never appropriate to question their motive because you don't know what it is."
If I question your motive, we can never get to a compromise. That's what's happened in American politics.
HARWOOD: One thing I think annoys people about politicians is those who don't feel that they can say what they really think. You've not suffered from that in the past.
BIDEN: No. I've made a lot of mistakes.
HARWOOD: Hillary Clinton is opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Is it not perfectly obvious to you that she's for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and wants it to pass, but feels she can't say that in a Democratic primary?
BIDEN: I just said I'm not going to question people's motives. I'll take her at her word, and she changed her mind. Or that what ended up being the TPP, she doesn't like.
HARWOOD: (Former Defense Secretary) Bob Gates — how much did it sting when he said, "Joe Biden's been wrong about everything for 40 years?"
BIDEN: Oh, it didn't sting at all if you read what he had said beforehand about working with Joe Biden and my integrity.
And by the way, he sent me the most incredibly thoughtful letter when my son died, which really mattered.
But anyway, what I said to Bob, "Bob, I'm delighted to debate you. I was right about Gorbachev, you were wrong. I was right about Vietnam, you were wrong. I was right about it. We just happen to disagree." That was about substance.
HARWOOD: What did he say in that note to you?
BIDEN: He talked about what kind of father he thought I was. He talked about the sacrifice Beau had made, when he knew he didn't have to go to Iraq. And he talked about what kind of man Beau was. He knew him.
Everybody wants to be nice, and they were. But this was so pointed and personal that I called him, and wrote him. And, matter of fact, I wrote him another letter not long ago when I was going over some mail, just to tell him how much it meant. So I have great respect for Bob.
But, you know, I'm delighted to debate Bob on who was right and wrong.
— No time for election news during the week? Sign up for CNBC's Friday newsletter Your Money Your Vote. Click here http://www.cnbc.com/sign-up-for-cnbc-newsletters/