Joe Biden on Saturday mounted a full-throated defense of his long career in public life, attempting to regain his footing as he expressed regret for recent comments in which he praised his past work with segregationists.
Following weeks of criticism, a drop in the polls and questions about whether he could maintain his support among black voters, Biden told a mostly African American audience in Sumter, South Carolina, that he regretted his recent remarks about working with segregationist senators in the 1970s.
He took on his critics too, responding directly to attacks on his record on busing. He also defended his support of the 1994 crime bill, the 2005 bankruptcy bill and his 2003 vote in favor of the Iraq War, a seeming rebuttal to the critique that he is out of step with his party.
“Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men, who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes, I was,” Biden said. “I regret it. I’m sorry for any of the pain or misconception I may have caused anybody. But should that misstep define 50 years of my record fighting for civil rights and racial justice in this country? I hope not. I don’t think so.”
The Biden campaign has been on the defensive since Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., told Biden his past opposition to federally mandated busing was personally “hurtful,” because she had been part of a voluntary busing program as a child in Berkeley, California.
In the days that followed, Harris kept up her criticism of the former vice president, joined by others in the field. While the candidates ostensibly were debating Biden’s position on busing and working with segregationists, it has sprawled into a larger dispute over two facets: which candidate will earn the support of black voters; and to whom today’s Democratic candidates should seek to appeal, the blue-collar white voters who left the party in 2016 – and who have been attracted to Biden – or younger nonwhite voters whom Harris and others are seeking to animate in the general election.
Shortly before Biden’s speech, Harris spoke at the Essence Festival in New Orleans. She never mentioned Biden’s name, but she told the crowd of several thousand black women that as “a daughter of the civil rights movement,” she understands them and is best positioned to fight for racial justice.
“There’s so much about our history that we can celebrate, but there is so much about our history that we should acknowledge was nothing to celebrate and a lot to be shameful about and we need to correct course,” Harris said, answering a question about “others in the race” not being able to admit they were wrong.
Since the debate, Harris, Biden and their campaign teams have spent days fighting via Twitter, carving out a high-profile, one-on-one matchup and relegating the other 22 Democratic candidates to bystander roles.
In a prebuttal to Biden’s speech, Harris’ press secretary, Ian Sams, said on Twitter: “Every candidate’s record will (and should) be scrutinized in this race. It’s a competition to become President of the United States. There are no free passes.”
Despite the critiques of his record, Biden maintains a strong standing with African-American voters. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken after the June 27 debate showed that 41 percent of black voters support Biden, compared with Harris’ 11 percent.
John Anzalone, a Biden pollster, said that Biden’s remarks help offer context for his long record.
“This is a guy voters know very well, but sometimes you have to tell the story of how you’ve gotten there,” he said.
In his speech, Biden leaned into his relationship with President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black head of state, calling him by his first name and reminding voters that Obama chose him as a running mate.
“I’d take his judgment of my record, my character, and my ability to handle the job over anyone else’s,” Biden said.
Throughout this campaign, Biden has shown a preference for talking about his service in the Obama administration rather than his decades-long tenure in the Senate. Biden’s rivals, however, have sought to magnify past positions that are out of step in a party that has moved dramatically to the left over that time.
“When I talk about the Obama years, my opponents talk about it like it was ancient history. When others talk about something I said in the ’70s, they talk about it like it was yesterday. Kinda strange isn’t it?” Biden said Saturday.
Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran, has repeatedly stumbled when confronted with criticism of his record. Earlier this summer, Biden struggled to respond to questions about his decades-long support for the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funding of abortions. After outcry from women’s groups and backers, Biden quickly shifted and said he no longer supported it.
But few attacks on Biden’s past have resonated as strongly as ones concerning racial inequity.
In his early years in the Senate, Biden was aligned with segregationist senators on their opposition to busing as a way to integrate schools. Biden called busing an “asinine concept” and “a liberal train wreck” as he filed legislation to restrict federal and court-mandated busing.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, another Democratic presidential contender, sharply criticized Biden for the remarks about working with well-known segregationists in the Senate and how one of them always called him “son,” not “boy.” Booker asked him to apologize.
At the time, Biden was indignant, saying that Booker should be the one to apologize.
On Saturday, Biden continued to defend his position on busing, saying that the real problem was, and continues to be, segregated housing and not enough funding for schools.
“I don’t believe a child should have to get on a bus to attend a good school; there should be first-rate schools of quality in every neighborhood in this nation,” he said.
Biden, anticipating more attacks to come, also raised his votes on other controversial topics such as crime, banking and the Iraq War, vulnerabilities in a party that is even more left-leaning than when he and Obama first ran.
But Biden said he would not allow his career to be reduced to 60-second sound bites and that re-litigating the past diminishes the end goal of defeating President Trump.
Trump, meanwhile, has reserved most of his political ire for Biden, tweeting Saturday morning: “Joe Biden is a reclamation project. Some things are just not salvageable. China and other countries that ripped us off for years are begging for him. He deserted our military, our law enforcement and our healthcare. Added more debt than all other Presidents combined. Won’t win!”
Biden ended his speech Saturday by calling for national unity and dismissing opponents who say it’s “delusional and naive” to work with Republicans in the current partisan climate.
“For all our problems, if we can’t find some common ground, there’s really no answer,” Biden said.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Colby Itkowitz, Matt Viser