There were so many other, easier options. Instead, Joe Biden stood there and fought.
Standing at the center of a sprawling Democratic debate in Miami, Florida, Biden pushed back against Kamala Harris, who criticized his opposition to busing and work with segregationists. “It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” Biden said. “I do not praise racists.”
Then, the zinger from Harris. “Vice President Biden, do you agree today … that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?”
Harris: “Do you agree?”
Biden: “I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
The argument continued. Biden’s refusal to make amends for parts of his extended record of public service was made brutally clear in that debate moment, and it’s been a keystone of his campaign since it launched in April. Two weeks after the debate, Biden finally issued a partial apology for his comments about working with segregationists.
“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?” Biden said. “Yes, I was. I regret it, and I'm sorry for any of the pain or misconception they may have caused anybody." He didn’t, however, back down on his record on busing.
In the two weeks between the debate and Biden’s gritted-teeth apology, the former vice president and senator paid for his rough performance in Miami. Polling showed a significant drop in support nationally, along with early states. That didn’t drop Biden out of his front runner status — he still consistently leads by 10 or more percentage points in national polls — but it’s clear that he lost support among a noticeable portion of the Democratic electorate.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Biden didn’t apologize.
Amid renewed criticism over his handling of the Anita Hill hearings and support of the Hyde amendment, Biden remained stoic. But the Miami debate was a clear example of how Biden’s long career in public service and stubbornness can be an extreme liability.
Why won’t he just apologize?
His record on busing is easy enough to explain. His opposition to the efforts came in 1974, in just his second year in the senate. That’s 45 years ago, when Harris was 10 years old and the United States was only five years removed from landing on the moon. To say the era Biden’s opposition existed in was a different time is an understatement; it was a different world. While his record on busing can and should be viewed with righteous indignation today, it wasn’t considered so morally corrupt at the time.
What’s baffling about Biden today is that he won’t apologize for his record. It’s one thing to lobby and vote one way on a piece of legislation from the 1970s; it’s another to continue to defend it time and time again, 45 years later, as a perfect stance. In the lens of history, it was a mistake.
The electoral argument is that once Biden makes amends for one vote over his 36-year tenure in the senate, the apologies will never stop. He cast 12,810 votes over that time — there’s only 13 senators who have cast more votes — and there’s more than a handful of blunders that Biden’s rivals would like him to apologize for. In some sense, Biden’s campaign is electorally right to push back against many criticisms of the candidate. But to push back to the letter against every opposition — especially in critical moments like the debate — is foolish.
The Biden campaign knows that Harris’ attack at the debate is not the end. In the July debates, just two weeks away, Biden’s aides must adequately prepare their candidate for the inevitable lambasting of his record.
Harris, and others, will be ready to pounce. Will Biden be ready to apologize?
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