Well, it’s been a quite a week for Joe Biden. The former vice president and Democratic frontrunner for the nomination ruffled more than just a few feathers when he waxed nostalgically about working with segregationist senators during his freshman years. For the record, this is what Biden actually said,
I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’ A guy like Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys. Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.
I know the new New Left tells me that I’m — this is old-fashioned. Well guess what? If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president. That’s what it does. You have to be able to reach consensus under our system — our Constitutional system of separation of powers.
Naturally, it didn’t take long for Biden’s political opponents to pounce on him. Kamala Harris said, “To coddle the reputations of segregationist people who if they had their way I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate, is I think it’s just it’s misinformed.”
Cory Booker issued a statement that read, “Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone. I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together,” he added. “And frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should.”
Biden, upon hearing of Booker’s demand, replied that Booker should apologize to him, adding, “There’s not a racist bone in my body.” Biden later did an interview with Reverend Al Sharpton where he appeared to double down on his remarks and stressed they were taken out of context. He also explained that his use of the term “boy” was not directed at black men.
For what it’s worth, I think this whole episode is a nothing burger. True, Biden could’ve chosen two better examples from his past to talk about than Eastland and Talmadge, and I’ll concede the point that it’s inappropriate for any white man to invoke the term “boy,” regardless of the context. Indeed, unless you’re talking about an actual boy, it’s just not something you do, period.
But here’s what I can’t quite wrap my head around. Nowhere in Biden’s comments is there even a scintilla of evidence that he “coddled” these men, as Harris stated, or that he worked with them to “bring the country together,” as Booker stated. Just the opposite, in fact. Biden, while not agreeing “on much of anything” nonetheless knew that he had to work with both men, especially Eastland, who was the Chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee.
And therein lies the problem that many modern-day Democrats are either unaware of or simply don’t want to come to grips with. From the 1930s into the ’70s, almost a quarter of Democratic senators were segregationists who hailed from the South. They were called Dixiecrats, and they held tremendous power in the Party. When Lyndon Johnson was trying to get both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed, he called many a Southern Democrat practically begging for their support. When Franklin Roosevelt was touting his New Deal in the throes of the Great Depression, he relied heavily on Southern Democrats to get him the votes he needed to get it over the hump.
Biden grew up in that Senate; an institution that was home to both liberals like Ted Kennedy and conservatives like Robert Byrd, and he was smart enough to know that his success hinged on how he navigated through those choppy waters. What Biden was trying to explain – however clumsily it may have come across – is that politics isn’t about personalities or purity. It’s possible to despise what someone stands for yet still work with that person in order to accomplish a greater good. As strange as it may seem to some, before the era of tribal politics took over Washington, politicians from divergent backgrounds often reached across the aisle to pass legislation. In fact, it was more common than you think. Today, the majority of politicians from both parties are more concerned with scoring cheap points with their base than actually getting something accomplished. If you can fault Biden on anything, it’s that he truly believes that the Washington he knew as a junior senator can somehow be resurrected if only he were elected president. Naive? Probably. Racist? Give me a fucking break.
But what I found truly interesting in all this wasn’t the knee-jerk reactions from Biden’s opponents, who I suspect trailing as badly as they are, saw an opportunity to chip away at his lead. Rather, it was the manner in which Biden handled the whole affair. To be honest, I was taken aback initially. I truly thought that upon getting pushback over the comments that he would issue an apology and move on. Instead, he did the exact opposite. He defiantly doubled down on the comments and then went after both Booker and the media for twisting his words around. It was, to quote several pundits, a Trumpian move on his part.
And that got me thinking. Could Biden be borrowing a page out of Trump’s playbook? If you recall, all throughout the 2016 campaign, whenever Trump was confronted by his opponents, and or the media, about things he said or did, he would immediately get defensive and push back. The words “I’m sorry” never made their way across his lips. Not once. It was as though the man could do no wrong. It drove his opponents up the wall, but, ironically, in the eyes of the voters, it made him appear strong and decisive. Turns out people are attracted to politicians who stick to their guns and aren’t wishy-washy.
I think Biden is fully aware that in this era of political correctness – which has overtaken the party – the urge to apologize runs deep. It’s something he detests at a gut level, not just because it runs counter to who he is as a man, but because it rubs many voters the wrong way. What they see in Biden isn’t some relic from the past, but a guy who tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to catch hell for it. A rare commodity in politics.
So if I had to guess, I’d say that good old Joe is putting down his marker. No more apologizing; no more explaining a career that’s had more ups than downs; and no more pussyfooting with opponents who can’t hold a candle to what he’s done in his public life. If I were a betting man, I’d look for a very combative Biden on that debate stage Thursday. If Sanders or Harris or Booker get in his face, they’re in for one helluva bitch slap. I think the man has his dander up and he’s got his eyes set on one thing and one thing only: Trump.
This much is certain: whoever takes on this president in 2020 better bring their “A” game with them. Anything less and Trump will win reelection. I don’t know whether Biden has what it takes to beat him. But I do know this: from what I’ve seen of the other candidates so far, I’m not terribly optimistic.