Controversy flared this week over former Vice President Joe Biden’s comments about the need for civility. He recalled fondly that, even in the age of avowed segregationists like Senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, Biden—as a former Senator—could work across the aisle to get things done.
Critics went wild.
Removing the hyperbole, Biden was clear that he found the racist views of his former Senate colleagues to be repugnant. His broader point was that we need to work with those whose views are vastly different from our own—even those whose positions we consider reprehensible—if we are to forge common ground and move this country forward in ways that reflect the aspirations of us all.
I concur with Biden’s point about the need to work across lines of difference. My beef with the former Vice President, as I said in my post when he announced his 2020 Presidential run, is that his political instincts are simply not attuned to the pace and perils of campaigning in our current world. As such, the messenger clouds the message.
As I said at the time: “It is a long campaign. Can he avoid the inevitable landmines that will surface? …I believe he has the chops to lead us in these uncertain times. At the moment, he may even be the best one in the crowded field to bring us together as a nation. But, before he becomes President, he will need to navigate the increasingly turbulent waters of media excess and political polarization, where the cultural norms have shifted greatly since he last ran for President or served for eight years as Obama’s wingman.
“Can someone in their late 70’s with a half-century track record be nimble enough and nuanced enough to capture territory in a field where so many traps lay hidden? …The enemy is furtive and exceedingly skilled at eviscerating opponents…and he has no shame. I feel this will all end badly.”
Biden’s Presidential run has already been marked by multiple missteps. His patronizing of Anita Hill, his dismissal of charges against him for inappropriately touching female colleagues, his reversal on his decades-old position on the Hyde Amendment, and now his racial insensitivities have caused us to talk about him rather than the very important issues his comments address. When the Vice President uses images and anecdotes that are decades old, public discourse is deflected from the issues themselves to political bickering over the use of outdated language, turning the conversation to the past instead of the future.
Several Presidential candidates—Kamala Harris, Bill De Blasio, Cory Booker—were quick to be critical. Biden’s response to Booker’s request for an apology that it is Booker who needs to apologize to him, was considered by many to be the most offensive of his meandering remarks and recollections.
At a time when the Democratic Party is trying to craft a future-oriented message, they are embroiled in a discussion about decades-old incidents and the Vice President’s choice of images and anecdotes instead of targeting solutions for the critical issues of racial and gender justice in our society.
Case in point: on Juneteenth Day, the same day that Biden made his remarks, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the critical and controversial topic of reparations for slavery. With the timing of his remarks, substantial slices of media coverage were not about this issue, but about Biden’s blind spot in being called “son” and not “boy” and how offensive that subject is to African Americans.
I want to emphasize, as I did back when Biden launched his Presidential run, that I am a Joe Biden fan, that I believe he is a hero to both the famed and inflamed “white working class” and to the progressive left, including people of color. I only wish he had decided not to run for President in 2020. Since that ship has now sailed, it is incumbent upon us—the voting population—to keep the focus on the issues that confront us and not just on the faults and foibles of the personalities in the race that stretches endlessly before us.