I get what Joe Biden was trying to say, but I’ll never understand how he tried — and utterly failed — to say it.
Yes, there was a time when the Senate was a chummy men’s club whose members, on some issues, put collegiality ahead of ideology. Yes, I see how the Democratic front-runner might want to hold out the hope, however slim, of a return to the days of “civility” when political foes could find common ground. Yes, I know that Biden is still Biden, which means you never know what might come out of his mouth.
But no, no, a thousand times no, you don’t name former Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia in your fond reminiscences of the good old days. There are plenty of conservative Republicans whom Biden might have cited. He didn’t have to dredge up two vicious Dixiecrat racists who devoted their long careers to denying African Americans basic civil and human rights.
That’s what Biden did, however, at a fundraiser Tuesday in New York. After recalling that he had served in the Senate with segregationists Eastland and Talmadge, Biden went on: “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.”
When a passel of his opponents for the Democratic nomination pounced on the remarks and called for an apology, Biden was initially defiant. “Apologize for what?” he said to reporters Wednesday. “There’s not a racist bone in my body; I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”
I don’t doubt the integrity of Biden’s bones. But conjuring the ghost of Eastland, who considered African Americans “an inferior race,” and the specter of Talmadge, who fought civil rights legislation every inch of the way, was either a bad strategic choice or a worrisome gaffe.
Is Biden trying to emulate Bill Clinton and create a “Sister Souljah moment” in which he reassures whites by offending African Americans? I doubt it. Such a move would be self-defeating even in a general-election campaign against President Trump, in my view, but it would be positively insane in the Democratic primaries. Biden’s early lead is strongest among black Democrats. If they were to look elsewhere, he could easily fall back into the pack.
More likely, it was just Biden being Biden; and a reminder that choosing him as the Democratic nominee is not a risk-free proposition.
Biden’s longevity in Washington is both his Thor’s hammer and his Achilles’ heel. Voters are familiar with him from his decades as a senator and his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. They think of him as a mainstream Democrat and associate him with a time when Congress and the presidency were competent and functional.
Voters also recall specifics of his past, like his role in the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, but he can neutralize such episodes if he confronts them directly. The unanswered question is how well he understands the Democratic Party of today and how both it and the nation have changed.
As he launched his campaign, Biden had to make clear he understood that his tactile style of personal interaction was inappropriate in the #MeToo era. Then, to be viable in a party that sees abortion rights under siege, he had to abruptly abandon his longtime position in favor of the Hyde Amendment sharply limiting the use of federal funds for abortion. Now he gives his supporters indigestion by stirring memories of the Jim Crow South.
The danger for Biden isn’t that Democrats will think he’s racist or wants to take away women’s reproductive rights or intends anything untoward with all his hugging. The danger is that primary voters will come to question his ability to give Trump the electoral drubbing he deserves.
That is why next week’s debates in Miami are as important for Biden as they are for any of the other contenders. He has provided fodder for the attacks that will surely come his way. Will he respond like a veteran campaigner in sync with his party and equipped for battle? Or will he come across as a man of yesteryear?
Don’t even think about counting Biden out; he’s still the clear front-runner. But this is a race, not an investiture. The crown has to be earned.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.