Joe Biden always says what he thinks, and he still hasn’t said “I’m sorry.”
The former vice president, when asked about his chairmanship of Clarence Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearing, has been repeating himself. He said this week that he regrets that Anita Hill was mistreated. He wishes things had gone differently. He would have preferred that he “could’ve done something.”
Biden has baggage, and cartloads of it. That’s no surprise for a 76-year-old career politician. But his biggest liability among progressives isn’t just that he made mistakes all those years ago. It’s also that he doesn’t believe he could have avoided them.
Biden could, of course, have done something. He was chairman of the committee. The hearing was his to run. He could have supported Hill instead of permitting the cruel, sexist and racist questioning by his Republican colleagues. He could have called more witnesses.
An apology not for what Biden could not do but instead for what he did not do would give his critics on the left what they want to hear. It would save him plenty of bad press. But that’s not the kind of apology Biden has offered. Instead, he has made it clear that his failures, in his view, were not really his fault after all.
One reason seems to be the norms of the Senate. “I did not have the power,” Biden has protested, “to gavel them out of order.” Another seems to be the tenor of the times.
Anita Hill, Biden says, “faced a committee that didn’t fully understand what the hell it was all about” — a “bunch of white guys” who “knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago.” The excuse, in essence, is that he was trapped: Biden was a politician, and politics was stuck in a “white man’s culture” he now condemns. Therefore, Biden was stuck too.
But that’s exactly what most Democratic voters do not want to hear. Because the party is stuck right now, and unsticking it is the imperative of any 2020 contender who really seeks to inspire.
The Democratic Party is stuck because its members keep trying to play nice in a Congress in which Republicans have proved time and again that they’re willing to play mean. Policies, and even aspirations, that won’t get bipartisan buy-in are written off as unpragmatic — when Republicans wouldn’t give “pragmatic” policies a fair hearing anyway.
Ceasing to play nice means switching from what we “couldn’t do” then and can’t do now to what we should do. Maybe that’s mounting an aggressive climate campaign to bring the planet back from the geological brink. Maybe it’s offering government health care to everyone who wants it. Maybe it’s just gaveling old codgers out of order, or maybe it’s doing what Biden did manage to do when he came out ahead of the establishment on same-sex marriage. The point is to decide what’s right and then figure out how to make it real. Basing what’s right on what’s already real won’t cut it, but that’s exactly what Biden does when he blames the Hill debacle on the immoral political order of the era.
The Democratic Party is also stuck where all of America is stuck: in a politics that continues to cater to a bunch of white guys. There, Biden’s approach is incompatible with the goal of significant change.
Biden is seeking a middle ground that tries not to offend a suburban and rural blue-collar constituency — which is probably the same middle ground he was seeking in the 1970s when he excoriated school busing because, by forcing white people to do something they did not want, it would “fill them with hatred.” Yet wooing these voters reinforces the notion that in a browning America, those who have long been accustomed to having the final say shouldn’t have to change or give anything up.
Biden argues that the attitudes of the day stopped him from demanding more respect for a woman who came forward to say that a powerful man, about to be made more powerful, had abused her. But bowing to the attitudes of the day ignores the need for progress. And progress is exactly what the Democratic candidate for the presidency has to be able to promise.
Biden has cast the fight against Trumpism as “a battle for the soul of this nation.” It is. Yet to really save the nation’s soul, we’ll have to look into our own. The problem is not that Joe Biden owes Anita Hill an apology. The problem is he doesn’t think he does.