In their debate last week, Kamala Harris criticized Biden for his opposition to busing as a tool to integrate segregated schools when the issue was so controversial during the 1970s. (Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972.) In his defense, Biden said this:
I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.
This is essentially a states-rights, or perhaps municipalities-rights, argument: It’s fine that Harris was bused to a school outside her neighborhood, he said, “Because your city council made that decision. It was a local decision.”
But that wasn’t actually the position Biden held at the time.
In fact, Biden supported busing during the campaign that put him in the Senate. But as the white backlash to desegregation grew, he changed his position. The break came in 1975, when in the face of increasingly angry anti-busing sentiment at home in Delaware, he supported an anti-busing amendment offered by the notorious Jesse Helms. That year he even went so far as to support a constitutional amendment to bar courts from ordering busing as a remedy for segregation.
In this 1981 interview located by CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski, Biden says, “I happen to be one of those so-called people that are labeled as a liberal on civil rights, but oppose busing. And I support the effort to curtail the ability of courts to bus.” He added that while he supported efforts to desegregate schools, “The least effective remedy to be imposed is the busing remedy.”
So Biden didn’t just oppose busing imposed by the federal government, he opposed busing, full stop.
Now let’s be clear about something: The candidates are not talking about pursuing some kind of wide-scale national federal busing policy today (though Harris says busing could be part of a broader desegregation effort). You probably couldn’t do that even if you wanted to, since in a 2007 case striking down desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, conservatives on the Supreme Court dramatically narrowed the kinds of actions school districts can take to promote integration. That’s despite the fact that American schools are increasingly segregated by race.
But when we look back at the Joe Biden of an earlier time, what we see is a senator walking a fine line, saying he was a supporter of civil rights while opposing this controversial effort to achieve desegregation. The reason he could do that — and indeed, why that was in some ways the foundation of his early career — is how different civil rights issues played out in different parts of the country.
This is a complex subject, but to boil it down, it wasn’t hard for a Democrat from Delaware to support efforts to dismantle Jim Crow in the South. But when it came to attempts to desegregate that would touch his own state and the people who put him in office (in the 1970 Census, Delaware was 85 percent white), that was a different story. Busing would affect their children and their schools.
For better or worse, Biden was representing the angry feelings of his white constituents. And being the person who could speak for them was always the core of the identity he presented to voters: He’s Joey from Scranton, the reg’lar guy you can have a beer with, the one who knows when the liberals have gone too far and have to be told what real (i.e., white) people are thinking.
And the basis of his 2020 candidacy is precisely that. Biden will be happy to talk about his long experience or his vision of a bipartisan future, but the real appeal he offers is that he’s supposed to be capable of winning over Trump voters when other Democratic candidates aren’t.
The problem for him is that the Democratic Party of 2020 is very different from the Democratic Party of 1972 or 1982 or 1992. It’s not only much more racially diverse, it is also far less tolerant of certain kinds of pandering. In fact, anything that looks like appealing to white voters on the basis of racial resentment — even if it happened decades ago — raises alarm bells and requires careful explanation to assure Democratic voters that you aren’t playing that game.
Many presidential candidates from both parties have had to explain parts of their record that their parties no longer looked kindly on. If you took positions that seemed reasonable for the district or state you represented at a certain time, but you want to represent the national party today, what do you say about the past? Like Kirsten Gillibrand on the gun issue, you can say you were wrong and you’ve learned. Or you can say circumstances have changed, and you’ve changed along with them. Or you can claim that everyone is misunderstanding what you used to believe.
That last option — the least persuasive one — is what Biden has chosen on this issue. So far it’s not being received particularly well.