The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden explains his poor debate — with some odd defenses

Former vice president Joe Biden has was challenged on June 27 on his record of opposing federally mandated busing. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Amid increasing signs that his debate performance last week put a dent in his lead in the 2020 Democratic primary, former vice president Joe Biden sat down with CNN for a rare lengthy interview.

It may not have been a reassuring performance for those worried about his presidential campaign.

In the interview with Chris Cuomo, Biden suggested he was surprised by the line of attack — on Biden’s references to race and his position on busing in the 1970s — from Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) in the debate’s feature moment. He also suggested, curiously, that he didn’t think candidates should talk about each other’s pasts and that the debate format doesn’t suit him.

Here’s the exchange about Harris’s attack:

CUOMO: They’re going to come at you.
BIDEN: Sure, they’re going to come at me.
CUOMO: Were you prepared for them to come after you?
BIDEN: I was prepared for them to come after me, but I wasn’t prepared for the person coming at me the way she came at -- she knew Beau, she knows me. I don’t -- anyway, I --
But here’s the deal: What I do know -- and it’s the good and the bad news -- the American people think they know me and they know me. Since that occurred, I had the most sought-after endorsement for the mayor of Atlanta, a black woman who is a great leader, endorse me. I’ve had numerous members of a [Congressional] Black Caucus endorse me.

Biden’s answer is a bit confusing, but he seems to suggest that he wasn’t exactly expecting Harris to come after him because of their personal connections. (He alluded to this earlier, too.) He even invokes his late son, Beau Biden, and the fact that Beau and Harris knew each other when both served as state attorneys general — Beau Biden in Delaware and Harris in California. The implication, though Biden never really finishes the point, seems to be that this was someone Biden couldn’t have expected would ever do this to him.

Since the first 2020 Democratic primary debate, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have clashed on the issue of busing. (Video: The Washington Post)

It might indeed have been a harsher attack than some might have expected. But this was a subject that was ripe for someone to draw a contrast with Biden. His record on busing had been dealt with in-depth, including by The Washington Post. In the days before the debate, Biden’s comments about working with segregationist senators were perhaps the biggest story in the Democratic primary. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who also has a personal relationship with Biden, even called on him to apologize for the latter.

Was it really a shock to Biden that the other black candidate in the 2020 race, Harris, would go after him on these issues? Even before the debate, she said that Biden ''doesn’t understand the history of our country and the dark history of our country.” Given all that, the idea that Biden wasn’t girding for this exchange is pretty inexplicable.

The second exchange that raised my eyebrows was this one, after Biden offered a more extensive defense of his busing position than he did in the debate (at one point, he even cut his answer short by pointing out that his time had expired):

CUOMO: Why didn’t you fight it like this in the debate?
BIDEN: In 30 seconds?
CUOMO: Hey. What happens most in the debate, Mr. Vice President? People blow their time cue. You’re the only person I’ve ever seen on debate stage say, “I’m out of time.”
BIDEN: Well we’ve never had a place where you have 30 seconds, man. What I didn’t want to go was get in that scrum. Do you think the American public looks at that debate -- take me out of it -- and thought, “Oh boy, I really -- I really like the way that’s being conducted. They’re really showing themselves to do really well.” Come on, man.

And then there was this part, where he suggests the campaign shouldn’t be about the candidates’ pasts:

CUOMO: Did you see the questions about your past positions from the perspective of race being as relevant as they are?
JOE BIDEN: No, I don’t think they’re relevant. They’ve been taken out of context. What I didn’t see is people who know me -- I mean, they know me well, it’s not it’s somebody who just came out of the blue and didn’t know anything. It’s so easy to go back, and go back 30, 40, 50 years, and take it completely out of context.
And I mean, I get all this information about other people’s pasts, and what they’ve done and not done. And you know, I’m just not going to go there. If we keep doing that -- I mean, we should be debating what we do from here.

It’s completely understandable that Biden would want this campaign to be about the future rather than each candidate’s paper trail. That’s because he’s got the longest one and what appear to be the most vulnerabilities with a party that is shifting to the left.

But to pretend that’s not part of the process and isn’t relevant is Pollyannaish — looking at what a politician has done in the past is often the best indicator of what they’ll do in the future — as is complaining that he can’t explain himself in 30-second increments on a debate stage.

At the core of Biden’s message is that he’s the best candidate to take on President Trump and unseat him. Admitting that you weren’t prepared for the debate’s key moment and that the format isn’t conducive to explaining your unique CV isn’t exactly helping that argument.