The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harris’s views on busing come under question after her debate criticism of Biden’s past position

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)

DES MOINES — In the days since Sen. Kamala D. Harris used the debate stage to challenge former vice president Joe Biden for opposing court-ordered busing in the 1970s, she has fielded an almost daily question: Would she support federally mandated busing to address school segregation now?

The California Democrat’s answers have varied, leading some to wonder how much her position actually differs from Biden’s current posture.

During the debate, Harris told Biden that in the 1970s there was a “failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” so “that’s where the federal government must step in.”

During an MSNBC interview after the debate, she again called out Biden’s opposition to federal involvement, saying “we have certain values that are national standards, and we’re not going to let states compromise that.”

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala D. Harris said busing should be "considered" to desegregate schools during an event in Iowa on July 3. (Video: AP)

OnWednesday, again asked her position by reporters, Harris said busing should be “considered” by school districts. But she would not go so far as to say she would support mandating it.

“Busing is a tool among many that should be considered,” Harris said at a picnic in West Des Moines. Pressed for a firmer yes or no as to whether she would support mandatory busing, Harris did not offer one Wednesday.

On Thursday, Harris said she would support federally mandated busing in situations, like those in the 1970s, where integration efforts by states or school districts met resistance or were not effective. She also said she does not believe current circumstances require that kind of intervention.

“If we got back to the point where governments were actively opposing integration, yes,” Harris told reporters in Indianola when asked about involuntary busing. “I could imagine that would be when the courts would have to step in … I could imagine that, but thankfully that’s not where we are today.”

Harris also said it was “just wrong” that Biden has not yet apologized for opposing court-ordered busing in the 1970s.

“He has yet to agree that his position on this, which was to work with segregationists and oppose busing, was wrong. Period,” Harris said.

“Do we need to do a quick lesson in history? Which is that there were forces and individuals and supposed leaders in our country who actively worked against the integration of schools based on race. That is what was happening at that time. That’s why busing was mandatory at that time,” she said. “But he has yet to agree that the position he took then was wrong, and he and I just disagree on that.”

Biden, who was also campaigning in Iowa on Thursday, brushed aside that sentiment.

“I don’t have to atone . . . my record stands for itself,” Biden told CNN. “I’ve never been accused by anybody . . . of not being an overwhelming supporter of civil rights and civil liberties . . . This is kind of a new thing.”

The Biden and Harris teams have engaged in an extended battle over Harris’s position.

“It’s disappointing that Senator Harris chose to distort Vice President Biden’s position on busing — particularly now that she is tying herself in knots trying not to answer the very question she posed to him!” tweeted Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s communications director.

Harris’s press secretary Ian Sams retweeted a portion of a Washington Post story that quoted Biden’s remarks to a Delaware weekly in 1975: “The new integration plans being offered are really just quota systems to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school. That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with. What it says is, ‘In order for your child with curly black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son.’ That’s racist!”

Biden argued during the debate that he never opposed voluntary busing, only busing “ordered by the Department of Education.” But in the past he has criticized busing without drawing the distinction between those two options, calling it “an asinine concept.” Most recently, his aides have said he opposes federal busing unless local governments have intentionally segregated the schools but does not oppose voluntary busing.

Harris reiterated Thursday that she was challenging Biden to reflect on his position then, not now.

“I think that part of the impetus of the conversation was the statements that the Vice President made about his work with segregationists,” Harris said.

On its face, the continued back-and-forth represented an improbable feud over a topic that has not been at the forefront of Democratic Party politics for decades. But the battle raged on because it served as a stand-in for two questions pressing both the Biden and Harris campaigns:

Will Biden continue to hold onto the support of black voters or can Harris make inroads among that key voting bloc? Which candidate will voters see as better representing the Democratic Party, one whose appeal mixes support among black voters and blue-collar whites or one who epitomizes a party animated by younger, female and increasingly nonwhite voters?

Harris’s assault on Biden was the emotional high point of the debate, as she mixed questions about his record with a dramatic recitation of her own involvement, as a child, with the busing integration of Berkeley’s elementary schools in 1968.

But the subsequent questions about her busing stance reprised other moments in the campaign when Harris expressed firm positions in high profile settings before later backing away from them.

Earlier this year, during a CNN town hall, she endorsed an end to private insurance as part of a Medicare-for-all plan, only to reverse herself within days. During the same debate in which she took on Biden, Harris again endorsed an end to private insurance, but later said she misheard the question as asking whether she would be willing to give away her private insurance in favor of a public option. Harris has co-sponsored a Medicare-for-all bill that would create a single-payer health care system and allow private insurance only for supplemental coverage.

Harris has sought to turn the attention she garnered in the debate into momentum for her campaign, which before now has struggled for a foothold in the sprawling Democratic field.

Polls taken after the debate showed her gaining some ground, although still behind Biden nationally.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll found her running behind both Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and tied with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents voters were asked their preferences in the Democratic race.

While Harris’s support was only a third of Biden’s in the poll, she was ranked as the standout debate performer by those voters.

Some voters, meantime, welcomed the spat between Harris and Biden.

“I think the interaction between Senator Harris and Vice President Biden was something everyone needed to see and hear,” said Claire Celsi, an Iowa state senator who has not offered an endorsement in the race. “As a woman, you walk a really fine line between the perception that you’re picking on somebody or nagging on somebody … I think people needed to see her demeanor. They needed to hear her voice. And they needed to see him being forced to listen to her in front of the camera.”