Former vice president Joe Biden said Friday that he had not been prepared for Senator Kamala Harris to so pointedly question his record on school busing during the first Democratic debates, extending the dispute between the two presidential candidates, who have sparred repeatedly in the week since their high-profile confrontation.
In an interview broadcast Friday morning on CNN, Biden said that while he had expected candidates to target him, he had been caught off guard by Harris’s criticism in part because of their relationship.
“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 me,” Biden said, adding that Harris “knows me” and had known his late son, Beau Biden.
Biden also asserted that Harris had taken his position on school busing out of context. He reiterated in the CNN interview that while he believed federally mandated busing “did not work,” he was in favor of voluntary local busing efforts to desegregate schools like the one Harris participated in as a child in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1970s.
“People know who I am,” Biden said, before renewing the defense of his record on civil rights.
Asked about whether he needed to select a woman as his running mate should he win the Democratic nomination, Biden said, “I think it’d be great to have a female vice president, and if I don’t win, it’d be great to have a female president.”
Pressed on whether he would consider choosing Harris, he said he did not wish to be presumptive, noting that his comments on the subject had previously been used against him.
Biden’s latest remarks come as his support has slipped in several post-debate polls that have also shown Harris on the rise. The candidates have continued to litigate the details of their contentious exchange throughout the week, and Thursday, Harris flatly dismissed the notion that her remarks at the debate should have come as a surprise to Biden or his campaign.
“Part of the impetus of the conversation was the statements that the vice president made about his work with segregationists. And that was the subject of conversation for days at end,” Harris said in Indianola, Iowa. “So, you know, if he and his team weren’t prepared for the topic, I don’t know what to say about that.”
Amid the dispute, Harris’s own views on busing have also come under scrutiny. She said Wednesday that local school districts should determine whether to bus students — essentially the same argument that Biden made on the debate stage. Perhaps sensing her unease, Biden’s aides pounced, prolonging what has been the most combative period of the Democratic primary to date.
“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!” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night.
By Thursday afternoon, Harris’s campaign was invoking Biden’s reversal on taxpayer-financed abortion.
“Remind me what his position on Hyde was a month ago?” asked Lily Adams, Harris’s communications director, alluding to Biden’s newfound opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for abortions except in very rare instances.
Meantime, Harris and Biden spent their Fourth of July on the campaign trail in Iowa, expressing varying degrees of frustration.
In a sweltering backyard in Indianola, Harris insisted that she and Biden did not share the same position on federally mandated busing. She then trained her focus back on the former vice president.
“I have asked him and have yet to hear him agree that busing that was court-ordered and mandated in most places and in that era in which I was bused, was necessary,” Harris said of her childhood in Berkeley. “He has yet to agree that his position on this, which was to work with segregationists and oppose busing, was wrong.”
About 150 miles northeast of there, Biden, in Independence, Iowa, resisted the opportunity to return fire at Harris, calling her “a good person” whose perspective on busing was “absolutely right.”
But he also made clear that he was irritated at being attacked for positions he had held more than four decades ago. He argued that Democrats should instead “be talking about the future.”
In the CNN interview on Friday, Biden labeled himself as “center-left” and said he believed that “the vast majority of Democrats are where I am on the issues.” He sought to draw a contrast with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of the leading liberal voices in the House, whom he called “brilliant” and “bright.”
“But she won a primary,” Biden said, referring to the 2018 midterm election. “In the general election fight, who won? Mainstream Democrats.”
Biden also offered the clearest articulation yet of his stance on decriminalizing illegal border crossings. He said he did not support plans to do so, like the one proposed by the former housing secretary Julián Castro, who is also running for president.
“I think people should have to get in line, but if people are coming because they’re actually seeking asylum, they should have a chance to make their case,” he said.
And Biden again signaled that he was trying to stay above the fray.
Asked by the CNN anchor Chris Cuomo why he had not more fiercely defended himself during the debate, Biden said, “What I didn’t want to do was get in that scrum.”
“I get all this information about people’s past, and what they’ve done, and not done,” he said, “and I’m just not going to go there.”