Joe Biden is supposed to be the comfort food of the 2020 presidential race. But the mac-and-cheese he’s offering up to Democratic primary voters is getting harder to swallow.
On the same night President Trump launched his reelection bid with a big serving of anti-immigration red meat, Biden promoted his relationship with two segregationist Democrats — Senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia — as examples of the good old days of civility and getting things done in American politics.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’ ” said Biden at a New York City fund-raiser, where he slipped “briefly into a Southern accent,” The New York Times reported. Given that “boy” is used to insult black men, not white men, Biden’s fond memory is oddly irrelevant and detached from historical context. It also overlooks what The Washington Post describes as Eastland’s view that black Americans were an inferior race and integration would cause “mongrelization.” Biden also went on to describe Talmadge, a longtime civil rights opponent, as “one of the meanest guys I ever knew,” but “At least there was some civility. . . . We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done.”
Getting along to get things done is a key ingredient of what’s supposed to be a comforting campaign message. But with Biden dishing it out, it can lead to some uncomfortable moments. How many riffs like the one above will primary voters accept in the name of Biden’s alleged electability? At what point does a calculated pitch to Trump voters become a dog whistle of its own? Serving two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president doesn’t inoculate Biden from questions about race, or anything else.
I gave him a pass on hair-sniffing and shoulder-rubbing, on the grounds that his brand of old-school politics allowed for more touching than the modern variety. But by now, he should be disciplined enough to refrain from telling a 10-year-old girl who asked him a question at a recent town hall, “I’ll bet you’re as bright as you are good-looking.” His weak non-apology to Anita Hill was disappointing. Still, she recently said she would vote for him — although that was before his comments about Eastland and Talmadge. He’s clearly conflicted on abortion rights, but based on polling, he may be more in touch with voters than activists want to believe. What’s more concerning is his lack of sharpness and awareness of the pitfalls of his position. That happened when Biden said he still backed the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortion, and then, faced with the fury of abortion rights activists, flipped his position.
When parsing Biden’s remarks about the two Southern segregationist senators, an Atlanta Journal Constitution political blog noted that Talmadge began his career as an ardent civil rights opponent but shifted somewhat over time. “Glimpses of a new South could be detected even in Herman Talmadge,” they wrote. But Biden provided none of the backdrop that might make the reference more palatable.
When it comes to responding to critics, he either doesn’t see the need or can’t think quickly enough to make it happen. One-on-one against Trump, either would be disastrous. The president is already calling him “a sleepy guy” and “the weakest mentally” of the Democrats.
Biden’s strategy so far is to run against the president and ignore his 23 other Democratic rivals. The New York Times recently reported that while his primary opponents barnstorm the country, he’s spending more time off the campaign trail — the better to avoid addressing a 40-year rap sheet of questionable votes and conduct. That will change next Thursday, when he shares the debate stage with Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and five other Democrats. If Biden shows weakness and loses that first debate, what’s supposed to be comfort food will instead be cause for more Democratic indigestion.