by Aristarchus Patrinos
Joe Biden’s complicated political history in the United States Senate was placed in high relief this week, when he cited his 1970s relationship with two former senators from the Deep South: James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. Both men were vociferous opponents of the civil and political rights legislation passed by the Johnson Administration in the 1960s.
Biden’s purpose was to highlight his ability to work with people he strongly disagrees with, but his rivals in the Democratic primary have attempted to “turn the tables,” using it as a political weapon to paint Biden as an old and out-of-touch “white guy.” U.S. Sens. and presidential candidates Kamala Harris of California and Corey Booker of New Jersey, both African Americans, demanded a flat-out apology from Biden.
So far, the former vice president has declined, and has thus, for the present, prudently avoided a critical pitfall. Biden, a moderate in politics and temperament with a long record, will undoubtedly be hounded throughout the primary with demands by the left-wing of his party to apologize for anything and everything under the sun, including being born in the 1940s. Of course, the Democratic left and the black electorate are not the same thing, representing highly disparate voting blocs. For example, the black Democratic voter has, until this point in the campaign, largely dismissed much of this left-liberal rhetoric as character assassination and “politics as usual” against a politician of whom they are generally fond.
As the clear frontrunner, Biden has wisely taken a “less is more” approach so far, staying above the fray. He has been able to coast without getting his hands dirty. At some point, the former vice president will need to engage his political opponents with energy and conviction. And no issue will be more delicate or more fraught with political consequences in the Democratic primary than the issue of race in America.
Biden currently leads all candidates in the fight for black political support by a solid margin.
The Hart Research Associates/Black Economic Council poll conducted from May 17-28 found that 76% of black Democratic respondents were “comfortable” with Joe Biden, more than 10 points higher than Sen. Bernie Sanders, and more than 20 points higher than Harris. Moreover, 43% were “enthusiastic” about Biden, equal to the numbers posted by Sanders and Harris combined, the second- and third-most popular candidates among this demographic.
The more recent Economist/YouGov Poll conducted from June 9-11 measured that 50% of black Democratic voters are prepared to vote for Biden today. Out of the 23 other candidates, Sanders came in second with 10%.
Booker and Harris, despite their color, have not made strong inroads with African American voters. Ironically, for all the pundit talk of Biden being “too old” and “too white,” black voters, seem to prefer the “old white guy” (for the time being, at least). Effectively, the black vote and, consequently, the primary, are apparently Biden’s to lose.
Black folks have already demonstrated that they are willing to give Biden a lot of rope in this election. Their default mode is suspicion of his attackers. While this makes it easier for Biden to address the issue of color, it also gives him a longer cord with which to hang himself, should he truly stumble. While I don’t think Biden should directly respond to Booker and Harris’ attacks, the larger issue from which the situation arises will not go away, and will need to be addressed in some effective fashion by the Biden campaign.
Currently, the Harris and Booker campaigns are faltering. Neither appears to even have the political strength to vie for a vice presidential nod. The most direct path to political relevancy for both is to make substantial inroads into Biden’s hold on the black vote, which they certainly covet. Biden’s comments about former Sens. Eastland and Talmadge gave what Booker and Harris hope will be an opening to undermine Biden’s credibility with the black voter. Undermining this credibility is likely key to their strategy at this point.
Biden must be very careful here. While black folks have proven willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, Biden must in no manner praise Southern politicians who were apologists for Jim Crow. They cannot be portrayed as “good men” who Biden happened to disagree with on “certain issues.” This is entirely beyond the pale, as far as the “average black voter” is concerned.
Even to discuss a “friendship” or a “good relationship” with these men is unwise during primary season. It energizes the opponents and gives them an opening. And frankly, black people don’t want to hear about Biden’s friendship with a Jim Crow senator. Once the nomination is secured, the language of working across the aisle can once again be effectively invoked. But for now, less is more.
At the same time, Biden should in no way apologize for his past positions, even if he has “evolved” in some manner. If Biden starts flip-flopping back and forth like a spineless jellyfish, black voters (among others) will lose respect for him and he will lose credibility. Moreover, his opponents will smell blood and increase the frequency and intensity of their invectives.
Biden needs to effectively communicate and reassure black voters that he’s looking out for their interests and he’s “got their back,” in a general way. This, combined with some good concrete policy proposals, should be enough to claim the nomination, if things continue this way. It’s a mistake for him to play a reactive game against the inevitable racially-tinged attacks from Booker and Harris, as they seek to peel off some potential black Biden voters for themselves. The same can be said of the left-leaning black punditry and activists, whether it be “Black Lives Matter” or the black identity politics crowd. Biden need not let them set the terms of the debate, given his current position.
Personally, I believe Biden to be the best candidate in the Democratic field. It’s not because the Democrats need a “moderate” to defeat Trump, which I don’t believe. It’s not because he’s the best candidate to beat Trump, which I do believe. Biden has, by a long measure, the most relevant experience to be a good and effective President. With more than 30 years in the U.S. Senate and eight years as vice president, Biden is without a doubt the most prepared candidate in the field.
Beyond all the constant partisan bickering, let’s not lose sight of what’s most important: having a good Commander-in-Chief at the helm. The next president must be a competent and effective leader who understands the job coming into office and is able to get America back on a positive course. Biden is undoubtedly the best bet for the Democrats.
Aristarchus Patrinos teaches math and social science in Philadelphia public schools at the secondary school level. He previously worked in the NYC financial industry. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in Social Studies and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in Political Science.