The 2020 Democrats are out for blood. When former Vice President Joe Biden recalled treating even his vilest foes in the U.S. Senate with “civility,” mentioning two segregationist senators by name, his opponents for the presidential nomination rushed to condemn him in no uncertain terms. Sen.s Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) insisted there can be no civility with racists, and urged Biden to apologize.
Biden made the remarks on Tuesday at a New York fundraiser, recalling the bygone era of civility in politics, where politicians could work together even though they “didn’t agree on much of anything.” The former vice president referenced two leading segregationists he worked with back in there 1970s: Senators James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.), The Washington Post reported.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said. Jokingly, he added, “He never called me ‘boy.’ He always called me ‘son.'”
Biden insisted that as a Democratic president, he would bring this style of civility to a bitterly divided Washington. He said he could work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) without being “best buddies” because he knows how to “demonstrate respect” for Republicans.
Even with Talmadge, whom Biden called “one of the meanest guys I ever knew,” he insisted “there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done.”
Yet the vitriol in modern partisan politics prevents such important work, the candidate explained. “But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy,” he said. “Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Biden’s decision to compare working with Republicans to working with segregationist Democrats in the 1970s is offensive on many levels. As Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ariz.) pointed out, Eastland and Talmadge were Democrats, so “Biden & them have nothing to do with ‘bipartisanship,’ so please leave [the] GOP out of Democrats’ debates about their party’s troubled history on race.”
A history lesson is warranted: Senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge were *Democrats*—as were other segregationists. @JoeBiden & them have nothing to do with “bipartisanship,” so please leave GOP out of Democrats’ debates about their party’s troubled history on race.
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) June 19, 2019
Even so, Biden made an excellent point. Good politics requires the ability to have a civil discussion about important issues, but Americans are increasingly demonizing their political opponents. This candidate’s decision to fight back against such partisan vitriol is laudable — even though Biden himself has engaged in such demonization against President Donald Trump.
In fact, reaching for the segregationist comparison was somewhat savvy, since many Democrats and liberals now baselessly consider the Republican Party a force for bigotry and “white supremacy.” If a Democrat president will have to work with Republicans — and any potential successor to Trump will have to do so — he or she will need to adopt at least a modicum of civility.
Yet rather than acknowledging the importance of civility, Biden’s opponents in the 2020 primary leapt at the opportunity to demonize their competition.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of their very humanity,” Sen. Cory Booker, who is black, said in a statement responding to Biden’s remarks. He characterized the former vice president’s statements as “praising segregationist senators.
Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone,” Booker added. “I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together.”
“And frankly, I’m disappointed he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should,” Booker concluded.
— Kevin Robillard (@Robillard) June 19, 2019
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the runner-up in the 2016 presidential nomination race and frequently second to Joe Biden in the 2020 polls, rushed to agree with Booker. “I agree with Cory Booker. This is especially true at a time when the Trump administration is trying to divide us up with its racist appeals,” Sanders tweeted.
I agree with Cory Booker. This is especially true at a time when the Trump administration is trying to divide us up with its racist appeals. https://t.co/VyVcG6srQM
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 19, 2019
Harris, who like Booker is black, characterized Biden’s remarks as coddling “the reputations of segregationists.”
“To coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who if they had their way, I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate … it’s misinformed and it’s wrong,” Harris told reporters. “Let’s be very clear. The senators that he is speaking of with such adoration are individuals who made and built their reputation on segregation. The Ku Klux Klan celebrated the election of one of them.”
Kamala Harris slams Joe Biden: “To coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who if they had their way I would literally not be standing here as a member of the U.S. Senate … it’s misinformed and it’s wrong. … The Ku Klux Klan celebrated the election of one of them” pic.twitter.com/KHPb24mbKE
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) June 19, 2019
Booker, Sanders, and Harris entirely missed the point. Biden was not “praising,” “coddling,” or expressing “adoration” for these segregationists — he was vilifying them, while insisting that good politicians should work with their ideological opponents.
While Biden may not actually represent the kind of civility he praised, this call for civility is not in the same universe as a defense of segregation or segregationists. In fact, Biden called on Booker to apologize.
“I could not have disagreed with Jim Eastland more. He was a segregationist. I ran for the United States Senate because I disagreed with the segregationists,” the former vice president told reporters. “I beat him on the Voting Rights Act.”
“You don’t have to agree, you don’t have to like the people in terms of their views, but you just simply make the case and you beat them. You beat them without changing the system,” Biden explained.
As for his 2020 Democrat critics, “They know better. … Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body, I’ve been involved in Civil Rights my whole career. Period.”
Biden hits back at Booker over segregationist senator.
“Apologize for what? Cory [Booker] should apologize. He knows better” pic.twitter.com/xq8lLk4tTj
— Alex Thompson (@AlxThomp) June 20, 2019
Yet Booker did not reconsider. He slammed Biden on CNN, declaring that “somebody running for president of the United States … should know that using the word ‘boy’ in the way that he did can cause hurt and pain.” He refused to apologize. “I know that I was raised to speak truth to power and I will never apologize for doing that.”
Vice President Joe Biden told me I should know better. As a Black man in America, here's what I know: pic.twitter.com/MbbrVbi3BJ
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) June 20, 2019
This episode sheds light on the vicious lengths to which 2020 Democrats will go to win the presidential nomination. These candidates are out for blood.
Politically, this battle is quite significant. Biden enjoys a firm lead among black Democratic voters, who see him as the successor to President Barack Obama. If, however, Booker and Harris can tar him using guilt by association with segregationists, they may be able to peel off some of that key support. Sanders, lagging behind Biden in the polls, also smelled blood in the water.
Yet this episode also reveals something more significant. Most Democrats continue to reject the idea of showing civility to the Republicans they demonize. In 2017, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) encouraged liberal protesters to harass Trump administration officials in public and private places. Other Democrats agreed. When Republicans responded with calls for civility, Democrats demonized the idea of civility. Some even said civility itself is racist.
Biden’s call for civility was a much-needed course correction, but the response coming from Booker, Sanders, and Harris suggests that few Democratic leaders will heed it.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.