At a fundraising event in New York City this past Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden addressed a group of donors, discussing his campaign plans and what he hopes to accomplish if elected in 2020.
During his speech, the Democratic frontrunner spoke out against the ever-widening gap between Right and Left in our political system. He emphasized that the winner of the upcoming election—whoever it should happen to be—will need to “reach consensus under our system,” lamenting the loss of civility in Congress and the fact that “today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Now, this in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Regardless of your views on Trump, I think we can all agree that he’s been a pretty polarizing figure over the last few years. Most people either love him or hate him, and there doesn’t seem to be many in between. Compromises across the aisle have been few and far between for years now, and the surge of strong emotions—both positive and negative—following Trump’s election certainly didn’t help things. To prevent a complete breakdown in our government, it’s clear that something needs to change, and a bit more bipartisan cooperation probably couldn’t hurt.
Over the course of a long political career, Biden has seen firsthand the various shifts in the nation’s political climate. As such, he can offer an expert opinion on where things are headed based on his knowledge of where we’ve been.
So, it stands to reason that, if Biden’s goal is to prove that he’d make a better president than Trump, he’d want to highlight his ability to have civil communication with political opponents by giving examples from his own life.
Well, the only problem is that, in defense of his point, Biden’s shining examples of political civility happen to be two of the most fiercely pro-segregation senators in recent memory.
Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi—known by many as “the Voice of the White South”—and Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia—whom Biden referred to as “one of the meanest guys I ever knew”—were both held up as the standard of civility in the Senate during the early days of Biden’s career in the 1970s.
While recounting his time serving in a caucus with both men, Biden stated, “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished.”
Moreover, Biden recounted his interactions with Eastland specifically, saying “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me boy, he always called me son.”
Needless to say, in the days following his speech, the backlash against Biden’s statements has been overwhelming.
Ironically, Biden’s comments actually seem to have successfully bridged the partisan gap—if only temporarily—as Democrats and Republicans alike have come together with the common goal of relentlessly criticizing the former VP.
Seizing on the opportunity, many of Biden’s 2020 opponents have recently spoken out against him. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker issued a statement, saying: “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’…Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place…”
Similarly, California Senator Kamala Harris said that “to suggest that individuals who literally made it their life’s work to take America back on the issue of race is a real problem for me.”
Additionally, Republicans have also taken the opportunity to weigh in on the issue, bringing attention to the fact that BOTH of the senators mentioned were, in fact, Biden’s fellow Democrats.
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton tweeted the following: “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.”
To make matters worse, Biden made this statement on Tuesday evening, mere hours before the beginning of Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the abolition of slavery in the South following the Civil War. With a passionate debate over possible reparations for slavery currently taking place in Congress, Biden’s remarks likely couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Despite the abundance of negative feedback, Biden stands by his statements, arguing that he never condoned the views of men like Eastland and Talmadge, and even going so far as to criticize his opponents for attempting to portray him as a racist.
So soon after Biden’s speech, it’s difficult to determine exactly what effect this will have on the former vice president’s 2020 aspirations. Will the media backlash be enough to finally kill Biden’s double-digit lead in the polls?
While it may still be too soon to tell, it’s likely that this won’t be the last time we hear about Biden’s statements in the coming months.