Democrats eyeing the White House are starting with an apology.
Several potential candidates have delivered mea culpas as they scramble to align their positions with the party’s shift to the left on issues like immigration, health care and criminal justice reform.
Joe Biden is one of the latest to join the group. Decades after taking the lead on passing the 1994 crime bill – which he once referred to as the “Biden crime bill” – the former vice president is asking Democrats for forgiveness.
“You know I’ve been in this fight for a long time,” Biden said on Monday. “It goes not just to voting rights. It goes to the criminal justice system. I haven’t always been right. I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried.”
On increasing penalties for selling crack cocaine, Biden added: “It was a big mistake that was made.”
Biden’s recent apologies are only the latest for the former vice president. In 2017, Biden said he owed Anita Hill an apology after overseeing the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, where Hill testified that she was sexually harassed by Thomas. The hearing has been subject to widespread criticism in recent years, particularly in the wake of the Me Too movement, and considering Hill was questioned by an all-white, all-male committee roster.
“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” Biden told Teen Vogue in 2017. “I owe her an apology.”
Biden, who is inching closer to a presidential run, is not the only 2020 prospect who has apologized recently.
When California Sen. Kamala Harris announced her candidacy on Monday, one of the first questions she encountered was whether she regrets some of the decisions she made as district attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California.
“I can tell you of cases where I really regret that we were not able to charge somebody that I knew molested a child, but the evidence was not there. There were cases that, as I mentioned earlier, that there were folks who made a decision in my office and had not consulted with me and I wish they had,” Harris said. “But again, I take full responsibility for those decisions.” Harris’ criminal justice record has already garnered blowback from Democratic activists on the left.
Sen. Kristen Gillibrand expressed regret throughout her first week as a likely 2020 candidate, telling MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that she “really regretted” conservative positions she once held on guns and immigration. She then used her first trip to Iowa to try and explain those views.
“My story is my story. And when I am wrong, I admit it,” Gillibrand told CNN about her past. “It is just who I am.”
Gillibrand later added another issue to previous positions she regretted: Campaign finance.
Asked by CNN why she took more than $1 million from lobbyists in her career but is now swearing off super PAC and lobbying money, Gillibrand described her current position a “first step” and admitted she wishes she had done it sooner.
“Yeah, I do,” she said. “And I think it is important to start somewhere and that is why I am starting here.”
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard released a video earlier this month apologizing to the LGBTQ community for comments she made while working for her father’s anti-gay organization in the late 1990s.
“In my past, I said and believed things that were wrong, and worse, they were very hurtful to people in the LGBTQ community and to their loved ones,” said Gabbard. “I sincerely repeat my apology today. I’m deeply sorry for having said them. My views have changed significantly since then.”
And at the same event that saw Biden apologizing, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is considering a 2020 bid, expressed regret about his own criminal justice record.
“I can’t stand up here and tell you every decision I have made as mayor was perfect,” Bloomberg said at the breakfast honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I listened to concerns, and I tried to be responsive. But I can tell you that we were always guided by the goal, first and foremost in all cases, of saving lives of those who faced the greatest risk of gun violence, young men of color.”
Democratic strategists believe the apologies and expressions of regret signal a desire to get in line with Democratic orthodoxy early in the presidential race rather than have your campaign bogged down closer to a time when people are actually voting.
“Much being said (about) Dem POTUS candidates apologizing for (previous) positions,” tweeted Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager. “We should welcome this as long as change is honest, thoughtful, & most importantly coupled w/ action. (Important) for leaders to always evaluate their positions & be able to admit when wrong.”
Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will take on President Donald Trump, who has bragged about never apologizing.
And the rush from candidates and potential contenders to address potential problems from their pasts could also be viewed as a lesson from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 race.
Although Clinton did apologize at times during the 2016 campaign – including for “the consequences that were unintended” from the 1994 crime bill during CNN’s Democratic debate in April – the apologies were often tortured and Clinton’s support of the controversial bill continued to be an issue for her.
Even still, the string of confessionals is coming earlier than usual as candidates try to clarify their views before fully hitting the campaign trail. The challenge is presenting an apology with authenticity, which quiets the controversy, rather than compounding the problem.
Democrats believe the atonements are largely driven by the leftward shift in the party, given many of the candidates running have once in their careers held views or done something at odds with current Democratic standards.
But the apologies are not just coming for shifts in positions.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders apologized earlier this month for allegations of sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign.
“To the women in our campaign who were harassed or mistreated I apologize,” Sanders said at a news conference Thursday after meeting with women who worked on his 2016 effort. “Our standards, our procedures, our safeguards, were clearly inadequate.”