Some things age like fine wine. Other things start to stink.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has been in public life longer than a lot of presidential candidates have been alive, which means he’s got a very long record of positions, some of which have not aged very well.
The worst of these that came up at the Democratic primary debate in Miami Thursday night was his past opposition to court-ordered busing to integrate schools.
Sen. Kamala Harris seized control of the debate stage to tell the story of a little girl who was bused to a different school in California 50 years ago.
“That little girl was me,” said Harris, as she looked over at Biden.
Harris’s campaign quickly pinned a picture of her as a little girl to her Twitter page.
The moment stopped the debate cold. And it forced Biden to explain why a guy who is proud of his civil rights record can once have fought busing amendments on the Senate floor.
“I did not oppose busing in America,” he said. “What I opposed was busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
It could turn out to be a devastating moment for the former vice president. He will need the support of minority voters to defeat President Donald Trump. But first, he’ll need the support of black voters in South Carolina to get the nomination.
Biden’s history on busing is not widely known among Democrats, including Harris. When Jake Tapper pointed out to Harris on CNN in January that Biden had once fought federal busing requirements, she was caught off guard.
Biden’s history with busing was documented this year by CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, who reviewed never-before-published letters in which Biden touted a bill he was pushing that would strike “at the heart of the injustice of court-ordered busing.”
Zeleny wrote that Biden “followed the lead of – and sought support from – some of the Senate’s most fervent segregationists.” He also documented the mentorship of Biden by Mississippi Sen. James Eastland, a virulent segregationist.
“I have become convinced that busing is a bankrupt concept,” Biden said during debate over a busing amendment in 1978.
Surely there are explanations for his position at the time. Backlash to court-ordered integration in Delaware, for instance, could have played a role. And Biden still does not believe busing has lived up to its promise, a spokesman told Zeleny for his story.
But the busing issue is only one of the explanations Biden was forced to give Thursday. He took criticism for the 2003 vote he cast in favor of the war in Iraq.
When he talked about his ability to make compromises with Republicans, Sen. Michael Bennett of Colorado eviscerated him for giving away too much to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, making elements of tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush permanent and creating the dreaded automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.
Add to those the past positions Biden’s already had to answer for his treatment of Anita Hill when she spoke out against Clarence Thomas and Biden, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was less than welcoming.
He’s had to explain why he helped usher the 1994 crime bill into being. Yes, it created the Violence Against Women Act, for which he deserves credit. It also helped create the problem of over-incarceration that lawmakers in both parties are trying to address today.
This type of scrutiny won’t go away for Biden. And too often Thursday, his explanations fell back on his service with Obama.
The problem for Biden is that the politics and the party have changed since 1972, when he first ran for office. Any time you’re defending your interactions with segregationists is a bad time in today’s party. And Biden may have to do a lot of defending himself on the way to the nomination.