Bi­den’s his­tory is his Thor’s ham­mer and Achilles’ heel

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Eu­gene Robin­son

I get what Joe Bi­den was try­ing to say, but I’ll never un­der­stand how he tried — and ut­terly failed — to say it.

Yes, there was a time when the Se­nate was a chummy men’s club whose mem­bers, on some is­sues, put col­le­gial­ity ahead of ide­ol­ogy. Yes, I see how the Demo­cratic front-runner might want to hold out the hope, how­ever slim, of a re­turn to the days of “ci­vil­ity” when po­lit­i­cal foes could find com­mon ground. Yes, I know that Bi­den is still Bi­den, which means you never know what might come out of his mouth.

But no, no, a thou­sand times no, you don’t name for­mer Sens. James East­land of Mis­sis­sippi and Her­man Tal­madge of Ge­or­gia in your fond reminiscen­ces of the good old days. There are plenty of con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans whom Bi­den might have cited. He didn’t have to dredge up two vi­cious Dix­ie­crat racists who devoted their long ca­reers to deny­ing African Amer­i­cans ba­sic civil and hu­man rights.

That’s what Bi­den did, how­ever, at a fundraiser Tues­day in New York. Af­ter re­call­ing that he had served in the Se­nate with seg­re­ga­tion­ists East­land and Tal­madge, Bi­den went on: “Well, guess what? 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. But 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.”

When a pas­sel of his op­po­nents for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion pounced on the re­marks and called for an apol­ogy, Bi­den was ini­tially de­fi­ant. “Apol­o­gize for what?” he said to re­porters Wed­nes­day. “There’s not a racist bone in my body; I’ve been in­volved in civil rights my whole ca­reer. Pe­riod. Pe­riod. Pe­riod.”

I don’t doubt the in­tegrity of Bi­den’s bones. But con­jur­ing the ghost of East­land, who con­sid­ered African Amer­i­cans “an in­fe­rior race,” and the specter of Tal­madge, who fought civil rights leg­is­la­tion ev­ery inch of the way, was ei­ther a bad strate­gic choice or a wor­ri­some gaffe.

Is Bi­den try­ing to em­u­late Bill Clin­ton and cre­ate a “Sis­ter Soul­jah mo­ment” in which he re­as­sures whites by of­fend­ing African Amer­i­cans? I doubt it. Such a move would be self-de­feat­ing even in a gen­eral-elec­tion cam­paign against Pres­i­dent Trump, in my view, but it would be pos­i­tively in­sane in the Demo­cratic pri­maries.

Bi­den’s early lead is strong­est among black Democrats. If they were to look else­where, he could eas­ily fall back into the pack.

More likely, it was just Bi­den be­ing Bi­den — and a reminder that choos­ing him as the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee is not a risk-free propo­si­tion.

Bi­den’s longevity in Wash­ing­ton is both his Thor’s ham­mer and his Achilles’ heel. Vot­ers are fa­mil­iar with him from his decades as a se­na­tor and his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice pres­i­dent. They think of him as a main­stream Demo­crat and as­so­ciate him with a time when Congress and the pres­i­dency were com­pe­tent and func­tional.

Vot­ers also re­call specifics of his past, like his role in the con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas, but he can neu­tral­ize such episodes if he con­fronts them di­rectly. The unan­swered ques­tion is how well he un­der­stands the Demo­cratic Party of to­day and how both it and the na­tion have changed.

As he launched his cam­paign, Bi­den had to make clear he un­der­stood that his tac­tile style of per­sonal in­ter­ac­tion was in­ap­pro­pri­ate in the #MeToo era. Then, to be vi­able in a party that sees abor­tion rights un­der siege, he had to abruptly aban­don his long­time po­si­tion in fa­vor of the Hyde Amend­ment sharply lim­it­ing the use of fed­eral funds for abor­tion.

Now he gives his sup­port­ers indigestio­n by stir­ring mem­o­ries of the Jim Crow South.

The dan­ger for Bi­den isn’t that Democrats will think he’s racist or wants to take away women’s re­pro­duc­tive rights or in­tends any­thing un­to­ward with all his hug­ging. The dan­ger is that pri­mary vot­ers will come to ques­tion his abil­ity to give Trump the elec­toral drub­bing he de­serves.

That is why next week’s de­bates in Mi­ami is as im­por­tant for Bi­den as it is for any of the other con­tenders. He has pro­vided fod­der for the at­tacks that will surely come his way. Will he re­spond like a vet­eran cam­paigner in sync with his party and equipped for bat­tle?

Or will he come across as a man of yesteryear?

Don’t even think about count­ing Bi­den out; he’s still the clear front-runner. But this is a race, not an in­vesti­ture. The crown has to be earned. Eu­gene Robin­son’s email ad­dress is eu­gen­er­obin­[email protected]­post. com.

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