Hey, Joe Biden, stop. Stop apologizing.
Your civil relationship with former segregationist Sens. Herman Talmadge of Georgia and James Eastland of Mississippi four decades ago is nothing to regret talking about (“Biden: ‘I regret’ debate comments,” July 7). Perhaps it’s alien to a new generation, but working with people you don’t like or agree with is part of being an effective politician.
Consider the experience of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. He arrived in Washington brimming with liberal outrage, brashly announcing that he “despised” Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Helms had stridently opposed federal enforcement of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and a long list of other initiatives. He opposed establishing a federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he worked to block federal funding for research and treatment of AIDS, which he insisted was God’s punishment for homosexuality.
But with some advice from veteran Democrats, Wellstone mellowed his rhetoric. He later told one of us (Sharon) that he was proud to have developed a working relationship with Helms. It wasn’t that Wellstone yielded on any of the causes he championed so passionately; instead he wisely learned that he could be a more forceful advocate by deploying civility rather than hostility. After Wellstone’s death, Helms said, “Despite the marked contrast between Paul’s and my views on matters of government and politics, he was my friend and I was his.” Wellstone “was a courageous defender of his beliefs.”
But touting such a relationship nowadays — as you did — is inexcusable in the sanctimonious political world of progressives who take their cues from college students who shout down speakers they dislike. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and others in varying ways demanded or applauded your later apology. Booker then groused that you took too long to grovel.
Harris’ sermon at the debate scolding you for your stance against federally enforced school busing implied there is only one, uncompromising way to view the controversy from the 1970s. She scoffed when you explained that you favored busing decisions made locally rather than mandated by Washington.
But several days after the debate, Harris seemed more in line with your position. Asked if she favored federally mandated busing, she replied that busing “should be considered by a school district.” No apologies for any confusion.
You’ve expressed regrets for the way Anita Hill was treated in 1991 at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which you chaired. You should have done better, at least by postponing a committee vote until the allegations were aired. But a Morning Consult/Politico poll in May revealed that only 28% of Democratic primary voters would be less likely to vote for you because of your handling of Hill’s sexual-harassment allegations. Fifty-one percent didn’t know about the hearings, had no opinion or said your conduct made no difference in whether they’d support you. A key question, even for many who continue to care about Hill’s case, is whether you have evolved and taken steps to promote fair treatment of women and minorities in government. Your work in 1992 to recruit women senators to the judiciary committee was a good start.
Hey Joe, flogging yourself over matters from an earlier generation plays into the hands of your primary opponents and their self-righteous politics. Did Lyndon Johnson seek forgiveness for not passing a tougher civil-rights bill in 1957 when he was Senate majority leader? Nope. He got it done in 1964 when he was president. Maybe George W. Bush should have apologized for starting a war in Iraq over nonexistent weapons. He didn’t. You conceded in 2005 that it was a mistake to join most Senate Democrats in authorizing Bush to go to war.
Enough contrition. It’s time to focus on convincing anxious Democratic voters that you have the chops to take on an unrepentant, belligerent president.
Joe, keep this between us, because at age 76 you don’t want to appear to be channeling Sinatra, but never forget the lyrics to “My Way”: Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention … .
Pat Doyle and Sharon Schmickle are former Star Tribune reporters who covered the Minnesota Legislature and Congress, respectively.