Biden Apologizes for Comments on 1960s Segregationist Senators
(Bloomberg) -- Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden apologized Saturday for leaving the impression he was praising two segregationist lawmakers from decades ago as he discussed civility in Congress, after the comment drew sharp criticism from his opponents."Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes I was, I regret it," Biden told an audience of mostly black supporters in Sumter, South Carolina. "I’m sorry for the pain and misconception I may have caused."New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who’d demanded an apology from Biden for his mid-June comments, said he felt "a sense of gratitude" that the former vice president was willing to admit fault."We are at a point in our country when we need our leaders to be able to speak towards race issues without falling into a defensive posture or shifting blame," Booker told reporters in New Orleans.Biden said the recent comments shouldn’t overshadow his decades of work on race. "Should that misstep define 50 years of my record for fighting for civil rights, racial justice in this country? I hope not, I don’t think so. That just isn’t an honest assessment of my record."The apology came during a speech in which Biden defended himself from mounting criticism from other Democratic presidential candidates, who’ve begun digging into his nearly half-century in public life, including 36 years in the Senate, to which he was first elected in 1972.‘Different Place’"America in 2019 is a very, very different place than in the 1970s. And that’s a good thing," Biden said. "I’ve witnessed an incredible, incredible amount of change in this nation and I’ve worked to make that change happen. And yes -- I’ve changed also."Biden, 76, also leaned on his ties to President Barack Obama. Biden said he was vetted and selected by Obama as running mate in 2008, and “I will take his judgment of my record, my character, and my ability to handle the job over anyone else’s."Biden has often been defensive about his legislative record, but on Saturday he admitted fault without putting up a fight, saying that on issues including federally mandated busing, the 1994 crime bill, trade, mid-2000s bankruptcy bills and the Iraq war, he’d done what he believed was right at the time and continued to work for further improvements.It was a significant reset for a candidate who came out of the gate as the best-known 2020 Democratic contender, has led opinion polls of Democrats since then, and has focused on general-election themes. "I made the best decisions I could at the moment those decisions had to be made," he said.Read more: Biden No Longer Has the Luxury of Just Running Against TrumpBeginning at the June 25 Democratic debate, California Senator Kamala Harris questioned Biden’s efforts to stop federal mandates for busing to desegregate schools, invoking her own experience in the second class of black students who were bused to better schools in Berkeley. Biden noted that he and Harris have similar views of how to combat modern school segregation and said his goal in the 1970s and today is "to get to the root cause of segregation," which in many cases stems from housing discrimination.Ian Sams, Harris’s national press secretary, responded on Twitter to the early excerpts from Biden’s speech, writing that, “every candidate’s record will (and should) be scrutinized in this race. It’s a competition to become President of the United States. There are no free passes.”In the speech, Biden also addressed his role as a lead author of the 1994 crime bill, noting it had overwhelming support from congressional Democrats and from national black leaders when it passed. Republicans, he said, argued that the bill was too soft on crime and pilloried Biden’s efforts to fund educational programs in federal prisons. The bill "worked in some areas but it failed in some others," including that it led to mass incarceration of people of color, he said. "I’ll accept responsibility for what went right and I’ll also accept responsibility for what went wrong,” Biden said.His current plan for criminal justice reform is "as strong or stronger than anybody else’s" in the presidential race, Biden said, and includes a wide range of measures favored by activists, including eliminating mandatory minimums, ending the private prison system, and decriminalizing marijuana and expunging records of previous marijuana crimes.Read more: Biden’s 36 Years in Senate Become Drag on His Presidential BidBiden also addressed an issue that put him at odds with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2005, when she was a consumer advocate and Harvard Law School professor -- a bill that made it harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy and get out of debt."I’m not beholden to banks. I supported the bankruptcy bill because I believed taking a very bad bill which was going to pass overwhelmingly and make it better made sense," he said, noting he’d pushed for a provision that protected people who made under $50,000 and that alimony payments were favored.Though he voted to give President George W. Bush military authorization that was eventually used to justify the Iraq War, Biden noted that Obama nonetheless directed him during the first month of the administration to spearhead efforts to get out of Iraq.Record ScrutinizedBiden’s speech came after weeks of scrutiny of his record on race from his earliest years in the U.S. Senate. As well as the segregationist senators reminiscence, Biden faced a debate-stage attack from Harris over his opposition to busing in the 1970s.Front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination since officially entering the race, Biden’s support has sagged in some opinion polls, thwarting an effort to breeze through the primary season and focus on a general election campaign against President Donald Trump.A RealClearPolitics compilation of recent national polls still shows Biden leading by about 10 percentage points over his nearest rivals, but his advantage has deteriorated steadily for the past two months.At a fundraiser in mid-June, Biden recalled his ability to work cooperatively with two prominent advocates of segregation who’d been in the Senate for decades when he arrived there.Senator James Eastland of Mississippi "never called me boy, he always called me son," Biden told donors at a New York fundraiser, adopting a heavy southern drawl. Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia, he added, was "one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys" but "at least there was some civility."\--With assistance from Emma Kinery.To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Epstein in Washington at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org, Steve Geimann, Ros KrasnyFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
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