Biden's Bad Night: of Baggage and Buses

By Susan Estrich

June 29, 2019 5 min read

It was a very good night for California Sen. Kamala Harris. And, for those listening, a strong showing for Sen. Michael Bennett and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The night before, Sen. Elizabeth Warren owned the stage.

But the real story coming out of this week's debates was not who won but who lost. Much easier to call that one.

It was Bernie and Biden, the two old men.

In watching the stooped senator from Vermont sidestep serious questions in favor of socialist bombast, it was hard to believe that he gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the Democratic primaries and caucuses four years ago.

Had he aged that much?

Did he really have nothing to add?

And God help us if he ends up on the stage with Donald Trump.

Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee. If he is, Donald Trump will be re-elected.

But the big loser was Biden.

Eric Swalwell, the congressman from California, recalled a candidate coming to his town to campaign for the presidency when he was a boy. It was 32 years ago, and the candidate was Joe Biden. Swalwell's message was that it is time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders.

Biden flashed a smile. There is no answer.

It's not just a question of age. To have survived in politics as long as Biden has, he's bound to have baggage. Biden, who was considered a moderate Democrat in the Senate, has more baggage than most and has clearly not figured out where to put it. When he was onstage in Miami, it was almost painful to watch.

Kamala Harris ate him for lunch. She expressed her respect for what he has accomplished. She said she didn't consider him to be a racist. Then she pummeled him, and rightly so, her voice almost breaking.

Why in the world did he invoke two segregationist senators — two senators who built their careers on fighting for Jim Crow laws and keeping blacks at the back of the bus — to show his ability to work across partisan lines? There are some partisan lines we should not cross. And certainly not brag about in 2019. "Out of sync" doesn't begin to describe it.

But it was on the issue of busing where Harris put him to shame. She told the story of a little girl who was in the second integrated class at her public school in Berkeley, California, more than two decades after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The little girl rode a bus to school.

Would Biden admit that he was wrong about busing?

Mandatory busing to achieve integration was not, in retrospect, much of a success. But it was not the public policy question that defined the busing debate in the 1970s. It was race. And the rule of law. Busing was how you integrated schools in residentially segregated cities where the school boards refused to come up with their own plans to address decades of segregation. Across the country, federal district judges were putting themselves, and the judiciary, on the line by trying to enforce Brown in the face of resistance from public officials like Joe Biden's allies.

We got a busing case when I was clerking. Justice Stevens, my boss, a Republican appointee, was no fan of busing. He voted to uphold the lower courts because to do otherwise would undermine the rule of law, handing a victory to the foes of integration.

It wasn't about yellow buses. It was a question of which side you were on.

Joe Biden was on the wrong side, just as he was on the wrong side of denying Medicaid funding for abortions for poor women, effectively denying their rights under Roe v. Wade. Biden supported the Hyde Amendment (a Republican initiative) until earlier this month. Most Democrats did not. And his effort to justify his opposition to busing by saying that he didn't oppose local decisions to use school buses (which was never the issue), as he kept insisting to Harris, made clear that he still doesn't get it. Biden claimed that he ran for Senate based on civil rights, that his whole career has been about civil rights. So what was he doing on the side of the segregationists? And why is he still defending it?

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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