Appearing the day after a rocky debate performance, former vice president Joe Biden told a Rainbow PUSH Coalition conference in Chicago, "I never, never, never ever opposed voluntary busing - and as a program that Sen. [Kamala] Harris participated in and it made a difference in her life." He continued, "I did support federal action to address root causes of segregation in our schools and our communities including taking on banks, redlining, trying to change the way neighborhoods were segregated. I've always been in favor of using federal authority to overcome state-initiated segregation."
Biden reiterated, "These rights are not up to the states to decide. They're our federal government's duty to decide. It's a constitutional question to protect the rights of every single American, and that's always been my position." And once more, he declared, "I know I've fought my hardest to ensure voting rights, civil rights are enforced everywhere."
That was a strong, effective answer he could have used in real time onstage.
Perhaps Biden's debate performance might erode support in the African American community, but I wouldn't bet on it. He really has had a strong record on civil rights. What he believed in or who he said nice things about in the 1970s is not going to break the bond he has, particularly with older African Americans.
Biden has two much bigger issues that can only be addressed over time. Those will be addressed (or not) in the weeks and months ahead.
First, his refusal to ever apologize or say he's grown is grating and unnecessary. We already have President Know-It-All. Whether it's invading women's personal space or his stances on the Hyde Amendment or busing, Biden could have saved himself a boatload of grief by saying, "Decades in the civil rights trenches and eight years at President Barack Obama's side opened my eyes to plenty of things." Either he suffers from a case of stiff-necked pride or he thinks Donald Trump's approach of never apologizing for anything is politically effective. In an election where voters are looking for the opposite of Trump, this may be an error.
The second problem, and one that Biden played into Thursday night, is the criticism that he really isn't the most effective person to go toe-to-toe against Trump. If you want someone to leave the president discombobulated, there's a good argument that person is Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. She made a strong case that she is the one to "prosecute the case," as she puts it. If voters think Biden is going to get flustered or require 12 hours to come back from a jab, their conception of "electability" will shift.
Frankly, the idea that white men are more electable was a flawed premise to begin with - one without basis in fact, and contrary to the experience in 2018 when women won up and down the ticket. Electability isn't a set of immutable traits (race, gender, etc.), nor is it necessarily about issues (as we learned from Trump), although I argue that Democrats make problems for themselves going out on a left limb. Electability is a merit-based evaluation: Who can bring the fight to Trump, rattle him, expose him as a fraud, and convince voters they will feel better and be better off without him?
Let's face it, a campaign is an 18-month personal trial testing focus, grit and the ability to connect with voters. Biden cannot count on his gender or on voters' fondness to win the electability test. He needs to show he can do to Trump what Harris did to him, and he'll have to show it in more than one debate. Assumed electability based on immutable characteristics or even ideology sort of went out the window with Trump. Harris gets that. Maybe Biden now does too.