Former Vice President Joe Biden warned his fellow White House hopefuls that he would not refrain from punching back if criticized at the second Democrat presidential debate.
Biden, who struggled during the first debate to respond to attacks from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) about his civil rights record, issued the warning at a fundraiser in Detroit, Michigan, on Wednesday. The warning was aimed directly at Harris, whom Biden and his mostly male surrogates have attempted to paint as overly ambitious and ungrateful.
“I’m not going to be as polite this time,” the former vice president told a room full of donors. “Because this is the same person who asked me to come to California and nominate her in her convention.”
Biden added that if Harris or other 2020 Democrats were eager to relitigate the past, he would be more than happy to oblige.
“If they want to argue about the past, I can do that,” the former vice president said. “I got a past I’m proud of. They got a past that’s not quite so good.”
At the first debate in June, Harris surprised many by confronting Biden for praising two segregationist Democrats, the late Sens. James Eastland (D-MS) and Herman Talmadge (D-GA). Biden had invoked the two men, who dedicated their careers to halting the progress of civil rights, at a fundraiser in New York City while touting his ability to forge “consensus” in Congress.
“I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris said, “but I also believe…it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
“I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris said, “but I also believe … it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
The California Democrat was also quick to point out that both Talmadge and Eastland were allies in his crusade against busing to integrate public schools — something which Biden had refrained to mention when invoking them at other points in the past.
“It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris said. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day. That little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate. … We have to take it seriously.”
The attack left Biden reeling to respond. The former vice president accused Harris of mischaracterizing his record, but instead of offering proof, he only jumbled his position on busing and falsely claimed to have never praised racists in the first place.
Since the altercation, Biden has taken shots at Harris for her record as attorney general of California and has suggested she is lying about the cost of Medicare for All.
Although Biden’s remarks in Detroit were directed at Harris, they also apply to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). The two men have increasingly become hostile towards each another over the issue of criminal justice reform. Booker, who has championed such reforms since entering the Senate in 2013, has lashed out at Biden for seeking to paint himself as a fellow advocate, despite a 40-year record of being tough on crime.
The hostilities boiled over this week when Biden introduced his own proposal to reform the justice system. Booker not only criticized the plan, claiming that it “falls short of the transformative change our broken … system needs,” but he also questioned if Biden was the best person to lead such an effort.
“Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right,” the New Jersey Democrat said on Tuesday. “The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
Biden’s team responded by saying the “absurdity” of the attack was “obvious” and that if anyone had “some hard questions to answer about his role in the criminal justice system” it was Booker. To back up the statement, Biden’s team dug up a number of controversies that had plagued Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
“His police department was stopping and frisking people, mostly African American men,” Biden said at a campaign stop on Wednesday. He quickly added that Booker had “objected” to the Department of Justice’s intervention to prevent further civil rights abuses by the city’s police department.
Biden’s new tone marks a profound difference from before the first debate, during which he promised to “hug” his rivals if they attacked him.