Kamala Harris and Joe Biden Avoid Topic of Busing at NEA Forum

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to the media during a campaign event at the Unity Freedom Presidential Forum Friday, May 31, 2019, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) avoided addressing the controversial topic of busing in their appearances at the National Education Association (NEA) Forum in Houston on Friday.

Politico reported that former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was the only 2020 Democrat presidential candidate invited to speak at the forum who specifically addressed busing:

Missing were in-depth discussions over the hot-button issues often heard about in education policy debates like busing, charter schools, school discipline, care for LGBTQ students, child hunger and the Every Student Succeeds Act. They got only passing references or no air time.

Castro did say he supports funding for voluntary busing within school districts, but neither Biden nor Harris addressed the subject. The two have faced questions since Harris confronted Biden over opposition to federally mandated busing in the first Democratic debate in a breakout moment that energized her campaign.

It was a curious silence over the controversial policy of forced busing that has propelled Harris’s candidacy and deflated Biden’s since the Democrat debate on June 27, during which the California senator tore into Biden for his comments about working with segregationist Democrats who were his U.S. Senate colleagues in the 1970s.

In the week-and-a-half since that debate, Harris has gone from vague statements that suggested she supported a return to forced busing to an equally nuanced statement delivered in Iowa on Wednesday in which she voiced support for voluntary busing as a “tool that is in the toolbox [that] should be considered by a school district” but not the federal government, as the Associated Press reported:

After a Democratic Party picnic Wednesday in West Des Moines, Harris was asked by reporters whether she supports federally mandated busing.

“I think of busing as being in the toolbox of what is available and what can be used for the goal of desegregating America’s schools,” she responded.

Asked to clarify whether she supports federally mandated busing, she replied, “I believe that any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district.”

While the Biden campaign finally fought back on the busing issue, that aggressive response was overshadowed by an apology for having said nice things about the segregationist Democrats who were his Senate colleagues in the 1970s, when the issue of forced busing was a new and controversial political hot potato.

For Harris, however, the strategy of attacking Biden on the issue of race appears to have helped her campaign, at least in the near term.

According to the latest Real Clear Politics Average of Polls, Harris has vaulted into second place in the race for the 2020 Democrat presidential nomination with 15.2 percent of the vote. Biden is still the frontrunner, though his support has dropped to 26 percent. Trailing Harris by the margin of error is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in third place, with 14 percent of the vote, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in fourth place with 13.8 percent. No other candidate comes close to double-digit support.

But in the longer term, Harris may not have helped herself because she now appears to have arrived at a position on busing virtually identical to the one she criticized Biden for at the debate.

And Biden, who fumbled his defense at the debate, appears to want to avoid the issue because it highlights the generational divide between Harris and himself.

Harris took several days to evolve from her criticism of Biden on busing to an embrace of his position.

Speaking in San Francisco last Sunday, Harris said she wanted to bring back busing because it is “one of the methods by which we create desegregation.”

She continued, stating that the federal government has a role in seeing that the busing method is used to accomplish that objective.

Breitbart News reported the exact words of her exchange on that topic with a Bloomberg News reporter:

“Do you support busing today?” Jennifer Epstein, the reporter who wrote the Bloomberg News article, asked Harris at a Gay Pride event in San Francisco on Sunday.

“I support busing. Listen, the schools of America are as segregated if not more segregated today than they were when I was in elementary school. And we need to put every effort including busing into play to desegregate schools,” Harris responded.

“And why is desegregation important?” She continued:

Well segregation is a sign of inequality, meaning that we agreed a very long time ago through the Supreme Court and through activism and through what is just morally right, there is no such thing as separate but equal. And so busing is one of the methods by which we create desegregation and we make it more. And though there are a lot of things we need to do, though, that’s one small piece of a very big piece.

Epstein followed up with a second question.

“Should the federal government have a role?” she asked.

“The federal government has historically and should always have a role to play in ensuring equality in America. Those are principles upon which we were founded,” Harris responded, adding:

We spoke those words in 1776 that we are all equal and should be treated that way. And where states fail to do their duty, to ensure equality of all people and in particular where states actually create or pass legislation that creates inequality, there’s no question that the federal government has a role and responsibility to step up.

Joe Biden’s campaign, which has seen the former vice president’s standing in the polls and the media decline in the week-and-a-half since Harris launched her effective attack on him in that first debate, gleefully pointed out her reversal of course in a tweet from communications director Kate Bedingfield on Wednesday:

Former Obama campaign political adviser David Axelrod, who has been critical of the Biden campaign, was quick to note that Harris’s current position on busing is the same as the one Biden has espoused for decades.

“It sounds here like @KamalaHarris is now taking something more like the @JoeBiden position on school busing,” he tweeted on Wednesday.

“So what was that whole thing at the debate all about?” he asked:

Like Axelrod, many Democrat primary voters — and general election voters as well — may now be wondering the same thing.

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