October 13, 2019

The Humbling of Joe Biden

“For most of this year, Joe Biden has strutted across stages in New Hampshire and Iowa, and at swanky fundraisers in New York and California, as if he were already the Democratic nominee. Questions about attacks from his rivals were, more often than not, met with a toothy grin—and a politician’s version of “I don’t know her.” Biden was employing a Rose Garden strategy, albeit without anything even resembling a Rose Garden. He was the frontrunner and he knew it. All he had to do, it seemed, was project confidence and calm and the delegates would fall into his lap.

That strategy blew up in the first Democratic debate, when Senator Kamala Harris tore into Biden’s shameful history on school integration. Targeting—and personalizing—Biden’s controversial record, Harris exposed the sizable baggage the former vice president was lugging around. Highlighting Biden’s work with Democratic segregationists in the Senate, Harris zeroed in on busing, which the then-senator opposed (at least in its court-ordered form) in the 1970s. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me,” Harris said. Biden responded like a deer in headlights, as if he was surprised to be criticized while running for president.

Entering the race in April, Biden clearly intended to stay above the fray for as long as possible, hoping to coast through Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina on the way to a bout with President Trump. “The more time he’s explaining his record, the more trouble he’s going to get into,” the former Democratic governor of South Carolina Jim Hodges told The New York Times in June. “The more time he’s comparing the Obama-Biden administration to Trump-Pence, the better off he is. That’s a classic strategy.” It worked for about two months.”

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