How many Republican candidates could survive a 2020 political race if they had once said, “sometimes even George Wallace is right about some things?” I’d venture to say none.
In his email newsletter, CNN’s Chris Cillizza ranks the five big campaign stories to keep an eye on. Coming in at No. 1 this week is whether presidential hopeful Joe Biden can turn over a “new leaf.” The former vice president, Cillizza explained, “sought to put a rough few weeks, which began with what was interpreted as praise for segregationist senators, behind him.”
Were Biden’s comments about the relative civility of segregationists interpreted as praise of segregationists—as in, still up for debate—or was it just unadorned praise? Whatever the case, reporters now have a catalog of historical evidence showing Biden extolling segregationists, defending segregationists, eulogizing segregationists, working with segregationists on shared interests, being mentored by segregationists, and sucking up to segregationists to secure coveted committee seats as a freshman senator—appointments that he was given over more experienced colleagues.
What more do journalists need to see to make a declarative statement about Biden’s history? I mean, other than finding an “R” next to his name.
What about Biden telling a witness “sometimes even George Wallace is right” during a Senate committee hearing in 1981?
No, Biden wasn’t arguing that Wallace — the notorious four-term Democrat governor of Alabama and three-time segregationist presidential candidate who, in 1963, had famously said, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” — was a good guy, as he did of his “closest friend,” Strom Thurmond. By the time Biden was bringing up Wallace, in fact, the Alabama governor had asked for forgiveness. Biden was arguing that Wallace’s argument about criminal justice, rehabilitation, and the death penalty—positions that are now abhorrent to progressives—had been prophetic.
“Let us take the death penalty,” Biden explained. “Everybody wants the death penalty now. We are going to hang everybody. Do you know why they want the death penalty? Because stupid sociologists and guys like people who sit up here in my job for years kept telling them: ‘We know how to rehabilitate.’ They do not have the slightest idea how to rehabilitate. Our entire criminal justice system is premised on the point that you sentence someone based upon the amount of time it will take to rehabilitate them.
“So the American people,” he went on, “because they are basically good, like most people in my opinion are, went along and said: ‘We’ll buy that.’ And they bought it for 20 years. And it does not work. It flat out does not work. So, what are the liberals, but Joe Biden and a few others like me, saying? And I get killed by my liberal constituency for saying it. I say: ‘Hey, let’s forget about rehabilitation. We do not know how to do it.’ Say it. Boom. Tell them. Because if you don’t, you know what is going to happen.”
(None of the above, incidentally, had anything to do with the topic of the Senate hearing Biden was charged with running, which was the constitutionality of busing.)
Casting himself as a rebellious Democrat, Biden argued that Americans were going to get so frustrated with the “liberal sociologists and politicians” that they would turn to Thurmond’s view of “hang them all,” not because Americans were bad people, but because urban liberal policies had failed them.
So maybe Biden wasn’t always wrong.
Then again, the future vice president also argued that our criminal justice problems only existed because the American people were “not very innovative.” This assertion was made with United States on the cusp of a technological and economic revolution that benefited every strata of society and changed the world of information and commerce forever. So there’s also that.
Does Biden believe rehabilitation is overrated? Who are we kidding? Biden believes whatever he needs to believe to win—then and now. He will drop decades-long positions if they offer the slightest threat to his campaign, without any intellectual or moral explanation.
We know this because, despite his insistence at the time, there was nothing particularly courageous about being a law-and-order senator from Delaware in 1981. In that year, 66 percent of Americans supported the death penalty. By the time Biden was pushing the 1994 crime bill, that number had climbed to 80 percent. Biden was adopting popular positions in a nation sick of rampant criminality.
Things have changed, though, and Biden has already apologized for his part in passing the 1994 crime bill. “It was a big mistake that was made,” he explained. “We were told by the experts that ‘Crack, you never go back,’ that the two were somehow fundamentally different. It’s not. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”
You’ll notice that here Biden drops his customary habit of taking personal credit for policy achievements, even ones that he was only tangentially involved in during the Obama administration, and instead lays the blame on the collective. Policies that Biden sponsored, helped write, and campaigned on for decades, are now — well, mistakes were made.
Joe “lock those SOBs up” Biden contends that he was part of a group fooled by pointy-headed experts and “Crack is Wack” slogans. You might notice this was the very same rationalization he used in his Wallace-was-right lecture to make the contradictory point about crime in 1981. Experts misled us.
That’s all debatable. Maybe Biden was just doing what he had to do in 1970s Washington. Maybe Biden was right about busing and crime, and needed some unsavory allies to stop bad policy. Maybe he buddied up with James O. Eastland and J. William Fulbright for the long-term good, and maybe it was worth it. Maybe Wallace had a point. Maybe it’s all just ancient history.
But that brings us back to the central argument of the Biden campaign: if his experience in Washington is the most compelling reason for his candidacy, why does he spend so much time apologizing and walking back positions, policy choices, and statements? These are not all inconsequential, long-forgotten fights, either. We’re talking about some of the biggest debates of the past 50 years. War. Abortion. Integration of schools. Crime.
Does Biden deserve a pass simply because he said these things a long time ago? If not, perhaps someone at the next debate can ask him if he still believes Wallace was right.