A week before a crucial debate, Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden on Wednesday said he would more aggressively confront his rivals, notably Sen. Kamala Harris.
“I’m not going to be as polite this time,” Biden said at an evening fundraiser here, referring to the California senator who launched an attack on him during the first Democratic debate in June.
Biden’s remarks came after a full day of countering rivals who questioned his legacy and signaling that he was prepared to attack their records.
The move comes after some political observers began doubting Biden’s long-term viability because of last month’s uneven debate performance and a lengthy and sometimes controversial political history.
Addressing thousands of African American voters at the annual NAACP convention here, the former vice president pointed to President Obama’s decision to pick him as his running mate.
Obama “did a significant background check on me for months with 10 people,” Biden said. “I doubt he would have picked me if these accusations about my being wrong on civil rights is correct.”
Biden has spent the last few weeks responding to the attack from Harris, who confronted him over his opposition to certain forms of busing four decades ago and recent comments about working civilly with segregationist senators with whom he disagreed.
Biden has also been facing fire from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and other candidates over his spearheading as a senator a 1994 crime bill that critics today blame for mass incarceration, notably of African American men. Booker, speaking to reporters at the convention, called Biden “an architect of mass incarceration.”
A top Biden aide said Booker’s remarks were “absurd” given that most incarceration happened at the state and local level, out of Biden’s control. “It is Senator Booker, in fact, who has some hard questions to answer about his role in the criminal justice system,” wrote Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, pointing to zero-tolerance policies and a dysfunctional police department during Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark.
Booker’s campaign responded by pointing to a line in Bedingfield’s statement: “For decades, Joe Biden has been working on criminal justice reform.” “That’s the problem,” tweeted Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie.
Biden on Tuesday released a criminal justice plan that would undo some of the provisions of the 1994 bill. His proposal would end the use of private prisons, invest in juvenile justice reform, shift focus from incarceration to prevention and eliminate racial disparities in sentencing. He also calls for “ending” cash bail and eliminating the federal death penalty and pushing the states to do the same.
Biden has been the Democratic front-runner since entering the race and had mostly floated above the infighting, instead targeting President Trump. But Biden’s response to Harris in the June debate — an apparent lack of preparation to answer an obvious attack and palpable discomfort with Harris’ criticism — and a narrowing gap in the polls mean he will face new scrutiny in next week’s debate. Twenty Democratic candidates will debate over two nights at the Fox Theater in Detroit. By luck of the draw, Biden, Harris and Booker will share the stage Wednesday night.
At the fundraiser, after a donor said attacks from Harris and Booker could steel him to take on Trump in the general election, Biden responded that he was happy to compare records.
“If they want to argue about the past, I can do that,” Biden said. “I got a past I’m proud of. They got a past that’s not quite so good.”
Earlier in the day at the NAACP event, Biden and Harris received the warmest response of the candidates who attended; delegates jumped to their feet and held up phones to snap pictures. Some said they were not bothered by Biden’s positions from four decades ago.
“I understand Biden made a lot of decisions in the past that would hurt him today,” said George Mintz, a 72-year-old delegate from Bridgeport, Conn. “But I’m looking at where he’s coming from overall, and I think he’s coming from the right place.”
The nation’s oldest civil rights group convened as issues of race are roiling the nation’s politics and as Trump continues attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color who have criticized him and his policies.
Trump has urged the women to “go back” to the countries “from which they came”; three were born in the U.S., and the other, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, is a naturalized citizen who was a refugee from Somalia. When Trump attacked Omar at a recent rally, his supporters chanted, “Send her back!”
One of the other targets, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, welcomed delegates on Tuesday — and taunted Trump. “I’m not going nowhere, not until I impeach this president,” she said on the same day that the delegates passed a resolution calling for Trump’s impeachment.
Ten presidential candidates, including Trump’s Republican challenger, William Weld, addressed the gathering Wednesday. Trump declined an invitation, blaming a date change and the format: “Unfortunately, they wanted to do it in the form of a question and answer.”