The response here will be that “news outlets” didn’t decide anything. Kamala Harris decided that Biden’s track record on busing is noteworthy and made major national news by attacking him for it at the debate. And the only reason Harris attacked, she would say, is because Joe Biden decided to stupidly tout his cordial relations with segregationists like James Eastland as a young senator a few weeks earlier. Straight-line cause and effect: Biden made himself sound soft on segregation, Harris saw an opportunity in that and used his stance on busing to litigate the point, and the media simply followed up by looking into what Biden’s said about busing in the past. For instance, here’s NPR spelunking through its archives yesterday to find Biden circa 1975 in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban busing:
ENSOR: What about a constitutional amendment, I asked Biden. Isn’t that what you’re going to end up supporting if you want to stop court ordered busing too?
BIDEN: That would clearly do it. We are trying to figure out whether or not we can come up with an innovative piece of legislation which would limit the remedy and I don’t honestly don’t know whether we can come up with something constitutional. And if we can’t I will not in an attempt to eliminate busing violate the Constitution. I won’t do that. The only way if I’m going to go at it, I’m going to go at it through a constitutional amendment if it can’t be done through a piece of legislation.
Today it’s CNN that’s digging through its own tapes to find Biden saying in 1981 that busing is “the least effective remedy” to segregation:
But the 1981 CNN interview illustrates that Biden’s objections to busing to end segregation in schools were much broader than he casts them today.
“I happen to be one of those so-called people that are labeled as a liberal on civil rights, but oppose busing,” Biden said. “And I support the effort to curtail the ability of courts to bus.”
“What I have argued as one who grew up in the civil rights movement and ran for office as a public defender and a member of an active participant in civil rights cases, I have argued that the least effective remedy to be imposed is the busing remedy,” Biden said at another point in the interview.
Don’t blame NPR and CNN for making this newsworthy, blame Harris and ultimately Biden — or so the defense goes. But that’s too pat. For one thing, stories about Biden’s record on busing were trickling into the media long before he made his comments about Eastland a few weeks ago. Here’s WaPo in March serving notice to the political world that This Will Be An Issue. CNN was on the busing beat in April. Biden’s allies in Congress were being challenged about his record on busing in May. The subject has turned up in mainstream sites’ op-ed pages as well. And of course various progressive activists have been jabbing at him online over it for months, hoping to dent the centrist Biden’s support among Obama’s base of black voters.
The deeper question is why Biden’s record on busing and other racial issues, like the crime bill, weren’t “problematic” to the media when he was nominated for vice president in 2008. Overlooking racial politics that year might have been understandable, if not excusable, had the candidates been uniformly white. They were not, rather famously. Race was front and center in that year’s presidential election in a way that it had never been before in the entirety of American history. And Joe Biden ended up on the ballot of that election, on the winning side thanks to historic turnout among African-American voters. It would have been asking too much to ask the media to delve into Biden’s racial record after he’d already been named VP, as our very impartial press wasn’t about to create a headache for Obama en route to a likely victory. But what’s the excuse for not investigating Biden’s — and every other VP hopeful’s — civil-rights credentials in depth while the party’s first black nominee was mulling whom to choose as his running mate?
Did Team Obama, at least, do that investigation? Vice presidents are normally vetted within an inch of their lives before being selected. Presumably O and his team knew all about Biden’s view of busing, the crime bill, and so on and determined that they were collectively not so problematic that they should look elsewhere for a running mate. But the media was free to render a different verdict, as it’s now in the process of doing, and to challenge Obama aggressively on it. They didn’t. And it’s no mystery why.
I think the most charitable explanation for this oversight is simple laziness. They didn’t give Biden the kid-gloves treatment in 2008 because they were in the tank and determined not to make trouble for a historic Democratic nominee, one might say. They gave him the kid-gloves treatment because they don’t do much investigating themselves, even of their own archives. Even this year, it may be the case that most of the media reports about Biden’s history with busing have been spoonfed to them by rival campaigns like Sanders’s or Harris’s. The reason Uncle Joe didn’t get dinged for this a decade ago might be as simple as the RNC’s oppo team having either dropped the ball or concluded that there was little to be gained by feeding the press stories about Biden’s opposition to busing (a position overwhelmingly shared by Republicans). But again: If you prefer this theory, you’re stuck believing that the press is uninterested in doing the basics of its own job, even when there are potentially high-stakes consequences in a national election.
There is, I suppose, another possibility. Maybe America’s just woker now than it was in 2008, when it, uh, elected the first black president. Certainly the white progressive activist class is more influential and more ostentatiously woke than it was then, and our very impartial media pays a lot of attention to that class. So do candidates, which I suppose explains why Kamala Harris is claiming to be pro-busing even in 2019:
— Ian Sams (@IanSams) June 28, 2019
Here’s what national polls on busing look like, though, at least circa 1999:
NPR notes that a Gallup poll taken in 1973, back when Biden was in full anti-busing swing, found that just five percent thought busing was the best way to achieve integration, including a mere nine percent of blacks. I think the partisan split would be *somewhat* more balanced today since the subject of busing is now largely academic and hyper-partisanship has encouraged people to support whatever it is that the other party opposes. But unquestionably, Biden’s position is still the position of a heavy majority. It’s probably also the position of a majority of the Democratic Party. But whether it’s the position of a majority of black Democrats is an open question. And in the end, black Democrats are the key to whether Biden or Harris is the frontrunner in this race.
Here’s a very cynical Cory Booker, the odd man out in the Biden/Harris battle for black voters, doing his best to muscle his way in. It is … quite a theory that Uncle Joe, the person in the race with the most obvious appeal to both working-class Rust Belt whites and southern black Obama voters, is the candidate who has a problem bringing people together while Kamala Harris is out there demanding that America relitigate busing.
WATCH: In an exclusive interview with #MTP Sen. Cory Booker tells Chuck Todd that he is not sure if Vice President Biden is “up to the task” of talking “openly and honestly about race with vulnerability.” #IfItsSunday pic.twitter.com/Ri4R55wqDR
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) June 30, 2019