That’s a very good question about a very dumb and completely destructive issue — which Joe Biden knows only too well. After getting pounded by Kamala Harris over Biden’s previous opposition to busing in last week’s debate, the frontrunner has felt the heat from progressives to recant. At least thus far, Biden’s not caving … much, anyway:
Joe Biden on Thursday dismissed the school busing controversy between him and Kamala Harris as a dated issue that “99 percent” of Americans are unfamiliar with, while asserting he is still “way ahead” in the Democratic presidential campaign.
Describing himself as an “overwhelming supporter of civil rights and civil liberties,” he said, “My record stands for itself.”
“I don’t have to atone,” Biden told reporters after darting through an Independence Day parade in Iowa.
Imagine going on vacation in June 2019, as I did, and coming back two weeks later in 1974. When news outlets reported that busing became the hot issue from the second round of the first Democratic presidential debate, I half-expected to read about an argument between Jimmy Carter and Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Even by the time of the 1976 primaries, busing was such a political loser that it barely made a ripple in that cycle. No one supported busing by then except for extremist activists, and for good reason — it was a complete disaster.
Busing was a social experiment that might have had good intentions, but it ended up making matters exponentially worse. When parents were forced to comply with busing orders, they moved away — accelerating the “white flight” from urban areas that had already begun. That not only had the net effect of increasing segregation, it also stripped urban school districts of the tax base needed to fund better education. Like most social experiments, it ignored the obvious distortion in incentives and expected everyone to act in a static manner. The result of this utopian thinking was that it not only failed to solve the problem, it actually amplified and deepened it.
Biden’s old enough to remember why he opposed the policy when it was wreaking havoc on cities, and he’s smart enough to see the danger in it now. If the Democratic Party embraces busing in 2020, they’ll lose ground in every suburban district in America. It’s the single most destructive issue Democrats could possibly embrace — not even socialism would sell worse. If suburban parents conclude that a Democratic president would force them to send their kids on a one-hour bus ride to the worst-performing schools in the country where they have no control at all over the operation, they’ll re-elect Donald Trump in a landslide. Democrats’ precious House majority will also evaporate in that landslide too, along with any hope of recapturing the Senate and controlling the next Supreme Court nomination.
Even Kamala Harris might have started to rethink her plan to attack Biden over busing. The Associated Press reported yesterday that the wheels on Harris’s bus have gone ’round, at least a bit:
Sen. Kamala Harris said Wednesday that busing students should be considered by school districts trying to desegregate their locations — not the federal mandate she appeared to support in pointedly criticizing rival Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden last week.
Harris had a breakthrough moment at the candidates’ first debate when she criticized Biden for his opposition to mandatory school busing when he was a senator in the 1970s. Harris said she benefited from busing as an elementary school student in Berkeley, California, in the early 1970s.
“That’s where the federal government must step in,” Harris said, looking at Biden and winning a burst of applause from the auditorium in Miami.
On Wednesday, though, Harris characterized busing as a choice local school districts have, not the responsibility of the federal government.
That retreat makes no sense whatsoever. Local school districts won’t have the political power to mandate busing, in part because they know it would drive students out of their control. Without a federal mandate that would force other students into the district, it won’t happen at all — and without a federal mandate, why would it be an issue in a presidential election? If Harris wants local school districts to use busing, she should run for a seat on her local school board.
Biden’s smarter than Harris, but that didn’t keep him from offering her a small face-saving sop:
Following an Associated Press report on Wednesday that Harris said busing students today should be “in the toolbox of what is available and what can be used for the goal of desegregating America’s schools.” Biden responded that Harris is “absolutely right.”
No, she’s absolutely wrong, and Biden should drive that point home. Harris wants to drive the Democratic bus off a cliff. If Biden can’t stop that, then he’s no party leader — he’s just along for the ride.
Meanwhile, Republicans should take this opportunity to push forward on a policy that really can improve educational opportunities for inner-city students: school choice, at least in districts with failing public schools. It’s a perfect counterpart to calls for busing, empowering parents rather than oppressing them, and educating students rather than hijacking them. If Trump wants a theme for 2020, school choice is far better ground on which to fight than health care.