Can a candidate apologize his way into the Oval Office? Joe Biden apparently thinks he has to apologize his way to the Democratic nomination, at least. Despite initially refusing to acknowledge any fault for his civility argument involving segregationists, Biden finally expressed his “regret” for those comments over the weekend:
New York Magazine’s Matt Stieb notes that this isn’t quite a full apology, but more of a “sorry you feel that way” non-apology apology:
Before a largely African-American crowd in Sumter, South Carolina, former vice-president and current Democratic front-runner Joe Biden apologized for his recent remarks about the “civility” of working with segregationists in his party in the 1970s. But Biden — who developed a reputation as a bit of a non-apologist after a conversation with Anita Hill in April left her “feeling deeply unsatisfied” — offered his comment with a bit of “I’m sorry you feel that way” framing:
[“]Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to folks that I was praising those people who I opposed time and again? Yes I was. I regret it and I’m sorry for any of the pain and misconception it may have caused to anybody. But for that misstep to define 50 years of my record of fighting racial injustice. That doesn’t represent my record.[“]
Politicians usually prefer the “sorry you didn’t understand my genius” non-apologies anyway, especially so in the shameless era that produced a Donald Trump presidency. Biden has been accused of taking a page from Trump’s book in refraining for so long to offer even that sop to his critics. No one actually pays for gaffes these days, and Biden’s old boss proved that long before Trump decided to go into office.
Perhaps it’s not a full apology, though, because Biden thinks what he said wasn’t actually offensive. After all, Biden’s point wasn’t that segregationists were cool or that their agenda should have been accommodated. He was making the point that civility in dealing with fringes within the caucus — the Democratic caucus, it should be noted — allowed Biden and others to defeat that agenda in a credible and lasting fashion. It’s disingenuous at best to suggest that Biden meant that he had some sympathy for their position, which is why Biden defends his record while offering his non-apology apology.
Biden better get used to the disingenuity in the primaries, however. Kamala Harris and every other up-and-comer on the debate stage have been licking their chops to paint Biden as a relic from the Bad Old Days, and as a poster boy for why the party needs to nominate something other than an old white dude at the top of their ticket. His remark gave them an opening, but they would have shortly made those arguments without it anyway. An apology tour might be the only way Biden can win that nomination in 2020.
Trump himself is betting it won’t work in the general election:
Joe Biden is a reclamation project. Some things are just not salvageable. China and other countries that ripped us off for years are begging for him. He deserted our military, our law enforcement and our healthcare. Added more debt than all other Presidents combined. Won’t win!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2019
Biden would be a formidable general-election opponent, but it’s becoming clear that “reclamation project” is an apt description.