Biden veepstakes shortlister: On second thought, I'd pass on eulogizing "Comandante en Jefe" Fidel Castro

Most people would have that as a first thought — especially in the crucial state of Florida and its extensive Castro-era expat voting bloc. Four years ago, Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) marked the death of Fidel Castro by calling him “Comandante en Jefe” and calling his passing “a great loss to the people of Cuba.” That might have come as a surprise to the Cubans living in the garrison state, tens of thousands of whom risked their lives to flee Castro’s oppression, with no small number dying in the escape attempt.

Bass, now on Joe Biden’s veepstakes short list, has second thoughts about her eulogy. On MSNBC this weekend, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus says she wouldn’t do that again:

In an interview on MSNBC, the five-term House lawmaker and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus addressed her decision to describe Castro as “Comandante en Jefe” in a statement she issued marking his death in 2016. The Spanish phrase translates in English to commander in chief.

“I have talked to my colleagues in the House about that, and it’s certainly something that I would not say again. I have always supported the Cuban people, and the relationship that Barack Obama and Biden had in their administration in terms of opening up relations,” Bass (D-Calif.) said.

“I happen to believe that sometimes the best way to change a regime is through having relations versus not,” she continued, calling the Castro regime’s legacy “very troubling” and citing her work with the National Endowment for Democracy — the non-governmental organization which promotes democratic reforms in Cuba and elsewhere abroad.

What prompted this retreat? Rest assured it has little to do with lingering regrets. Bass has risen in standing for Biden’s running mate, and Florida Democrats have grown increasingly worried about what that would mean for their prospects. Politico’s Marc Caputo reported on the pushback a month ago, and this weekend’s walkback suggests that it hasn’t receded:

“The comments are troubling. It shows a lack of understanding about what the Castro regime was about. So I have to learn more about her position and perspective on Fidel Castro,” said Miami state Rep. Javier Fernandez, whose bid for an open state Senate seat could bring Democrats closer than ever to flipping control of the chamber.

“Praise like the one that was given by Bass at the time of Castro’s death is inconsistent with my family’s experience with what the regime did — and continues to do — to people on the island, which is to suppress human rights, keep people under a totalitarian thumb and stifle economic growth,” Fernandez told POLITICO.

Bass’ congressional office pointed out that her remarks were similar to those made by President Barack Obama at a time when the U.S. sought better relations with Cuba.

That’s not exactly accurate. Barack Obama’s official statement avoided any praise or suggestion that Cubans would consider Castro’s death “a great loss.” Obama called Castro a “singular figure” whose final judgment would be left to history. John Kerry’s statement as Secretary of State went a bit further in recognizing the mourning of “the Cuban people,” but the statement only acknowledged an anodyne “outsized role” Castro played in his people’s lives. That danced around just how outsized that role was, and the fact that his regime was a police state that oppressed speech and dissent for more than five decades in power.

It seems pretty clear that Bass isn’t going to cut it in Florida. Who will? Politico says it’s looking like Kamala Harris, but that’s not exactly going smoothly either:

When former Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of Joe Biden’s vice presidential search committee, recently asked Kamala Harris about her ambush on Biden in the first Democratic debate, Dodd was stunned by her response.

“She laughed and said, ‘that’s politics.’ She had no remorse,” Dodd told a longtime Biden supporter and donor, who relayed the exchange to POLITICO on condition of anonymity.

“Dodd felt it was a gimmick, that it was cheap,” the donor said. The person added that Dodd’s concerns about Harris were so deep that he’s helped elevate California Rep. Karen Bass during the vetting process, urging Biden to pick her because “she’s a loyal No. 2. And that’s what Biden really wants.” Through an aide, Dodd declined to comment. Advisers to Harris also declined to comment.

You might say Bass is a … Raul Castro.

Harris has “trust issues,” to be sure, but she has a couple of other problems as well. For one thing, Harris turned out to be a terrible candidate when taken out of the protective Democrat-controlled chrysalis of California. She failed to generate support among the African-American voting bloc that Biden hopes to solidify by picking a woman of color. Harris got depantsed by Tulsi Gabbard in not one but two debates, with a look on her face under attack not all that dissimilar to Dan Quayle after Lloyd Bentsen tore into him in 1988. Harris — and for that matter, Bass — would likely only deliver California, which is already in the bag.

Bass would deliver more traction from black voters and stoke their enthusiasm. The question is whether she’d turn off Florida voters in lesser numbers, and perhaps others who don’t tend to think of the death of a brutal dictator as a “great loss” for his victims.