The Democratic Nominees Are Still Debating Busing — and the Soul of the Party
The conflict between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden revolves around whether or not it’s OK to compromise with political adversaries about racial justice
Two weeks after the first presidential debate, the debate around busing shows no signs of slowing down.
Kamala Harris drew first blood during the first Democratic debate when she aggressively challenged Biden’s opposition to federally mandated busing in the 1970s. Biden is now backing down on his position and offering apologies for working with racial segregationists. The dust-up reveals the candidates’ fundamentally different beliefs about today’s median Democratic voters. Each candidate believes they know where the typical Democrat stands on racial injustice; the primaries will help suss out who is wrong — and who becomes the nominee. What’s more, it shines a light on the key issue driving a wedge between Democrats: figuring out how best to tackle racial injustice.
While Democrats have for decades been the more progressive party on race, they’re still far from being united on how best to make progress on issues of racial justice. To oversimplify the intra-party conflict a bit, some Democrats, like Harris, feel that racial justice is fundamentally about moral values, while others, like Biden, feel that pragmatism is the best way to make progress. We might think of these groups as “progressives” (in this case, Harris) versus “pragmatists” (Biden).
Biden’s moderate stance on racial justice may go beyond legislative compromise — it might also give him the best chances for winning the election.
Biden, for his part, says he believed at the time that the issue should be decided at the local — and not federal — level. Biden’s position is strongly tied to his experience as a lawmaker. He came to the Senate in 1973, back when the Democratic Party still included many Southerners who held very conservative positions on racial issues. Because the party coalitions were different in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Democrats who sought to expand civil rights had no choice…