Former vice president Joe Biden and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker are just two of the roughly two dozen serious contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. They both come from the mainstream of the party. But they have a fundamental difference of opinion regarding how to get things done in Washington. Indeed, their disagreement over Biden’s highlighting of his work with segregationist senators as an example of “civility” is so significant that each man is calling on the other to apologize for statements made.
Biden and Booker are not prepared to apologize to each other. Clearly, they are approaching these issues with distinct life experiences and political perspectives—respectively, that of a 76-year-old, white political veteran who began his Senate career when segregationist Democrats still ran key committees, and that of a 50-year-old African-American official who entered politics almost three decades after Biden got his start.
Instead of wrangling over who should apologize, these two men should agree to “debate” one another.
I’ve put the word “debate” in quotation marks because both Biden and Booker are participants in an unwieldy nomination contest where one-on-one exchanges appear to be discouraged.
Everyone is gearing up for the next week’s first two Democratic presidential debates—20 candidates and five moderators clamoring to be heard over one another on successive weeknights in Miami. The Miami debates have been arranged by the Democratic National Convention with all kinds of rules and regulations, penalties and punishments designed to keep things as controlled—and, frankly, dull—as possible.
There’s nothing dull about the disagreement between Biden and Booker. It goes to the heart of serious questions involving the history of the Democratic Party, its current circumstance, and its prospects going forward. So a Biden-Booker “debate”—or “forum,” or “dialogue” or whatever you want to call it—is about much more than their respective demands for apologies.
This is a conversation that the Democratic Party needs to have, as was made all the more evident by this week’s clash between Biden and Booker.
During a big-ticket fundraiser at New York City’s Carlyle Hotel, Biden argued earlier this week that he was best prepared to work across lines of partisan and ideological division in Washington. According to the pool report:
Mr. Biden then recalled his time serving in the Senate. “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Mr. Biden said, briefly channeling the late Mississippi senator’s Southern drawl. Mr. Biden said of Mr. Eastland, “He never called me boy, he always called me son.”
Mr. Biden then brought up a deceased Georgia senator, “a guy like Herman Talmadge, one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys. Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Eastland and Talmadge were Democrats who championed racial segregation. They campaigned and served as racists, who made it abundantly clear that they did not respect the rights of African Americans. Yet, during the 1960s and 1970s, they remained influential figures within the Democratic Party and the US Senate.
Booker and several other contenders for the Democratic nomination—including California Senator Kamala Harris and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio—called Biden out for his remarks. Booker was particularly pointed. A statement from the New Jersey senator argued that
Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone. I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together.
In his rebuke to Biden, Booker explained, “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity. And frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should.”
Booker’s statement was heartfelt and strong. His point was well made, at least to my view.
But that was not Biden’s view.
“There’s not a racist bone in my body,” Biden continued, in remarks made on Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”
Booker appeared Wednesday evening on CNN and referred to Biden’s call for an apology as “so insulting.”
“I know that I was raised to speak truth to power, and I will never apologize for doing that, and Vice President Biden shouldn’t need this lesson,” said the senator, who then spoke in great detail about where he thought his rival had gotten things wrong.
Biden and Booker did more than stick to their positions. They spelled them out. They referenced history and personal experience. They had an exchange via the media that was compelling. Just think how much more compelling, and instructive, a “debate” between these two candidates could be.
I appreciate that other contenders have much to add to this discourse, and I have no interest in promoting Biden or Booker above or around the rest of the field. I appreciate, as well, that a joint appearance featuring two of the many Democratic candidates might invite frustrating debates about debates. But Biden and Booker are now making direct calls on each other—for explanations and apologies. As such, they have reached a point where a thoughtful and well-moderated discussion between two candidates would seem to be appropriate. Indeed, it could do much to frame the broader contest.
Ultimately, this reframing ought to infuse the Democratic competition with enough flexibility to allow for all kinds of debates—not just the DNC-coordinated multi-candidate spectacles. I’d like to imagine that a Biden-Booker dialogue could be the first of many one-on-one “debates” about many of the issues—the Green New Deal, reforming the courts, foreign policy, equity, socialism versus capitalism—where individual Democratic candidates have stark and meaningful differences of opinion.