Joe Biden is under fire from rival Democratic presidential hopefuls for saying the Senate "got things done" with "civility" when he was first elected and served alongside segregationists in the 1970s.
Speaking at a New York fundraiser Tuesday evening, he pointed to long-dead segregationist senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia to argue that Washington functioned more smoothly a generation ago than under today's "broken" hyperpartisanship.
"We didn't agree on much of anything," Biden said, describing Talmadge as "one of the meanest guys I ever knew" and saying Eastland called him "son" rather than "boy," a reference to the racist way many whites addressed black men at the time.
Yet even in that era of the Senate, Biden said, "At least there was some civility. We got things done."
The comments quickly sparked one of the most intense disputes of the Democratic presidential primary, underscoring the risk to Biden as he tries to turn his decades of Washington experience into an advantage. Instead, he's infuriating Democrats who say he's out of step with the diverse party of the 21st century.
Sen. Cory Booker, one of two major black candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, said 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," and he called for the Biden to apologize.
"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," the New Jersey Democrat said in a statement that was especially notable coming from a candidate who entered the 2020 primary with a sunny message, vowing to highlight "the best of who we are and not the worst."
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democratic presidential candidate and a white man who is married to a black woman, also offered a sharp retort. "It's 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of 'civility' typified by James Eastland," de Blasio tweeted Wednesday, along with a picture of his family. "Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal."
The mayor added that "it's past time for apologies or evolution" from Biden, whom de Blasio cast as "out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party."
Cedric Richmond, Biden's campaign co-chairman and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, pushed back, saying Biden's opponents are deliberately ignoring the full context of his argument for a more functional government.
"Maybe there's a better way to say it, but we have to work with people, and that's a fact," Richmond said, noting he recently dealt with President Donald Trump to pass a long-sought criminal justice overhaul. "I question his racial sensitivity, a whole bunch of things about his character ... but we worked together."
Likewise, Richmond said, Biden highlighted Jim Crow-era senators to emphasize the depths of disagreements elected officials sometimes navigate. "If he gets elected president, we don't have 60 votes in the Senate" to overcome filibusters, Richmond noted. "He could be less genuine and say, 'We're just going to do all these things.' But we already have a president like that. He knows we have to build consensus."
Bakari Sellers, a prominent black South Carolina Democrat who backs California Sen. Kamala Harris for president, countered that Biden's remarks are nonetheless part of a pattern that calls into question the notion that he's the most electable Democrat.
"It's death by a thousand cuts," Sellers said, noting that Biden's status as a 76-year-old white man from the political establishment may help him with some white voters who backed Trump but could cost him with black voters, women and younger voters necessary for any Democrat to win the White House.
"You aren't going to build the winning coalition like this," Sellers said. "The argument should be, 'Joe Biden is the most electable if he will get out of his own way.'"
For his part, Biden has shown some self-awareness of the political peril of talking about the upside of working with those who hold opposing views. He sometimes notes he will "get in trouble" before making his standard pitch that the "other side" is "the opposition" but not "the enemy."
His riffs are sometimes as innocuous as calling Bob Dole, the 95-year-old former Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, a "decent guy" or paying homage to "my friend John McCain," the former Arizona senator and 2008 GOP presidential nominee who died in 2018.
But other times he ventures into more controversial territory.
In the months before he announced his bid, Biden clarified remarks in which he called Vice President Mike Pence a "decent guy" after activists noted the Republican vice president's opposition to LGBTQ civil rights protections. Biden said he offered his remarks in a "foreign policy context" and added, "There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ civil rights."
Some Democrats hammered Biden for arguing that Republicans on Capitol Hill will have an "epiphany" and start working with Democrats again once Trump has left office, noting the GOP congressional blockade of President Barack Obama, whom Biden served for eight years as vice president.
Biden has written and spoken for years of his relationships across a spectrum of politicians.
Earlier this year, he eulogized former Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, who was once a segregationist state legislator and governor. In 2003, Biden gave the same honor to Republican Strom Thurmond, another former South Carolina politician who was among the first "Southern Democrats" to leave the party over its civil rights stances.
At a May fundraiser in New Hampshire, Biden recalled as a young senator wanting to denounce then-North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, a racially divisive figure, for opposing a proposed forerunner to what eventually became the American with Disabilities Act. Biden said he thought Helms "had no redeeming social value," but remembered being talked down by another senator who told him that Helms and his wife had adopted a son with cerebral palsy.
Biden's takeaway was to question his colleagues' "judgment" but "not motives."
Associated Press writer Elana Schor in Washington contributed to this report.
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