WASHINGTON — Let's get this straight: Joe Biden is leading in the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination because he's the most "electable" candidate in the Democratic field? A guy who doesn't realize that I worked with segregationists isn't a winning message with Democrats in 2020?
This is what you get when you turn to a candidate who has been in Washington for 46 years. Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972, when the Democratic Party was very different than it is today. As a freshman senator, he had to get along with the senior leadership of his party – which included segregationists James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia.
You may be thinking: Who in the world are James Eastland and Herman Talmadge? You're not alone. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of living Americans had either forgotten their names or never heard of them in the first place, until Biden decided to dredge them up from the fever swamps of the Democratic Party's sordid racial past.
Why, you ask, would he do such a thing? Because that's what Joe Biden does. He is a walking, talking gaffe machine. His point didn't even make sense. He was trying to argue that he can work across the aisle with people with whom he fundamentally disagrees. But Eastland and Talmadge sat on the same side of the aisle as Biden in the Senate; they were Democrats.
So now his younger, less popular Democratic opponents are pouncing on Biden's mistake. California Sen. Kamala Harris (averaging 7.1% in the polls) declared that for Biden "to coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who if they had their way I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate, is, I think, it's just misinformed and it's wrong." New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (2.3%) declared, "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." New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (0.3%) tweeted, "It's 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of 'civility' typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal."
Give me a break. No reasonable person thinks that Biden was defending or even sympathetic to segregation. What Biden was trying to do – in his own, Bideny way – was to defend not segregation but civility and compromise. But sadly, in today's Democratic Party, those ideas are just as controversial.
Recall that in February, Biden was forced to apologize for declaring – brace yourself – that Vice President Pence was a "decent guy." Then, a few months later, Biden had to backtrack on his effort to craft a middle-ground approach to climate change that would be embraced by both environmentalists and blue-collar voters. After Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., thundered, "There is no 'middle ground' when it comes to climate policy," Biden soon embraced the Green New Deal.
And this month, Biden was forced to flip-flop and abandon his four-decade-long support for the Hyde amendment – bipartisan legislation that bars public funding for abortions – after his Democratic opponents attacked him for reaffirming what he once proudly called his "middle-of-the-road" policy on abortion. Biden has also been forced to apologize for his support for the bipartisan 1994 crime bill, which was signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton but which Democrats now blame for the mass incarceration of African Americans. "I haven't always been right" on criminal justice, he declared earlier this year.
In today's Democratic Party, "compromise" and "consensus" are dirty words. Biden's problem is not that he is a closet racist; it's that he does not hate Republicans and other political opponents. As he put it on Tuesday, "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." That is the point he was trying to make in his ham-handed way. And that is what his Democratic opponents are really upset about.
In a January speech, Biden said, "I read in The New York Times today that one of my problems if I were to run for president, I like Republicans. Okay, well, bless me, Father, for I have sinned." Apparently, for many on the left, that sin is unforgivable.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.