Is that argument potent enough for Black voters to support Vice President Joe Biden as the Democrats’ pick to beat Donald Trump in 2020?

Joe Biden
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke during the presidential candidates forum hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on Wednesday in Detroit, Mich. 


DETROIT – Joe Biden on Wednesday pointed to his experience as President Barack Obama’s vice president to push back on criticism over positions he took during the civil rights era. 

Obama “did a significant background check on me for months with 10 people. I doubt he would have picked me if these accusations about my being wrong on civil rights is correct,” Biden told thousands of NAACP delegates gathered here for their annual convention. 

The presidential candidate was continuing to respond to an attack launched last month by his Democratic rival Kamala Harris. The California senator at last month’s debate confronted Biden over his opposition to certain forms of busing four decades ago, as well his recent words about being able to work civilly with segregationist senators with whom he disagreed. 

Trump invited

Ten presidential candidates, including Trump’s Republican challenger William Weld, addressed the gathering Wednesday. 

Trump was invited to address the convention, as all sitting presidents are. He declined, telling reporters on Thursday, “I very much wanted to go, but we had a date; the date got changed. And unfortunately, they wanted to do it in the form of a question and answer.” 

Changing his tune

This week, Biden moved to position himself as an advocate of criminal justice reform, releasing a plan designed, in part, to offset his history of aligning with law-and-order social conservatives, which has complicated his pitch to today’s Democratic voters. 

The plan Biden’s campaign unveiled for reforming the nation’s system of deterring and punishing criminals does not stand out as unique in a race where his rivals have already been campaigning on many of the same ideas. 

Like much of the Democratic field, Biden would end the use of private prisons, shift focus from incarceration to prevention and eliminate racial disparities in sentencing.

But for Biden, the stakes are higher than for many of his rivals. He faces another Democratic debate next week where opponents may call him to account for supporting laws during his years in the Senate that critics say helped lead to the expansion of mass incarceration.

An opponent who will be standing next to Biden on the debate stage, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, immediately challenged the plan as inadequate to erase Biden’s history of championing incarceration. 

Booker, meanwhile, made clear that he believes Biden is still carrying the baggage of his past on criminal justice issues. 

“It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years,” Booker wrote on Twitter. “You created this system. We’ll dismantle it.” 

He amplified the comment in a statement in which he said that “the proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.” 

“The 1994 crime bill accelerated mass incarceration and inflicted immeasurable harm on Black, brown and low-income communities. While it’s encouraging to see Vice President Biden finally come around to supporting many of the ideas I and others have proposed, his plan falls short of the transformative change our broken criminal justice system needs,” Booker said. 

Booker has already tangled with Biden over the former vice president’s fraught history with race. 

The New Jersey senator was one of Biden’s first rivals to demand he apologize for talking nostalgically about legislative partnerships with segregationists early in his career. That touched off a difficult and politically bruising period in the campaign during which Biden’s lead in the polls eroded. 

Big and small plans 

Some of the planks in the Biden criminal justice reform proposal are ambitious. 

It would end cash bail altogether. The plan promises to “reform our pretrial system by putting in place, instead, a system that is fair and does not inject further discrimination or bias into the process.” The plan also aims to end policies that lead to incarceration or the loss of a driver’s license for low-income defendants who don’t have the resources to pay fines. 

In other areas, the plan is more modest than those of Biden’s rivals. Most of the candidates are championing federal legalization of marijuana, for example. 

On Tuesday, Harris of California unveiled legislation that would effectively legalize marijuana federally by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act altogether. Under the measure, prior and pending convictions would be expunged and marijuana law would be left entirely to the states. 

“Times have changed – marijuana should not be a crime,” Harris said in a statement. “As marijuana becomes legal across the country, we must make sure everyone – especially communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs – has a real opportunity to participate in this growing industry.” 

Weed tax proposal 

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which she introduced along with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., also authorizes a 5 percent tax on pot to provide services for communities “most adversely impacted by the war on drugs” and grants for loans to small marijuana businesses operated by “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.”

Biden would push to eliminate the federal death penalty and create incentives to push states to also eliminate capital punishment, reversing a provision of the 1994 crime bill he championed that expanded the federal death penalty. 

Disparity, clemency 

Biden is also pushing to scrap harsher sentences for crack cocaine than powdered cocaine – a disparity that discriminates against low-income and non-White drug users – which came about as a result of legislation he co-sponsored in 1986. 

And Biden vows to use the president’s clemency power to release inmates facing unreasonably long prison sentences, as Obama did. 

His plan also focuses heavily on juvenile justice reform, promising to invest $1 billion annually in it. Congress, Biden says, has woefully underfunded the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which helps protect the rights of child defendants.

Like other Democratic candidates, Biden takes aim at private prisons. During the Obama administration, the federal government launched an initiative to end its use of such facilities, which was rescinded by the Trump administration. 

Losing ground 

Biden remains the front-runner in the race, but Harris and others have gained ground in recent polls. 

A CBS News poll conducted July 9-18 by YouGov Biden had 25 percent support as voters’ first choice for Democratic nominee, with Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts at 20 percent and Harris at 16 percent, gaining ground on the former vice president. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was fourth in the survey with 15 percent support. No other candidate reached double-digit support in the poll. 

Biden continued to benefit from his perceived electability against President Trump in the general election, and 85 percent cited his time as Obama’s vice president as a reason for considering him. 

Will Biden fight? 

Still, there’s an enthusiasm gap for Biden among some primary voters, the poll found. A majority of Democrats surveyed, 56 percent, said Warren would fight “a great deal” for people like them, and 54 percent said the same of Sanders. Only 38 percent described Biden that way. 

The CBS poll sampled 18,550 registered voters polled in 18 states that will hold Democratic primaries or caucuses before and on March 3, known as Super Tuesday. The sample included 8,760 self-identified Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, and the margin of error was about plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. 

‘From the right place’ 

At the NAACP convention, Biden and Harris received the warmest response from the crowd, with delegates jumping to their feet and holding up phones to snap pictures of the candidates as they spoke. 

Some voters said they were not bothered by Biden’s positions from four decades ago. 

“I understand Biden made a lot of decisions in the past that would hurt him today,” said George Mintz, a 72-year-old delegate from Bridgeport, Conn. “But I’m looking at where he’s coming from overall, and I think he’s coming from the right place.”

The 2019 NAACP convention takes place as issues of race are roiling the nation’s politics because of Trump’s ongoing attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color who have criticized him and his policies. 

Trump urged the freshmen members of the House of Representatives to “go back” to their home countries despite the fact that all are citizens, with three born in the United States and one a naturalized citizen who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia. 

When Trump attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota at one of his recent rallies, he paused and looked around at the crowd as supporters chanted, “Send her back!” 

‘Going nowhere’ 

Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, one of the targets of the president’s ire, spoke at the convention Tuesday, welcoming delegates and taunting Trump. 

“I’m not going nowhere, not until I impeach this president,” she said on the same day the delegates unanimously voted in support of a resolution calling for Trump’s impeachment. 

The Democrats at the forum largely agreed on issues such as fighting income inequality, supporting historically Black colleges and improving pre-K and K-12 educational opportunities for non-White children.

Evan Halper and Seema Mehta of the Los Angeles Times and  Ros Krasny of Bloomberg News (TNS) contributed to this report.



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