“Explosive Conflicts”–Kamala & Joe

August 25, 2019

The media coverage of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s first debate clash, and the events preceding and following it, offers a lesson (still unlearned!) on the kind of error-compounding pileups that can jettison common sense, and hijack meaningful debate.

First Democratic Debate: Biden & Harris on bussing

The first problem came with the press’s over-focus on Joe Biden’s reference to Strom Thurmond in his statement that he (Biden) ~“worked with segregationists to get bills passed,” while missing his overall point, the need for compromise in legislating.  While Biden should have anticipated the reaction he would get to the racially charged name of Thurmond (a segregationist and Biden’s friend) and could have expressed himself better, the press’s emphasis on the backlash, instead of Biden’s main point of the importance of ‘working across the aisle’, even if it’s with extreme political opposites, is a fundamental Mischaracterization of his meaning. The attendant irony in this—the press’s ignoring Biden’s use of “segregationists” as a way to drive home his point, instead, oxygenizing the explosive racial aspect—cannot be explained away with Biden and Thurmond’s friendship since their differences on civil rights (and Biden’s lengthy pro-civil rights record) were well established. (Read these Washington Examiner and The Atlantic articles for a fuller, more nuanced picture.)

That furor then sparked the debate conflict when Kamala Harris, who was bussed as a child, confronted Biden on his busing record, declaring how hurtful people like Strom Thurman were to her and people of color.  Biden defended his civil rights record and clarified his position on busing as favoring local jurisdiction over it, rather than federal, to which Harris responded that it is the failure of states to integrate public schools that necessitates policy at the federal level.

Given the appalling disparities that still exist today, prioritizing education policy in debates is monumentally important. But instead of drilling down on that topic (or validating their respective positions on bussing), much of the media, for several days, not only highlighted the fireworks of the clash over its substance, but did so to an extent that largely ignored the other candidates, breaking the Focus on Issues, Not Politics Rule on two counts.

Finally, a week later an AP article came out with new shadings of both candidates positions on busing. “Kamala Harris clarified her position on federally mandated school busing, saying it’s only necessary in cases where local governments are actively opposing integration,” the article said. It went on to add: “Biden said he was in favor of voluntary busing but opposed federally mandated busing. During the 1970s and ’80s, however, Biden actively worked against busing efforts and was an outspoken critic of the tactic. But Harris muddied the waters Wednesday when she told reporters she too did not support federally mandated busing and supported it only as an option for local governments.” 

So… Biden and Harris’s positions on bussing were not that far apart, it seems. Media: let’s try to catch these Sins of Omission and Correct Inaccuracies a little sooner, okay?

Follow up articles:

Biden (Associated Press – AP):  In early July while visiting South Carolina, Joe Biden apologized for his segregationist comments and defended his overall civil rights record.

Harris (San Jose Mercury News):  During the second debate, 4 attacks on Harris’s record as California Attorney General were made, 3 of which were partially or largely inaccurate or unfair to her.  In 2 cases—arguing (unsuccessfully) against early release of prisoners to use them for fighting fires; failing to inform defense attorneys of possible evidence contamination—Harris was not told of unilateral actions by her staff, but took responsibility (as their boss) later.  In another case—putting 1,500 people in jail for marijuana—the vast majority of those were prosecuted by DA’s at the county level.  In the 4th case—stymieing death row appeals (2)—Harris corrected herself.

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