This is a brilliant insight into Joe Biden's dilemma by Greg Sargent:
The topic of race is absolutely central to Biden’s candidacy, but it’s also the source of a big and unresolved tension at its core.
Race is key to Biden’s suggestion that our central imperative is defeating Trump and to Biden’s claim that he’s the candidate to do that. This is true in two ways: an obvious way and a largely unmentioned way.
On one hand, Biden has made his forceful denunciation of Trump’s racism central to the argument that Trump is an existential threat to our national character. He launched his candidacy with a powerful denunciation of the resurgence of white supremacy and Trump’s refusal to unambiguously condemn it, and cast the election as a referendum on whether we will permanently come unmoored from our founding ideals.
Biden’s discussion of race, then, is central to his aura as the candidate who will salvage our national character from Trump’s degradations of it and keep the arc of our history bending toward justice. He’s the American elder statesman who possesses the depth, experience and gravity to make this big argument.
On the other hand, Biden’s aura of electability turns in part on his alleged ability to appeal to the blue-collar, culturally conservative whites who turned out in huge numbers for Trump amid a candidacy of virulent bigotry that had its founding spark in the conspiracy theory that the first black presidency was illegitimate.
Where is the source of that appeal to those voters supposed to lie? Partly in Biden’s roots in Scranton, Pa., and in his image as an old-fashioned labor Democrat (never mind that he’s far less populist on policy than Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
But race is also key to that appeal. When we discuss Biden’s electability in the industrial Midwest, race is central to what we’re talking about, and we all know it.
The most charitable way to put this is that Biden comes from a Democratic Party that precedes its new “wokeness,” so those voters might be more comfortable with him. A less charitable way is that Biden’s past association with things like his opposition to busing — which meant capturing the political energy of white racial backlash — carries an implicit racial and cultural signaling that will reassure them.
One key reason that Biden’s nostalgia over white supremacist senators blew up on him is that it ripped the lid off of all this. Just as Harris does, I believe Biden when he insists he was, and is, horrified by their white supremacy.
But what still remains ambiguous is whether Biden does or does not conceive the source of his claimed appeal to conservative whites as rooted in subtle appeals to blue-collar white identity politics, as Jamelle Bouie has detailed.
This ambiguity was pushed forward when Biden adamantly refused to back off his praise for segregationist senators and, worse, when he dressed downAfrican American Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) over the matter.
What Harris did last night
What Harris really did is to pin down this ambiguity and not allow it to remain hidden any longer. What she demonstrated is that, whatever Biden’s actual intentions, any whiff of such racial and cultural signaling no longer has any place in today’s Democratic Party.
Tellingly, this was precisely the point at which Biden was left befuddled. He simply didn’t know how to respond. He did forcefully denounce his old Senate colleagues. But he also defended his busing stance — which carried the aroma of that very same signaling. At the least, he just didn’t know how to clearly telegraph that he understands that this no longer can be left ambiguous.
It’s not yet clear how much this will damage Biden, and he still has time to find some way to convey clarity on this point.
But Harris’s precision in exposing this ambiguity was almost eerie. Biden may possess a well of knowledge and experience from having lived through civil rights tumult, but it didn’t serve him well at a crucial moment.
By contrast, Harris made a strong down payment on the idea that she’s the one to prosecute the case against Trump’s racism — a case that must be prosecuted with no such ambiguity or gray areas.
It is going to take an adept Democratic politician to traverse all the cross-currents in American political life and make it to the White House. But splitting the difference between the white racists who voted for Trump and the loyal African American constituency is simply impossible on both a moral and strategic basis. The Democratic party is a big coalition but we've come to the point at which certain beliefs simply are not compatible with the party's values.
There are some people who voted for Trump who can be reached. Many of them voted for Democrats in 2018. They didn't need any dogwhistles. They understood that the GOP has gone around the bend and the president is a clear and present danger. And they know the Democrats are the only institutional tool they have to stop them.
It's not complicated.