Joe Biden attended a breakfast on Monday hosted by Al Sharpton in Washington, D.C. The occasion was to mark what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 90th birthday, but for the former vice-president, it was also an opportunity to save face. Rumor has it that Biden is mulling a 2020 presidential bid. He remains officially undecided, but has spent much of the past two years offering explanations for why he would be an ideal candidate. His 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad, outlines the working-class bona fides and willingness to forego PAC money and take on Wall Street that, he believes, would have endeared him to Bernie Sanders supporters while offering Clinton backers a less compromised, more inspiring alternative in 2016. The New York Times reports that he has also built around himself a network of nonprofits and academic centers staffed by close advisers — the perfect foundation for a campaign, should he choose to pursue one.
Unfortunately for Biden, time has been unkind to his actual legislative record. Though he cultivated a persona during the Obama years as your affable “Uncle Joe,” in the United States Senate he was a “tough on crime” attack dog. In an address on live television, he lambasted then-President George H.W. Bush in 1989 for proposing a billion-dollar investment in the War on Drugs that, in Biden’s estimation, did “not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them, or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.” Hillary Clinton faced criticism for her role in supporting 1994’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — better known as the “Clinton crime bill” — but Biden actually co-authored it. While the bill enjoyed bipartisan and multiracial support at the time, its legacy is as an accelerant for mass incarceration. Monday was Biden’s closest moment yet to a public mea culpa. “It was a big mistake that was made,” he told those gathered, referencing sentencing disparities he supported that treated crack cocaine, which had a greater presence in poor black communities, as worthy of dramatically harsher punishment than powder cocaine. “We were told by the experts that ‘crack, you never go back,’ that the two were somehow fundamentally different. It’s not. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”
Biden’s concession that he “may not have always gotten things right” on criminal justice highlights a dilemma facing a handful of 2020 Democratic prospects. Though perceived as front-runners for the nomination, former legislators and prosecutors like Biden and Senator Kamala Harris of California, respectively, face the unenviable prospect of running with “tough on crime” credentials as baggage at a time when such policies are increasingly seen as moral atrocities. They amassed these bona fides at different times and via different means — Harris, as a district attorney and attorney general in an era of falling crime rates, and Biden, as federal legislator at a time when crime was spiking. But even less enviable is the plight of the untold number of people — a large share of whom are black — trapped in a cycle of police station, courthouse, jail, and prison stints as a consequence of these policies. It is tempting for candidates to rewrite this past for the sake of political expediency — to cast one’s carceral pursuits in a more flattering light than they warrant. Here is an alternative proposal: Be honest.
One of the more striking aspects of Biden’s expression of regret is that he avoids taking responsibility. “It was a big mistake that was made” is a clinic in passive language. He doesn’t fault himself, nor even the political climate, but rather his naïve yet well-meaning acceptance of the faulty science of the time. In Biden’s telling, the mistake was someone else’s; he, too, is a victim. Harris has similarly seen fit to make amends for her past, which is marked by a mixed legacy: the progressive implementations of job-training and diversion programs for first-time offenders and implicit bias training for her staff, coexisting alongside the startlingly cruel practice of prosecuting parents of habitually truant elementary-school students. She has described herself, dubiously, as one of the original “progressive” prosecutors — an increasingly en vogue designation today — but has also been more apologetic about her past than Biden. “The bottom line is the buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for what my office did,” she has said.
The trouble with both acknowledgments is that they are transparent efforts to woo voters. This is an admittedly difficult bind for politicians: Fixed policy stances are often valorized while evolving viewpoints are seen as pandering. Still, it remains that such concessions are to be expected when one must entice a black electorate — the cornerstone of the Democratic Party’s base — whose denizens one has played an active role in incarcerating by the millions. As recently as April 2016, Biden insisted that he was “not at all” ashamed of his role in passing the Clinton crime bill. Americans are, broadly speaking, savvy enough to recognize when they are being buttered up, and that politicians are more inclined to say what voters want to hear than speak uncomfortable truths, especially about themselves. This is not to suggest that Biden and Harris have not actually changed their minds — they may have. Nor is it to suggest that a mere apology and largely untested commitment to future rectification are sufficient amends — in the end, only those left to languish in cells can judge that. Nor is public repentance a substitute for the type of prolonged reckoning and reparations process that America’s mass-incarceration crisis warrants.
But the reality is that one of the greatest obstacles to progress is dishonesty. I do not know in detail what drove Biden and Harris in their former careers, but I do know that both have trafficked in the false notion that imprisonment solves problems it does not, and that both have thrived in a political system that treats punishing black people as currency. They are not primed to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in spite of their carceral pasts, but because of the clout they amassed as a result, and the profile it made possible. And neither has reckoned with how this system encourages its own perpetuation through political rewards.
Both had difficult jobs, no doubt — Harris, especially as a district attorney, was tasked with prioritizing public safety above all other concerns, a mandate that incentivizes punishment; and Biden, as a senator, was tasked with leading his party’s response to rising national crime rates. But both responded with the same asymmetrical violence that has scuttled solutions to black disadvantage through U.S. history. Reckoning with this truth is a precursor to changing course. Perhaps for Biden, this looks like admitting he did not really know how to solve this particular problem, but wanted to try and keep his job in the process, and did so the only way he knew how: by beating it with a blunt tool. Perhaps for Harris, this means acknowledging that she enthusiastically pursued a career whose stock in trade was assigning guilt and determining consequences — but learned, in the process, that she had believed the criminal-justice system was a solution to problems for which it actually was not.
Either way, the electorate deserves to make its decisions based on an honest assessment of the costs of aggressive public-safety measures, and the incentives that drive officials to pursue them — rather than be seduced by tough-guy posturing, glowing revisionism of the past, or easy answers to complex problems. This awareness might not compel voters to make more humane decisions moving forward. But at least they will be informed decisions.