Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden said he wasn’t prepared for Sen. Kamala D. Harris to confront him on his past positions on busing to desegregate schools in the way she did at last week’s Democratic presidential debate.
“I was prepared for them to come after me, but I wasn’t prepared for the person coming at me the way she came at [me],” Mr. Biden said in an interview that aired Friday on CNN. “She knew Beau. She knows me.”
Asked why he didn’t push back more strongly during the debate, Mr. Biden said: “In 30 seconds? Come on, man.”
“What I didn’t want to do is get in that scrum,” he said.
Ms. Harris of California called Mr. Biden out during last week’s debate for working to oppose federally mandated busing, recalling her own personal experience with busing to make her point.
In the new interview, Mr. Biden said that on busing, “our positions aren’t any different, as we’re finding out.”
“Voluntary busing — we supported it. We supported it then,” he said. “And by the way, Barack and I, as president and vice president — we provided money for voluntary busing.”
“It’s so easy to go back, and go back 30, 40, 50 years, and take a context and take it completely out of context,” Mr. Biden said. “I get all this information about other people’s past and what they’ve done and not done, and I’m just not going to go there.”
In some post-debate polling, Ms. Harris has gained support and won high marks for her debate performance, while Mr. Biden has fallen back closer to the rest of the 2020 Democratic presidential field.
The former vice president said he hasn’t yet re-watched his performance.
“Well, I didn’t have an opportunity to re-watch it, and besides, my measure is how people react outside — getting on a train, getting on a plane, walking through an airport, walking in a parade, just going to the grocery store,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Harris’s campaign on Friday said the senator’s statements in the debate weren’t intended to be a personal attack.
“I can’t speak to why he was or wasn’t prepared — that’s for him and his team to decide and to explain — but what she was pointing out was a very real disagreement on the record,” spokeswoman Lily Adams said on CNN’s “New Day.”
Ms. Harris herself said this week that busing is a “tool” in “the toolbox” that should be “considered” by any school district.
In the back-and-forth at the debate, the former vice president had said Ms. Harris‘ experience was the product of a local decision.
“So that’s where the federal government must step in,” she had said.
Ms. Adams said there is still a fundamental point of disagreement between the two candidates on the issue.
“What she said in the debate is that there are times when the federal government needs to intervene, like in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, when frankly there [was] local opposition to a lot of the busing,” she said. “What she’s saying, and maybe the vice president now agrees with this, is that now, in 2019, 40-plus years later, there are different tactics that we need to use.”