Former Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged Monday that his record on criminal justice issues hasn’t always been perfect, addressing, albeit briefly, a key aspect of his long career in public office that could be a liability if he runs for president.
“You know I’ve been in this fight for a long time,” Biden said in remarks to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Washington. “I haven’t always been right, I know we haven’t always done things the right way. But I’ve always tried.”
Biden made no mention of the 1994 crime bill he authored, a law that's sparked criticism from progressive activists for its strict sentencing requirements. Biden had long touted his work on the issue, even recently as vice president since the legislation included gun control measures that have since expired.
Both Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised King’s legacy at the breakfast as the two potential hopefuls zeroed in on a critical voting constituency in the Democratic nominating contest – African Americans.
Bloomberg reminded the audience he spent heavily already to help elect Democrats in Congress and across the country in 2018, and focused his remarks on two issues that have been a focus of his three terms as mayor and more recently his philanthropic life: education and gun violence.
“Dr. King would have been the first to say we still aren’t moving fast enough,” Bloomberg said. “In fact I think if he had seen the little progress we’ve made in giving all minority children a sufficient education to succeed over the past four years he would be shocked at how little has changed.”
Bloomberg, who spoke first, teased one Biden about their looming decisions, saying that while he hadn’t had time to speak yet with him, he looked forward to getting some tips from him about living in the nation’s capital.
“Whatever the next year brings for Joe and me, I know we’ll both keep our eyes on the real prize and that is electing a Democrat to the White House in 2020 and getting our country back on track,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg left before Biden addressed the audience. The former vice president did not name Trump but blasted him for helping provoke a resurgence in racism in the country.
“We’ve learned in the last two years it doesn’t take much to waken hate, to bring those folks out from under the rocks,” he said. “They have been deliberately reawakened again … Something I thought I would never live to see again, having a president of the United States make a moral equivalence between those who are spreading the hate and those who are opposing it.”
In their own ways, Biden and Bloomberg candidacies would be game-changers in the nascent Democratic contest, which took on new shape Monday with the official entrance by California Sen. Kamala Harris.
In Biden, the field would add a candidate with perhaps the deepest political resume and highest name identification in the party. The entrance of a two-term vice president and seven-term senator could crowd out some of the more than dozen other lesser-known contenders considering the race.
Bloomberg would bring a willingness to spend heavily from his personal fortune to try and win the nomination, as some other leading contenders are pressuring the field to focus on small-dollar donations from grassroots supporters. A former Republican and independent, Bloomberg would be running to the right of others at a time the Democratic Party is seen as tracking further left.
Neither man appears ready to join the field imminently. Biden has said he would spend the holidays discussing the race with his family with the goal of reaching a final decision in January. He has been privately meeting with top Democrats and allies as his team continues to lay the groundwork for a campaign, even as they know the operation may never launch.