What could Joe Biden have been thinking?
To give a talk last fall, as The New York Times reported Wednesday, in which he praised a Michigan Republican congressman who was locked in a close re-election fight, and for which he pocketed a $150,000 lecture fee from a business-oriented civic group that was known to be strongly Republican-leaning…
I mean, I really would love to know the thought process that led him to the conclusion that making that speech was a fine idea. He goes back to a time when doing a good-natured bipartisan favor for a friend from the other party wasn’t a crazy thing to do. You can lament if you want—and a part of me does—the fact that those days are gone and that you just don’t do that sort of thing in this polarized time of Trump. But gone they are. It is a crazy thing to do.
Biden can’t not know that. He spent eight years in Barack Obama’s White House, for gosh sakes. He knows what’s happened to this country, what the Republican Party has become. He watched them fight the Affordable Care Act tooth and nail. When it passed despite all that, he famously declared it a “big fucking deal,” loud enough so the microphones could pick it up.
Then he watched the Republicans vote to repeal it 60-whatever times. Those didn’t really count since Obama was still president, but then he watched them repeal it in the House again, once Obama was gone. And Biden knows very well that Fred Upton, the GOP congressman he praised in his speech, calling him “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with,” voted for the repeal.
That’s important. Fully 20 Republicans did not vote for Paul Ryan’s repeal bill in May 2017. Upton, who is sometimes called a moderate and who had waffled before the vote, could have been one of those Republican dissent-niks. If he had, Biden’s appearance before the group—it has longstanding ties to Upton’s wealthy family, and the speech was in Upton’s 6th Congressional District—might have been sort of understandable.
Actually, even then, no. Upton was in a close race. His Democratic challenger had a shot. Upton ultimately won by 4.5 percent in a district Donald Trump carried by nearly twice that margin. Biden probably didn’t make the difference. But for a former two-term vice president, one of the biggest names in the party, to come into the district on Oct. 16 and lavish praise on the Republican was quite a blow to the loyal precinct Democrats out knocking on doors and working phone banks for candidate Matt Longjohn.
Biden is in a strange position. He’s leading all the polls, but that’s mainly because of name recognition. People seem split on whether he’s actually going to run, as he has twice before, though I think he will. People (and by “people” I mean “liberal-left insider-junkie types”) are not split, however, on whether he can win the nomination. Everybody thinks he has no chance.
His problem is precisely that he dates to that chummy era, which was also an era when the Democratic Party was a very different animal. Actually, he goes back at least two animals ago. He was elected to the Senate in 1972! When George McGovern was the nominee. The Biden of 1972 ran on some positions that have circled back into fashion.
But then he grew in seniority and stature during the years when the Democrats were charging to the center on issues like crime. Some of his old criminal-justice remarks are going to dog him, as will his chummy decision during the Clarence Thomas hearings to not call as witnesses women who could have corroborated Anita Hill’s testimony. This past, say the aforementioned people, will doom him.
But those people don’t know everything. The weird thing about Biden is that despite all these things, he could beat Trump. He could probably have beaten him last time, easily, and, provided he could somehow wrangle the nomination, this next time too. He’d have plenty of appeal to non-Democrats and soft Democrats. He’d win Pennsylvania without much trouble, and probably Michigan and Wisconsin, and maybe Ohio and Iowa.
His problem is that his appeal to the groups that make up the base of the party is close to zero. This is the Democratic conundrum Biden represents. One the one hand, Democratic voters want someone electable, mostly likely to beat Trump. On the other, they want someone who articulates this new bolder energy. Biden is very much the former but is totally not the latter.
I wouldn’t quite count him out. A lot of voters do seem to like him, and this speech, by itself, is a survivable error. But it’s survivable by a good candidate who spends the fall of the midterm elections making a dramatic move or two demonstrating that he knows he needs to freshen up his image. Instead he went off and cashed a $150,000 check (the other $50,000 was travel expenses) from a Republican-leaning business group.
And given his history, you just know he’ll do something like this again. He always has. Maybe that’s why he’s 0-for-2.