DOVER, Del.—The crowd was briefly ignited with excitement. Then some confusion. And finally, when the speech was done, resignation that tonight was not going to offer the words they wanted to hear from former Vice President Joe Biden.
This rollercoaster of emotions took place over the span of about ten seconds in the Dover Downs and Casino Ballroom as Biden closed out the First State Democratic Dinner.
Addressing criticism he has received from “the new left,” the septuagenarian former Delaware Senator said, “I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the Unite—” and then he suddenly stopped in his tracks.
“Anybody who would run,” he quickly clarified as the dinner guests briefly stopped clinking silverware to uproariously grant him a standing ovation.
Biden paused, realizing his ease with the room gave way to a brief misstep and threw up his hands with a wry smile. “I didn’t mean,” he said doing the sign of the cross as the room continued to applaud.
He pressed on so as not to give the impression that he made a mistake and did not in fact make an announcement.
“Because folks, we have to bring this country back together again,” Biden, 76, said, pivoting back to his stump. “I believe we are at an inflection point. The election in 2020, without hyperbole, is going to be the most important election this country has undergone in over 100 years. Not a joke.”
It was the second friendly event for Biden in the past week, a coronation of sorts in front of a friendly hometown crowd in which the speakers who introduced him effectively treated him as an active candidate. Earlier in the week, he had given a speech at a conference of the International Association of Firefighters, where he was met with effusive praise and chants of “Run, Joe Run.”
All but acknowledging that an affirmative decision was on the way, Biden responded to the union crowd: “Save it a little longer, I may need it in a few weeks.” He then joked: “Be careful what you wish for.”
The former Vice President is the last known holdout who could impact the emerging presidential field of more than a dozen candidates in a major way. He has consistently led early state and national polls, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) even as some doubts persist about his ability to compete with some of his competitors’ small-dollar fundraising prowess and whether his candidacy will be hampered by a deluge of stories highlighting his decades in the Senate and votes that don’t ideologically match the leftward lurch of core base voters.
He has, thus far, not argued for the kind of transformational change espoused by candidates like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), but rather leaned more heavily on his vast experience, the notion that a Biden presidency could restore the United States’ image on the global stage and a predilection for reaching across the aisle when needed.
This sense of finding common ground for the country’s most pressing issues, and the resulting compromises therein, represents another fault line in the Democratic primary between those who would back incrementalism as opposed to broad sweeping changes to the nation’s economy and health care system.
In Delaware on Saturday night, Biden referred to this as the “Delaware way.”
“For this democracy to work, you have to arrive at consensus. Period,” Biden said. “Without consensus, nothing can get done for people. And that means you need to listen to the other guy, the other woman. And respect one another no matter how badly you disagree.”