The Memo: Biden's nice words for Republicans may doom White House hopes

Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenBiden weighing an early announcement of running mate: report Poll: Biden leads among millennial voters O'Rourke faces sharp backlash from left MORE is proud he can get along with Republicans — and that could be a problem if he enters the 2020 race.

The former vice president seems to see comity and decency as the antidotes to the fractious Trump era. But his approach can look too timorous to a swathe of the Democratic primary electorate — especially those who have come to view the GOP as the enemy, not just the opposition.

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“There is a growing number of Democrats who feel the Republican Party is a threat to American democracy and is very much to blame for the problems in our society, our democracy and our economy,” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director of Justice Democrats, a progressive group. 

“There aren’t that many voters on either side who are interested in bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake.”

Biden, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972 and served six terms, often hearkens back to an era of greater civility among lawmakers, even if they represented diametrically opposed viewpoints.

This tendency is causing unease even among his supporters. 

The New York Times recently reported that Biden aides have told him they find his tales of his civility with the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) grating, presumably because of Helms’s reactionary racial politics.

Biden also gave a eulogy at the funeral of former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who died in 2003 — a decision that was revisited by BuzzFeed News last month. Thurmond was a racist by any reasonable yardstick, though he denied the charge.

On Tuesday, Biden noted, almost plaintively, that he gets “criticized for saying anything nice about a Republican.”

Perhaps most prominently of all, Biden referred to Vice President Pence late last month as “a decent guy.” He drew back from the compliment after coming under criticism on Twitter from Cynthia Nixon, the actress and progressive activist who lost a Democratic primary to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year. 

Nixon, who is married to a woman, told Biden in a tweet that Pence was “America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader” and that he needed to consider how his praise “falls on the ears of our community.”

Biden replied, “You’re right, Cynthia,” and noted that he was referring to Pence in “a foreign policy context.” He added, “There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights.”

The Pence controversy has taken on a life of its own, a litmus test in the early days of the 2020 Democratic primary. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren calls for abolishing Electoral College Warren: 'White supremacists pose a threat to the United States like any other terrorist group' Poll: Biden leads among millennial voters MORE (D-Mass.) was asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday if she considered Pence an honorable person. She replied, “No,” and went on to accuse him of homophobia and “attacks on people who are different from himself.”

On Thursday, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden weighing an early announcement of running mate: report Poll: Biden leads among millennial voters O'Rourke faces sharp backlash from left MORE (D-Calif.) was posed a similar question, also on MSNBC. Harris said that she has “many points of disagreement with the vice president,” including on gay rights. She did not specifically address whether she considers him honorable.

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But Biden’s apparent misstep on the Pence issue disconcerts some progressives who fear he is out of step with the mood of the party, especially on social issues and current mores.

Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist and commentator unaligned with any 2020 candidate, said she thought any description of Pence’s supposed decency was sure to “strike some as unfeeling.”

More broadly, McIntosh added: “You have to read the room. And right now, the ‘room’ of the Democratic primary is afraid of what the Republicans are trying to do to this country, afraid of [President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren: 'White supremacists pose a threat to the United States like any other terrorist group' National Enquirer paid 0,000 for Bezos texts: report Santorum: Trump should 'send emails to a therapist' instead of tweeting MORE’s] creeping authoritarianism, afraid of the hatred that is causing hate crimes to rise.”

Returning to her “read the room” metaphor, McIntosh said, “I’m not sure Biden has done that.”

A Biden spokesman declined to comment for this story.

Other Democratic strategists, as well as some outside observers, are less scathing of Biden’s efforts.

The counterargument is, in essence, that Biden’s respect for Republicans could be an asset in a general election, especially against such a polarizing president as Trump. 

If he is able to position himself as the most effective candidate to defeat the president, the argument runs, primary voters will flock to his side.

Some also argue that Biden’s image as a centrist is oversimplistic. 

As vice president, he famously came out in favor of same-sex marriage before his boss, President Obama. His close bond with Obama is a big plus with grass-roots Democrats and, even among black voters, could plausibly outweigh older and more obscure matters like the Thurmond eulogy.

“I don’t think he is going to sound like a centrist,” said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist. “He is going to sound like a progressive on the issues and a reasonable guy when it comes to comity.”

Devine also drilled down into the specifics of the primary calendar, noting that the first two contests — in Iowa and New Hampshire — could be amendable to Biden’s appeal. In New Hampshire, particularly, the primary electorate typically includes a large number of independents, especially if there is not a competitive primary on the other side.

One of Biden’s strongest cards is his purported ability to rebuild the Democratic “blue wall” that Trump demolished. Biden’s working-class roots and old-school political style could be a good match for voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, his boosters say.

One Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, said that Biden’s bipartisan bona fides could help persuade voters he would break the Washington logjam.

“I do think there’s some yearning, even among Democratic primary voters, just to get stuff done,” the strategist said. “I would not advise overly praising Republicans or giving conservative Republicans compliments as a winning strategy. But there is some appetite to move stuff forward.”

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, said that Biden’s political persona was so well-established that he would be foolish to try to run from it.

But Berkovitz also cautioned that, in the politics of the current moment, “We’re not looking for a healer. We’re looking for more dividers.”

Among liberal Democrats there is clear skepticism that Biden is the best person to navigate those turbulent political currents.

“I don’t advocate meanness,” said McIntosh. “But I also don’t think we need to be conciliatory in the face of policies that are doing real harm to this country.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.