Former vice president Joe Biden returned to national politics Tuesday during an afternoon rally in Alabama for Democratic Senate nominee Doug Jones, and his speech was a striking departure from his party’s current tone.
As Jones smiled from across the podium, Biden treated the crowd of about 1,000 people to a riff on the Senate’s glory days — days when the party included segregationists.
“I’ve been around so long, I worked with James Eastland,” said Biden, referring to a segregationist senator from Mississippi. “Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.”
Biden talked wistfully about Washington’s old politics, even showing off his vocal impression of the last Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate, Howell Heflin. (Richard C. Shelby, the state’s senior senator, was elected as a Democrat but switched to the GOP in the 1990s.)
But when Graham Vyse, a reporter for the New Republic, later asked progressives to respond to the Biden pitch, he got an earful. In Vyse’s report published Thursday, Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, said:
If Biden’s solution to eight years of Republican obstruction and conservative slash-and-burn tactics against him and Barack Obama is to talk about “bipartisanship” and “consensus,” then he might as well pack up and go home. If he’s that stupid to believe that s‑‑‑, then he’s no longer got any business being in [public]. The various wings of the Democratic Party may disagree on a bunch of things, but the one thing that unites us is the realization that the right wants nothing more than a white supremacist autocracy that would rather see liberals dead or in chains. You don’t seek consensus with Nazis. You destroy them.”
Democratic activists, who are less focused on 2020 than is the pundit class, have warm attitudes toward Biden. In Alabama, where Democrats have been wiped out of power, it’s not clear that any other high-profile member of the party could stump for Jones.
But as Biden reemerges as a national figure — his book tour will take him across the country this fall — he is set to collide with the new politics of the post-Obama Democrats. Biden, who passed on a 2016 presidential run, never had to face the criticism that weakened Hillary Clinton’s support from the left. She was pummeled for talking in support of the 1994 crime bill; Biden co-wrote that bill. She lost some activists forever by backing the Iraq War; Biden backed it, too, with reservations.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who since Clinton’s defeat has become the Democrats’ most visible messenger, has argued that the party can win back power and compete with white working-class voters by compromising less with Republicans — by staking out a left-wing vision and pulling the country with them. Biden’s approach, of promising incremental change and taking the bitterness out of politics, increasingly sounds out of place.
“Guys, the wealthy are as patriotic as the poor,” Biden told the crowd in Alabama. “I know Bernie doesn’t like me saying that, but they are.”
Although the former vice president’s point was to set up his argument against Republican tax cuts, his criticism of Sanders received the most attention.