Whatever the status of his up-and-down public relationship with Donald Trump, Joe Scarborough has shown a steady understanding of the Republican presidential nominee's appeal. The former Republican congressman has said many of the white, working-class people backing Trump are the same voters who supported him in the 1990s.
The same could be said of Vice President Biden, a native of Scranton, Pa. So when the two Joes got together on MSNBC Wednesday morning, ahead of Biden's prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention, Scarborough wanted to know why the veep thinks Trump is connecting with these voters so much better than Hillary Clinton.
Biden took care not to criticize Clinton directly but scolded his party for acting like a bunch of "limousine liberals" who offer solutions without taking time to listen and learn about problems. Here's the exchange:
SCARBOROUGH: We all are asking about Donald Trump. You're talking about a guy who's connecting with those workers in Scranton, Pa., who's connecting with those people in Youngstown, Ohio, who's connecting with those white, working-class voters in a way that you have your entire career — and a way that Hillary Clinton is not. You can just look at the numbers right now. Why is that?
BIDEN: That's why I'm going to be living in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan —
SCARBOROUGH: — over the next six months. But why is that?
BIDEN: I think it's two reasons. One, I think the Democratic Party overall hasn't spoken enough to those voters. They've done the right thing for the voters — haven't spoken to them. ...
SCARBOROUGH: Have Democrats stopped talking to white, working-class voters?
BIDEN: I think we have, in part. And the reason is we've been consumed with crisis after crisis after crisis. And so I go in my old neighborhoods, and they go, "Joe. Hey, Joe, over here. What about me?" And I say, "Well, look, all these things that are happening."
Look, you know, what are the things that affect middle-class families? Let me define what I mean by middle-class: Being able to own your own house, not have to rent it. Being able to send your kid to a park; they can come home safe. Being able to take care of your geriatric parent after the other one dies. Being able to send your kid to a local school; they do well, they get to college, and if they get there you can get 'em there, if they get in. That's not asking too much. And so I say, "Look. Look what we're doing. Look what we're doing on college assistance and Pell grants." We have the right policies, but I don't think we spend enough time — I know we're running out of time.
Let me say it this way: I had a Senate staff, and it was pretty consistent. I mean, they knew me well, and they knew my modus operandi. Got to be vice president. New people, new staff. And anybody who would begin to say, "You're going to speak to such and such; here's an outline," and I said, "Just every speech you write, just understand one thing: In the very beginning, make sure that they know that I know what they're concerned about, that I know what their problem is. Whether I agree with them or not on the solution, let them know that I know what's worrying them and why it's not illegitimate that they're worried. And then give an answer." We instead go in and sort of — in the old days, the "limousine liberals" — we go in and say, "I got the answer for you."
This was a pretty candid reflection by Biden, prompted by some good questioning by Scarborough. It might even be more insightful than whatever the vice president says onstage Wednesday night.
For one thing, it tells us where he comes down on the question of whether Democrats ought to redouble their efforts to win white, working-class voters or simply cede this shrinking demographic to the GOP. The news media has covered extensively Republicans' self-identified need to make gains among racial minorities who tend to vote Democrat — but that is because they represent growing shares of the electorate. Some liberals have argued that Democrats shouldn't waste their time on white, working-class voters, whose influence is fading, anyway.
"The Democrats don't need them, they shouldn't want them, and they should once and for all stop coddling them," the Daily Beast's Peter Birkenhead wrote last month. Biden clearly disagrees.
In his speech, Biden will surely focus on Clinton's strengths, but here, on "Morning Joe," he acknowledged a major vulnerability and previewed his role in addressing it, saying he'll be hitting the trail on the Democratic nominee's behalf in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. We can also expect to see him hitting the air for more interviews like this one.