If and when Joe Biden enters the already-crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, he'll arguably become the frontrunner overnight. The former vice president sits atop both national polls and some surveys of key early primary states, and while these numbers are likely influenced by how much more famous Biden is than most of his potential competitors, his candidacy must look attractive to plenty of Democrats. He would represent a return to the less chaotic Obama era, and also has an "Uncle Joe" image that some observers think could win back Rust Belt voters who defected from the Democrats to Donald Trump in 2016, swinging the White House his way.
On the other hand, there's this: Biden got paid $200,000 to give a speech to a Republican-leaning business crowd in Michigan during which he praised GOP Congressman Fred Upton even as Democrats were clawing at his seat in the midterms, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
Upton, it should be said, is one of the more moderate GOP members of Congress; he's one of the few Republican members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, for instance. In recent years, he's been most famous for an amendment to the Obamacare repeal bill that might have made the legislation slightly less harmful to people with preexisting conditions. But he also voted for that repeal package (which was ultimately defeated in the Senate), and it's bizarre that a potential Democratic presidential candidate would support him over a member of his own party.
Though it wasn't a formal endorsement, Biden's speech praised Upton for his support of a piece of cancer research legislation (Biden's son Beau died of cancer in 2015) and called him "one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.” As the Times reported, that phrase quickly appeared in Republican advertising, and when Upton's Democratic challenger tried to get the former vice president to do something in response, “There was nothing but silence,” the candidate, Matt Longjohn, told the paper. (Upton ultimately won by 4.5 points, the smallest margin of his career.)
Biden's long career in the Senate can make him appear like a figure from another age—which he is. His was an era when politicians from both parties got along personally and sometimes worked together to compromise. That's part of his appeal, at least to a certain crowd—he's given speeches with former Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich about bipartisanship, and op-ed columnists have fantasized about a centrist dream ticket that would include Biden and either Kasich or Mitt Romney. He was friends with his longtime Republican colleague John McCain and a major backer of the bipartisan 1994 crime bill that included the Violence Against Women Act. He's a harsh Trump critic, of course—he has bizarrely talked about how he would have beat up Trump if they were in high school together. But he's very much positioned as a Democrat some Republicans could vote for. His praise of Upton is of a piece with all that.
The problem is that "bipartisanship" of this sort can seem like a limp response at a time when the US government is perpetually on the verge of crisis. Senate Republicans blocked Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016 and have spent the last two years declining to hold Trump accountable for his actions even as the president's chaotic governing style has led to the longest federal government shutdown in history. Furthermore, all that bipartisanship hasn't exactly had good results: The 1994 crime bill is now largely viewed by Democrats as an unjust expansion of the criminal industrial complex, and partnerships with McCain failed to produce anything of lasting value.
If Biden actually runs for president, he'll have to deal with criticism of his record—the crime bill and the Anita Hill hearings in particular. He's also going to face questions about why exactly he's taking $200,000 speaking gigs from Republican-leaning groups in the first place—as the Times story noted, Hillary Clinton's paid speeches were a major campaign issue, and Biden could be following in her footsteps, even if he's avoiding giving the same kinds of cushy speeches to big banks. Then again, those criticisms will come mostly from his left, and he's already turned off a portion of the progressive base by praising the wealthy and sneering at millennials.
Maybe that's his path to victory in a messy primary: At a moment when most Democratic contenders are touting their progressive bona fides, Biden will be a different kind of candidate: a Democrat who will work with Republicans and restore normalcy to Washington, DC. The question he'll have to answer is why working with Republicans apparently meant helping one of them defeat a Democrat—and whether Democrats like him should even exist anymore.
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