DOVER, Delaware — Joe Biden defended his progressive cred Saturday against mounting criticism that he’s too chummy with Republicans. In doing so, he essentially blurted out that he’s running for president.
“I know I get criticized … by the new left,” the Democratic former vice president acknowledged in his keynote speech at a dinner for Democratic activists in Delaware, his home state.
“I have the most progressive record of anybody running for—” the last few words immediately drowned out by claps and whoops from hundreds of fans in the crowd.
Biden — who has not officially declared his candidacy but lately has sent strong signals that he could at any moment — tried to correct himself over the din.
“Who would run,” he said.
It was a moment worthy of the not-yet-a-campaign Biden is running: defiant and on his own terms. It was a little more than two weeks ago that he had to clean up an offhand remark that his successor, Vice President Mike Pence, is a “decent guy.” Progressives howled in disapproval, pointing to Pence’s conservative policies, particularly when it comes to gay rights.
Since then, though, the only thing Biden seems sorry for is having to clean up the remark in the first place. “If you notice,” he said Tuesday in a speech to the International Association of Fire Fighters, “I get criticized for saying anything nice about a Republican. Folks, that’s not who we are.” Biden continued his rueful ruminations Saturday in front of people he was sure would understand. Fostering civility and consensus, he insisted, is the Delaware way.
“We don’t treat the opposition as the enemy,” Biden, 76, told the audience. “We might even say a nice word every once in a while about a Republican when they do something good.”
Biden’s case, without him explicitly saying so yet, would be a throwback to the Barack Obama era in which he thrived as a progressive wingman of a vice president — the guy who could reason with Republicans on Capitol Hill, but who got advantageously out in front of Obama on supporting gay marriage at the same time. If he runs, he would test whether it’s a compelling enough case in the combative Donald Trump era, when the party’s left flank shows little interest in congeniality, and given that Biden’s bipartisan record sometimes advanced policies that have fallen far out of favor with the progressive left.
“We choose hope over fear,” Biden, echoing Obama, said at the close of his 40-minute speech. “We choose unity over division. And we choose truth over lies. We’ve got to stop walking around with our heads down, like, ‘Woe is me, we’re in such trouble.’ Damn it!”
The speech reinforced Biden’s status as the last major piece of the 2020 puzzle for Democrats. As he soaked up the home-field cheers, several announced candidates were meeting voters in Iowa. Among them: Beto O’Rourke, the 46-year-old, relatively moderate male candidate who entered the race to much fanfare this week and represents a generational, if not ideological, shift in the party that in some respects makes him a younger Biden. (O’Rourke ran a 5K on Saturday morning.)
Biden would join a crowded field if he runs — given his slip-up Saturday, it’d be a surprise if he doesn’t — but does not appear to be in a hurry to launch. Delaware Democrats seemed eager for him to get into the race.
One by one, they took the stage with messages that were hardly subtle. There was Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester: “We cannot blow this moment. This is our moment, Democrats. This is our moment, Delaware Democrats.” Then came Sen. Tom Carper, who awkwardly pushed Blunt Rochester, the state’s first black member of Congress, as Biden’s running mate: “She’s young, she’s brown, she’s smart, she’s dynamic, she serves in the House of Representatives.”
Activist Sonia Schorr Sloan, receiving the state party’s top award, emphasized she had worked on every Biden campaign and that she had told Biden that “I have one campaign left in me.” Gov. John Carney, who introduced Biden, laid it on particularly thick. “I’m not up here to break any news tonight,” he said. “But in my humble opinion, we have never needed Joe Biden more than we need him right now.”
Chris Coons, the state’s other Democratic senator, told BuzzFeed News in an interview before the dinner that Biden doesn’t have to rush an announcement.
“Look, Joe Biden probably has a 98% name ID,” Coons said. “If there is anybody who can afford to let this sort itself a little bit, it’s Joe. He’ll start as the frontrunner.”
Coons said Biden “absolutely” has his endorsement if he runs. (Coons and others here Saturday, though, talked of Biden running as a matter of when, not if.)
“I think he is ready to run and has his heart, his mind, and his spirit focused on restoring some of the unity that used to characterize our country and that sadly has not been a part of our last two years,” Coons said. “I think Joe is someone who looks at the divisions in our country and reminds us of how we’ve overcome them in the past.”