NASHVILLE — In a fervent, at times wistful speech on Friday afternoon, Vice President Joe Biden told to a group of governors that they, not members of Congress, amounted to the nation's "best hope" for legislative progress.
He recalled walking the Mississippi River with the governor of Illinois, talking about "the critical connection" between rail lines, highways, and waterways. He remembered a meeting in Albany with the governor of New York, about upgrades to bridges and tunnels. And he looked across the conference room to the governor of Maryland and said, almost at a yell, "You're doing all you can. You're attracting investment. The federal government is sitting on its hands."
The culture in Washington, Biden said, has become "too personal" and "too coercive" in the six years since he left the U.S. Senate, where he served for more than three decades.
Biden spoke before about two dozen governors at the National Governors Association summer meeting.
"Folks, I probably shouldn't say this, but then again, I'm Joe Biden," he told the governors, seated at a long banquet table in the Omni Nashville hotel ballroom.
"I was thinking about this a lot the last three, four weeks. The greatest honor of my life was the be a United States senator and serve with some of the greatest, finest people I've ever known in my life. And I loved it. And it's always been very, very tough politics in Washington," Biden said. "But we never got to where it is now. It was never personal. It was never cast in the context of, you're good or bad."
"We actually liked each other back in those days."
In the 50-minute speech, billed as a talk on the federal-state partnership, Biden reflected on his time in the Senate and appealed to the state executives to "continue to do the practical things you're doing." In particular, Biden highlighted state infrastructure improvements and workforce development programs.
"The culture in Washington now, it's become too personal, too coercive," he said.
Before his speech, Biden attended a Nashville fundraiser for the Democratic Governors Association, a group that recruits and helps finance the party's gubernatorial candidates. "I was saying to Peter earlier today," Biden said of the group's chair, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, "that you folks, the Democratic [and] Republican governors, are the best hope we have to bringing back an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, where we can have significant ideological differences, but at the end of the day, it's all about finding a solution."
"There was a presumption that the other guy or woman you'd be dealing with was acting in good faith," Biden said. "The vast majority of you respect one another. The vast majority of you — I assume all, but I don't know — the vast majority of you treat each other with respect. You're not dismissive of the other guy's or woman's ideas."
"Granted, it always looked better from the outside than the inside looking at you all."
Biden's remarks were reminiscent of a speech by Bill Clinton to the same group in 1993, during his first year as president in Washington.
Speaking to the National Governors Association assembly in Tulsa, Okla., that August, Clinton said the skills "highly praised among" governors were "not only not very much prized — sometimes they're absolutely demeaned in the nation's capital."
Throughout his speech, Biden addressed several of the governors directly, calling each one "Gov." He concluded the remarks by taking several questions from the attending governors. Behind the assembly, guests of the conference, most of them wealthy corporate sponsors and lobbyists, filled the audience.
"You got to lead us out of this mess we're in," Biden told the governors.
"We look to you. I look to you."