When former Vice President Joe Biden took to the stage last night at the Mendel Center on the campus of Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Michigan to the strains of Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, it was a quintessential Joe moment. Nothing is more progressively American than the Boss. It fits the soulful, searching, scrappy nature of the man ready to address a friendly crowd of supporters. Of course, there was one question on everyone’s mind: “Will he run?”
Which, somewhat dramatically, was the final question of the evening. Joe’s answer was compelling, and I think instructive as to his ultimate intentions. I’ll get to that in a moment.
In a roughly 90-minute talk, Joe spoke about more Republicans by name than Democrats. He even managed to tell a nice story about Jesse Helms, the deceased, virulently racist former senator of North Carolina. “You can question a man’s judgement, but you should never question his motives.” Something Joe said multiple times.
Biden shared a great deal of his own biography and told tales of a better time when Republicans and Democrats could fight like hell and then go break bread together. A time when things were more civil. He clearly longs for a return to those days and wants to bring them back. It’s honorable. Even noble. Sadly, it does not strike me as right for 2020, if he runs.
It isn’t well-matched to the time we’re living in – it is out of step with what the base wants to hear. We don’t want to build bridges with Trump Republicans, we want them out of office. Joe was talking about bridging gaps with people who burn bridges for breakfast. He went on at some length about Mitch McConnell being an honest man and spoke of his great friendship with John McCain. Carried on about Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, and other GOP stalwarts he was close to. At times it veered too close to nostalgia.
But in 2020, I have strong doubts that nostalgia is what we need, or that we could go back even if we wanted to. In a different time, Joe’s respect for differences, camaraderie and bipartisan fairness would be a great message. But today, “When they go low, we go high” has been replaced with “When they go low, we kick them.” I longed for signs of the Joe who cleaned Paul Ryan’s clock so completely during their 2012 debate that Chris Rock tweeted, “Somebody call the cops! There’s an old man killing a little boy on the TV!”
Instead, what I found was a relentlessly positive politician in a cynical era. In some ways it’s hard to believe he and Barack Obama were in the White House less than two years ago. It seems like ancient history. In the era of Trump, “Hope and Change” has been replaced by fear and loathing.
Which makes it notable that the big orange elephant in the room was mentioned so infrequently by Biden. Joe rarely brought him up, and when he did, his criticism was muted. It seemed like an odd choice for someone intending to run for president. He’s going to have to deal with Trump head-on in a campaign. How would he do it if he ran? Would it be as the arms out, conciliatory man I saw on stage tonight? Or the scrappy fighter who obliterated Paul Ryan on television in 2012?
Second to the question of “will he?” was the concern about his age brought up during the closing Q&A. Joe considered the question valid. I think it’s hardly valid at all considering our circumstances. While his voice seemed softer than I remembered, his grasp of the issues was sound. The stories he told were packed with detail. His 75-year-old body is fit and trim.
This country just elected a 73-year-old slow-witted vulgarian who eats Big Macs for breakfast while taking foreign policy advice from Fox & Friends. An 81-year-old John McCain “served” out his final months as senator in such poor health he could not even come to Washington to cast a vote. I’m old enough to recall a 90 plus-year-old Strom Thurmond who needed to be walked into the halls of the senate and his arm lifted and dropped on the button that casts votes.
Joe Biden is none of that. We should not be comparing him to the Almighty, but to the alternatives of Trump, or Satan. Age has been made important because the media keeps telling us it is. I do think there is a craving for something new, more current, and maybe female. That has nothing to do with whether Joe Biden is capable. He is.
I have no doubt Joe Biden would like to be president. What I don’t know is whether he wants to run – and those two ambitions need to go together. When Joe was finally asked the question, I found his answer and demeanor telling.
His voice softened further as he spoke about the death of his son, Beau, and the lingering effects of that loss. He looked down much of the time. Finally, he said the country deserved someone who is all the way in with a belly full of fire. He said he was not yet able to answer that in himself. This is the question Biden has been asking himself for over two years now. If he still doesn’t have an answer, then I think we probably have ours.
Recent history is littered with people who waited too long and missed their best shot. Hillary would have been formidable in 2004. Chris Christie in 2012. Elizabeth Warren (I think) in 2016. I believe Joe’s opportunity was the last cycle as well. The two politicians who got it just right were George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Forget what you think of their politics or their success in office. Their timing was impeccable. They felt and looked fresh when they ran.
Joe Biden does not feel or look fresh. Which is a damn shame in many ways. I think he would make a fine president, as well as an excellent salve for this deeply wounded nation.
Joe closed the evening with warm remarks on his former boss and his beloved wife. At times it sounded a bit valedictory. I have no doubt that he has more track to run, but I got the sense he is at peace with the life he has lived. That what he has accomplished and what he can do to help in his remaining years is enough for him. That is fair. He’s earned that.
My favorite thing he said all evening was this: “If you don’t know what you are willing to lose over, don’t run.” He was talking about integrity. Courage. Core beliefs. The idea that keeping your seat is less important than doing the right thing.
That is Joe Biden. From the top of his wispy white head down to the soles of his shoes. This is an inherently decent man. I just wish he would have run in 2016.