On Thursday in Omaha, Nebraska, former Vice President Joe Biden said this about current Vice President Mike Pence: “The fact of the matter is it was followed on by a guy who’s a decent guy, our vice president, who stood before this group of allies and leaders and said, ‘I’m here on behalf of President Trump,’ and there was dead silence. Dead silence.”
Biden was referencing the rocky reception Pence received last month at a security conference in Munich as a way to illustrate the damage President Donald Trump has done to our relationships with our allies across the world. The idea Biden was pushing was that Pence, in and of himself, is someone who would get a perfectly polite reception at a conference like the one in Munich but, because of Trump, Pence had been given the silent treatment. It was, as criticisms of Trump go, relatively pedestrian.
Except that Biden referred to Pence as a “decent guy.” Which the liberal left – especially on Twitter – immediately seized. Cynthia Nixon, actress and unsuccessful candidate for governor in New York, tweeted this at Biden: “@JoeBiden you’ve just called America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader ‘a decent guy.’ Please consider how this falls on the ears of our community.”
Biden quickly responded to Nixon, offering an apology. “You’re right, Cynthia,” wrote Biden. “I was making a point in a foreign policy context, that under normal circumstances a Vice President wouldn’t be given a silent reaction on the world stage,” he said. “But there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.”
This entire episode is very revealing – about Biden, his near-certain run for the 2020 Democratic nomination and the state of the party that Biden wants to lead. Here are three things it tells us:
1) Biden is a creature of a totally different political time. Biden is a political anachronism. He’s been in politics for almost 50 years; he was first elected to the Senate in 1972! Politics back then (and all the way through the mid- to late-1990s) was far more genteel and polite than it is now. Biden is a hail-fellow-well-met sort of guy. My guess is he has called roughly 200,000 people (NOTE: This is an estimate) a “decent guy” over the course of his political life. That doesn’t mean he agrees with them. Or that he even likes them. Rather, it’s a reflection of the general collegiality that reigned in politics when Biden came up in the game.
Things have changed drastically since then, however. And this kerfuffle is a sign of things to come for Biden. He is a benefit-of-the-doubt guy running to lead a party who views the other side as not just dumb and incompetent, but evil. This may be the first time who Biden is as a politician runs directly into the new governing reality of the Democratic Party.
2) Biden is definitely running for president. OK, in truth, there hasn’t been much doubt about Biden’s plans to run in 2020 for a while now. But just in case there was any doubt, his rapid response to Nixon should clear that up. If Biden was leaning against the 2020 race – or had made up his mind not to run (even if he hadn’t announced it publicly) – it’s hard for me to see that he would even respond to Nixon, much less do so as quickly and apologetically as he did.
3) Biden is going to try to placate the left. While we’ve known that Biden is running for a while now – see No. 2 – it’s been less clear how he will run. Will he run as an unapologetic centrist, a pillar of the establishment and conventional thinking that a candidate for the Democratic nomination can’t move too far left or run the risk of losing the sensible center in the general election? Or will Biden seek to make the case that he is just as much of a liberal champion as the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)? Biden’s decision to engage Nixon and to say sorry so quickly suggests that he will be more reactive to the purity demands of the liberal left than I, for one, thought he might be.
Sometime soon Biden is going to get into the presidential race. And on the day he does, he will become the front-runner for the nomination – based on his pole position in both early state and national polling. But this “decent guy” controversy suggests that the former VP will not have an easy road. Can he adapt to the changed political world – in his party and in the country at large? Or will it eat him alive?