Imagine Joe Biden is the Democratic presidential nominee and during the general election campaign, he calls Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy.”
How many votes could a graceful throw-away phrase about a Republican opponent and ideological foe yield on Election Day — for the Democratic ticket? Even if we agree Pence has done little in his public life to warrant the dictionary definition of decent — worthy, kind, obliging, generous — might it be worth it for Democrats to choke on principle and win those swing votes?
Biden’s strength lies in his potential appeal as a general election candidate. But first he has to get through a Democratic primary, which is shifting more sharply to the left with every news cycle. Right now, the party is being driven by the politics of newly elected US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and actress-turned-activist Cynthia Nixon. Whether they turn out to be saviors who help Democrats win the White House, or Thelma and Louise, who take the party over the cliff, is the great unknown. But with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris in the back seat, the goal is to squeeze centrists like Biden off the 2020 road.
That’s why Biden swiftly backed down after offhandedly saying something semi-nice about Pence. While speaking in Omaha, Biden brought up Pence’s appearance at last month’s Munich Security Conference, when the vice president offered greetings from President Trump and elicited no applause from world leaders in the audience. In recounting the moment, Biden said that “a guy who’s a decent guy, our vice president . . . 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.” With that, he was trying to bury the Trump administration, not praise it.
Nixon, known primarily for her role in “Sex and the City” and more recently as an openly gay Democrat who waged an unsuccessful primary fight against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, quickly tweeted at Biden: “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.”
Walking back his comments, Biden acknowledged “there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights.” Nixon followed that up with a scathing opinion piece in The Washington Post, again calling out Biden for “putting politeness over policy.” She accurately ran through Pence’s horrible record when it comes to LGBTQ discrimination and other social issues. She also suggested that by giving Pence “the benefit of the doubt in the name of civility,” Biden might be willing to “bargain away our rights in the name of bipartisanship.”
From an obviously casual remark to undermining LGBTQ rights — that’s quite a leap, isn’t it? If the purity police are going to denounce every stray word out of a candidate’s mouth between now and election day, that does more than squelch speech. It will also keep Trump’s base intact and discourage swing voters from swinging to the Democrats.
Biden has well-documented baggage. It includes his speech-stealing during the 1988 presidential campaign; his mistreatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings; backing the 1994 crime bill; and assorted gaffes and behavior deemed odd or inappropriate. And at 76, he’s old. But he also comes across as a genuine, sincere, and yes, a decent human being, who has persevered in the face of tremendous personal tragedy.
If he wants to run, he should run. Let primary voters hear what President Obama’s vice president has to say. Let them judge his words against those of an array of Democrats who, just like Trump, promise more division and bitter partisanship.
Maybe primary voters will decide you don’t have to be partisan every second of the day.
Or they may very well decide to keep Thelma and Louise in the driver’s seat. But a decent guy like Biden still deserves to be treated decently.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.