Joe Biden has built a career as a back-slapping, old-school politician who prides himself on working with Republicans.
He’s about to find out just how much bipartisanship Democratic voters are willing to tolerate in the Donald Trump era.
The former vice president officially announced his 2020 White House bid Thursday, saying “we are in a battle for the soul of this nation.” His allies say that Biden’s elder statesman profile and working-class connections make him uniquely suited among a sprawling field of Democratic candidates to defeat Trump.
“The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America is at stake,” Biden said in a video launching his bid.
It’s Biden’s third run for the presidency, following unsuccessful bids in 1988 and 2008. But this time around, he faces a different Democratic electorate, one animated by activists itching for a fight with the GOP.
To many energized progressives, a compromise-seeking politician like Biden is exactly what the party should avoid in 2020. Even in his home state of Delaware, where Biden is beloved, there is some skepticism of his conciliatory approach.
“It’s a very divided time period in the party where lots of people have different views on that,” said Erik Raser-Schramm, the chair of the Delaware Democratic Party, who personally still sees the value of bipartisanship. He went on to add, “In the past, members of the party would agree with that completely, whereas now, people have a different perspective.”
Early polls paint Biden, who enjoys near-universal name recognition, as the frontrunner—one who enjoys decades-old relationships in many of the early states and goodwill after serving as Barack Obama’s vice president. But he also faces a series of significant challenges, including concerns about his age, 76, and his lengthy record in public office.
His supporters see his decades of experience as a strength, but there are also perils. Some of his past actions, from his conduct during Anita Hill’s testimony against now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to his remarks on busing from the 1970s, have already drawn scrutiny.
“He’s such an old-school kind of pol that a lot of the stuff that would have been acceptable in years past is becoming a little bit more problematic,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and veteran former Senate staffer who is skeptical of a Biden run.
Then there is the tension over how Biden talks about Republicans.
When Biden referred to Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, as a “decent guy,” actress and former New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon noted Pence’s record on LGBTQ issues and called Biden out -- and Biden responded.
“There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President,” Biden replied on Twitter.
But many Democrats say Biden should not run from his record of bipartisanship. Indeed, he has also robustly defended it,saying that a “mean pettiness has overtaken our politics” at an appearance before the International Association of Fire Fighters last month.
“I realize the party is certainly more than drifting, in some ways lurching to the left,” said Harold Schaitberger, the president of that firefighters’ union. “But in order to win a presidential election, obviously you’ve got to get to 270 electoral votes… You’ve got to win in places like Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin.”
“Those are the voters that i think are yearning for, looking for the adult in the room, someone who will bring real character back to the office, who also has experience and a command of the issues and the world as it is,” he continued.
Biden’s willingness to engage the other side, Schaitberger said, is evidence of that strong character.
“He says something just about someone being decent, and you have to watch some of the, I think, the really misplaced criticism, not recognizing that’s really the strength and the kind of character that should be leading this country,” he said.
And other Democrats warn that Biden might be perceived as inauthentic if he alters his core beliefs.
“When you begin to run away from what matters most to you, it shows,” said Dan Sena, former executive director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Sena said that was a mistake made by a previous Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, who, he said, avoided any discussion of climate change during his 2000 run despite being passionate about the issue.
“Nobody let him talk about it. So what’s Al Gore’s reputation? Dry, milquetoast, boring,” Sena said. “He wasn’t a candidate who was allowed to be himself.”
John Anzalone, who sources say is expected to be a pollster and strategist for Biden’s campaign, passed along public data that indicates that there is in fact an openness among Democrats to bipartisanship.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll from late March, 70 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters said age was not an important factor in their vote, Anzalone noted, while 67 percent said bipartisanship is an important factor.
“If you’re tired of total dysfunction, you can’t [have] the line-in-the-sand type of mentality,” he said. “I just think, again, that it’s a myth that needs to be broken. That there is a real appetite for bipartisanship even among Democratic primary voters. It is an asset, one Democratic primary voters believe you need to actually get things done, get policies passed that are impactful and helpful for people.”