The Slatest

Joe Biden Has a Bipartisanship Problem

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the National Action Network Breakfast on January 21, 2019
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the National Action Network Breakfast on Monday. Al Drago/Getty Images

Say it ain’t so, Joe. The New York Times reports that, just three weeks before the 2018 midterms, Joe Biden gave a paid speech to a Republican-friendly crowd in Michigan, where the former vice president praised the work of a GOP congressman who was locked in a tight battle for reelection, calling Rep. Fred Upton “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.” Upton— who touted Biden’s de facto endorsement at a debate the very next day—went on to defeat his Democratic challenger Matt Longjohn by 4.5 points in the battleground district.

A few mitigating factors: While the race in Michigan’s 6th Congressional District was considered competitive, Upton was the clear favorite even before Biden came to town. And while a GOP-friendly group, the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan, paid the former veep a total of $200,000—$150,000 as an appearance fee, plus $50,000 for travel—there’s nothing in the Times report to suggest that lauding Upton was an explicit requirement of the deal. As the paper puts it: “There is no evidence Mr. Biden was motivated to praise the lawmaker by anything other than sincere admiration, stemming from Mr. Upton’s role in crafting the 21st Century Cures Act after the death of Mr. Biden’s elder son, Beau, from cancer in 2015.”

That’s the relatively good news for Biden. The bad? The Economic Club is partly funded by Upton’s family foundation, which Biden knew ahead of time. The speaking contract explicitly stated that the audience would be “primarily older, conservative Republicans and local community members,” and Biden also met Upton briefly at the venue before the speech. And furthermore, Biden later ignored requests from local Democrats to officially endorse Upton’s opponent after the Republican’s allies began featuring the “finest guys” quote in an ad campaign. So, yeah, this one is going to be difficult for Biden to shrug off should he enter the 2020 fray.

If you take the money out of it, Biden gave a Republican congressman a push at a time when the Democrats were desperate to retake the House; if you don’t, Biden gave a Republican congressman a push—and then went home with a six-figure check for his trouble.
(Beto O’Rourke could face similar criticism, since he passed up the chance to endorse the Democratic challenger to Republican Rep. Will Hurd in Texas last year. Though in that instance, no money was involved.)

Even the former, generous reading of Biden’s speech illustrates one of his major liabilities in 2020, namely his desire to play the role of the elder statesman who can unify the country by reaching across the aisle. It’s an understandable impulse, and perhaps even a noble one, but Biden’s nostalgia for the bipartisan days of yore will crash headfirst into the hyperpartisan days of the present. He’s already facing criticism for positions he held in the past that are now anathema to many Democratic voters, like his opposition to school integration in the 1970s, his vote for the 1994 crime bill, and his support for the Iraq War. And as I’ve noted before, even his Obama cred will have its limits with the left, given where the party has moved in the past two years. He will have to answer for his old boss’s use of drones, his role in not prosecuting big banks and other bad actors in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and more. Biden’s decision to give aide to Upton at a time when control of the House was at stake—and with it, the ability to act as a check on Donald Trump—will provide his critics with a clear, recent illustration of what Biden is willing to give up in order to extend his hand to Republicans.

Now consider Upton, the man whom Biden felt compelled to praise for his role in securing funding for cancer research. That’s an issue that is near and dear to Biden’s heart, but Upton has spent his three decades in the U.S. House working to thwart a host of Democratic goals that Biden also claims to care about. Upton, for instance, was a leader in the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare, and is a powerful ally of the fossil fuel industry. Yes, he is on the moderate end of the GOP spectrum, but he’s still made it more difficult to expand healthcare and address man-made climate change. If we take Biden at his word, though, that’s a price worth paying for bipartisanship. It remains to be seen if Democratic primary voters will agree.