Early in his stump speech for Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones in Alabama on Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden began to wax nostalgic, recalling a bygone era in Washington when our politics were more cooperative. “Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old fashioned Democratic segregationists,” he told the crowd in Birmingham. “You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.”
“But today,” Biden lamented, “today it is terrible. Today everything is a personal attack. You can’t reach a consensus when you start off a discussion attacking the other person’s motive.” Jones “possesses what the American political leaders and system needs today,” Biden said, bemoaning a politics that’s “too mean, personal, petty, zero-sum game, blowing up the system.” He said that “today it takes more courage to engage in compromise to achieve consensus on both sides.” And distancing himself gently from his own side, he noted that the left “came after me because I didn’t insist on everything” in raising taxes on the wealthy. “Guys, the wealthy are as patriotic as the poor,” he said. “I know Bernie doesn’t like me saying that, but they are.”
Biden’s message of unity is part of his broader branding as he prepares to embark on an “American Promise” book tour—and weighs a run for president in 2020. Though famous for his populist style, he’s begun to challenge some of the populist policy now in vogue on the left, including a universal basic income. Later this month, he’ll have a high-profile public conversation about “bridging the political divide” with Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich. Biden isn’t as explicit as some establishment Democrats in calling for the party to move back to the center, and he stressed in Alabama that “I have a very progressive voting record.” But many progressives aren’t interested in finding common ground with President Donald Trump’s extremist Republican Party. They’re only interested in consensus among those who absolutely oppose Trump’s agenda.
“If it was up to me, I would ask [Democrats] to be nice to each other,” said Congressman Keith Ellison, deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, when I quoted Biden’s remark about Sanders. “It’s actually pretty clear who’s the problem out there. I mean, if we haven’t figured out that Trump’s the problem, and the Republican agenda’s the problem, then we have not been paying attention.” He added, “You want to find common ground and build some consensus? Let’s talk about people who share some core values.”
Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of the progressive blog Daily Kos, agrees with Biden on this much: “The left’s effectiveness will always be constrained so long as part of it indiscriminately attacks those with money and success.” But Moulitsas also had harsh words for the former vice president after his appearance with Jones: “If Biden’s solution to eight years of Republican obstruction and conservative slash-and-burn tactics against him and Barack Obama is to talk about ‘bipartisanship’ and ‘consensus,’ then he might as well pack up and go home. Because if he’s that stupid to believe that shit, then he’s no longer got any business being in the public face. The various wings of the Democratic Party may disagree on a bunch of things, but the one thing that unites us is the realization that the right wants nothing more than a white supremacist autocracy that would rather see liberals dead or in chains. You don’t seek consensus with Nazis. You destroy them.”
Most progressives wouldn’t go as far as Moulitsas in vilifying Republicans. But he’s not alone in defending tough rhetoric against the GOP. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, thinks it’s imperative for Democrats to describe their opponents as beholden to special interests when that kind of language is warranted. “There can be no heroes without villains,” he told me. “Democrats need to be better about naming villains if they want voters to see them as the heroes. It is impossible to fight for everyone—because within everyone is bad actors attacking good actors and big powerful interests attacking the little guy.”
“Our government and politics are too often in the pocket of business and special interests,” said Corbin Trent, communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats. “I think [Democrats] absolutely should continue to call it out and become more bold and clear in their rhetoric.” As for bridging the partisan divide, Trent offered this evocative metaphor: “You can’t compromise on dinner when one side of the aisle wants you to eat roadkill.”
That’s about where Keith Ellison is, too. In the Speaker’s Lobby just off the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday night, I told the Minnesota congressman about the “Bernie doesn’t like me saying that” remark. “I don’t know why that would be a helpful thing to say,” he said. “Honestly I think we need to be trying to lift up all the progressive voices in the country. Bernie caucuses with the Democratic caucus. He’s an important member.” Like Trent, Ellison noted recent polling showing Sanders is the country’s most popular politician—something Democrats like Biden should consider before they distance themselves from the Vermont senator.
In asking Democrats to be kind to one another, Ellison insisted, “I am not addressing [Biden] specifically.” He said he agreed with Biden’s vision of how political cooperation ought to work under ideal circumstances. But he also suggested this wasn’t the right message for his party in the Trump era. “I personally don’t know where we compromise where they’re trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Where’s the midpoint there? I don’t know how to compromise when somebody wants to repeal Dodd–Frank and consumer protection. I don’t know how to compromise with somebody who wants to push silencers when we’re a country that had 59 people killed,” he said. “Far be it from me to criticize our esteemed vice president, but I do not agree that any of the existing issues that we’re dealing with call for much in the area of compromise. The Trump budget versus the budget that, say, the Progressive Caucus is offering? I mean, there’s not much in there we can work with them on.” Ellison allowed that consensus and compromise “sounds fine in normal circumstances. But these are the least normal circumstances that anyone living has ever seen.”
There will undoubtedly be voices in the Democratic Party who embrace Biden’s message. Longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told me “there’s an enormous hunger for it,” noting that Trump himself has never gotten better press than when he worked with Democratic leaders “Chuck and Nancy” on a budget deal last month. Shrum called Biden’s talk of comprise “just sensible advice,” saying the former vice president is betting on “a country that is desperate, except at the ideological extremes, to actually get something done.”
The left sees it differently. In Trent’s view, the most telling and “insane” part of this is how “establishment Democrats are way more comfortable trying to make alliances with the other party than with the Bernie Sanders wing of their own party.” And yet, in the case of Biden, he may just be showing his authentic self. “He is definitely a centrist,” said Joel Silberman, a media strategist who works with progressive candidates. “He believes in consensus.” Silberman says that’s the wrong message for Democrats at this critical moment. “I don’t believe the centrist position is the one that’s going to hold,” he told me. “I think the centrist position is the one that is crumbling.”