- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2019

PITTSBURGH — Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden built a 40-year reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker in Washington. That may be the one thing Democratic voters can’t stomach this time around.

Working with President Trump is clearly anathema, but some grass-roots progressive leaders say it goes beyond that, and anyone whose pitch to voters is an ability to get things done with Republicans will struggle to build support among the energetic left wing.

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said those voters are looking for someone who will work against the system of Wall Street, corporate trade deals and corruption in Washington, not someone who boasts about his ability to work within that system.

“The idea of Democratic insiders and Republican insiders cutting backroom deals is about the least attractive value proposition possible for independent voters who detest both parties and for moms and dads who want someone to fight for their families,” said Mr. Green. “That’s why Joe Biden will lose.”

Mr. Biden, who announced his campaign last week and held his kick-off rally Monday in Pittsburgh, is still trying to figure out how he’ll present himself.

His initial foray has been to complain about President Trump and argue he’s best-positioned to oust him from the White House.

But even if he doesn’t tout it, his years of Capitol Hill experience and his eight years as sidekick to President Barack Obama will be thrust upon him.

He led the push for the 1994 Crime Bill and joined the 2002 vote to authorize President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, both times falling in line with the political consensus. He also oversaw the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, which included Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment.

None of those are an easy sell in today’s Democratic Party, said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.

“Many party activists do not want compromise with Republicans but desire someone who will fight the opposition and highlight differences between the parties,” he said. “Bipartisanship is harder to sell now than was the case 10 or 20 years ago.”

That’s not to say there aren’t some buyers for what Mr. Biden has to sell. At his kick-off rally, supporters said the former vice president’s history of working across the political aisle will be a strength.

“It sells for me, because what we have seen for the last two, two and a half, years is Democrats versus Republicans. That mentality needs to end and it needs to be about unifying the country — not dividing the parties,” said Josh Aboud. “All Trump does is divide.”

Kevin Carter, a member of the Pittsburgh School Board and a delegate for Sen. Bernard Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, said “you can’t hold someone and chain-lock them to something they said in the ‘80s when on the other end you are preaching forgiveness for anyone who has committed a crime.”

“It feels like it’s a double standard,” Mr. Carter said. “If he was still doing what he did in 1991 in 2019 then we would be having a very different conversation about who I would be supporting.”

“I think with Joe Biden, the cool thing about his career is you see the evolution,” he said. “He admits the mistakes that he has made and he is willing to right the wrongs.”

Ralph Sicuro, president of the Pittsburgh Firefighters Local 1, told The Washington Times that Mr. Biden’s “ability to be able to make things happen, makes him one of the best candidates out there.”

“The Democratic Party continues to get harder and harder to the left side, and that is making those candidates extremely less likely to win a presidential election,” he said.

Mr. Biden was known as the “closer” for Mr. Obama when it came to deal-making with Republicans on Capitol Hill, working with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell on tax deals in 2010 and 2013, and a debt deal in 2011.

“There is a reason ‘Get Joe on the phone’ is shorthand for ‘Time to get serious’ in my office,” Mr. McConnell said in a 2016 floor speech.

But plaudits from the likes of Mr. McConnell aren’t likely to help Mr. Biden with the party’s left.

At a People’s Action forum in Washington on Monday, Scott Garren said that after eight years of GOP obstruction of Mr. Obama’s agenda, he’s looking for a Democratic nominee willing to battle Republicans.

And he hasn’t seen that out of Mr. Biden.

“I believe in forgiveness, but it’s got to be authentic,” Mr. Garren said. “And I don’t hear anything out of Joe Biden thus far really admitting the mistakes.”

Mr. Biden has tried to explain his handling of Ms. Hill during the Thomas confirmation process, though Ms. Hill says it’s not sufficient.

The former senator also now says he got “stuck” writing the crime bill that black activists blame for putting a generation of black men behind bars, and he describes his vote for the Iraq War as a mistake.

But he defends the bipartisan deal-making spirit he says he brought to the job.

“My whole career I’ve been able to get a lot of things done. I know I am being criticized by some on the far left that I have actually think we should work with Republicans. But how do you get something done [without that]?” he said in a speech earlier in April to International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Eilleen Kelly, chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, which has yet to endorse a candidate, told The Times that Mr. Biden has evolved.

“Times change, back then that maybe what was needed to be done, I really don’t know how to explain it,” Ms. Kelly said. “Time has changed and he is up with the times.”

And Mr. Aboud, the avowed Biden backer, said he can turn his regrets to his favor on the campaign trail.

“I think that everybody makes decisions or does things in their past that they will eventually come to regret, but it is a matter of how you change that going forward and the message you send going forward,” Mr. Aboud said. “So if he has regretted those things in the past and says, ‘Hey, you know what? I recognize this and I willing to make change to do better.’ I am willing to listen to that.”

• Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this article.

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