Biden Preaches Unity to a Nation 'Sick of Division'

Biden Preaches Unity to a Nation 'Sick of Division'
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Biden Preaches Unity to a Nation 'Sick of Division'
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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PHILADELPHIA — Joe Biden, the Delaware Democrat fondly referred to as Pennsylvania’s third senator, came to the City of Brotherly love Saturday to wrap up his campaign rollout, to attempt to unify the republic, and to tell the country that the current national divorce wasn’t their fault. Blame, he said, belongs to President Trump.

The solution, Biden believes, is sending the former vice president back to the White House, this time as president, where he will begin knitting the country back together. “I know some people in D.C. say it can’t be done,” he told those gathered at a sun-splashed rally here. “Let me tell them something, and make sure they understand: The country is sick of the division. We are sick of it.”

Biden didn’t breathe a word about the 21 other Democrats competing for the job he wants. The front-runner focused his criticism on Trump, condemning the president as an existential threat to democracy.

With the Philadelphia skyline behind him and Independence Hall nearby, Biden spoke in reverential tones about Founding Fathers, the promises of the Declaration of Independence signed here 243 years ago, and the Civil War that nearly tore the nation apart.

“We are only 140 miles from Gettysburg, perhaps the most famous symbol in our nation’s history of the cost of division,” Biden told the crowd. “In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln didn’t only honor the bravery of those that lost their lives at Gettysburg. He had a message for the living. He said it is for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us that a government of, by, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

“Folks, that was not just a challenge from Lincoln to those present that day. The challenge he handed down was for every generation of Americans that followed. Now that challenge has been handed to us as the test above all others that future generations of Americans will measure us by.

“Will we be the ones that let a government of, by, and for the people perish from the earth? Dare we let that happen? Absolutely not. I will not. You will not,” he concluded.

The event marked the conclusion of a three-week campaign launch and a continuation of a central theme Biden has embraced: bipartisanship. He insisted he could work with Republicans as president, and rejected the seething anti-Trump anger that has driven some within his party.

“That’s what they are saying you have to do to win the Democratic nomination. Well, I don’t believe it,” Biden argued. “I believe Democrats want to unify this nation. That’s what the party’s always been about. That’s what it’s always been about. Unity.

“If the American people want a president to add to our division, lead with a clenched fist, closed hand, a hard heart, to demonize the opponents and spew hatred — they don’t need me,” he said. “They’ve got President Donald Trump. Folks, I am running to offer our country — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — a different path. Not back to a path that never was but to a future that fulfills our true potential as a country.”

Biden’s potential may well hinge on Pennsylvania. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the previously blue Keystone State by just 44,000 votes in 2016. He pulled off similar upsets in Michigan and Wisconsin to carry the Electoral College and win the White House. To roll back those losses, Biden has branded himself as the blue-collar anti-Trump and is basing his campaign headquarters in Philadelphia.

And it has worked out so far. Biden not only leads the rest of the primary pack by 22.7 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics poll average, he also outperforms the president in Pennsylvania. A Quinnipiac University survey shows Biden beating Trump 53% to 42% in a head-to-head contest 14 months before the Democratic National Convention.

A senior campaign aide told RCP that the polling is evidence Biden’s message is resonating, that “those numbers are obviously a reflection of that response.”

Biden’s political theology isn’t just good for electioneering. It is good for the soul, insists former Bernie Sanders press secretary and current Biden adviser Symone Sanders.

“When white supremacists are walking in the streets of Charlottesville, when neo-Nazis are shooting up schools, when it’s not safe to worship whether you are Christian, Jewish, of Muslim, we are in a dark place,” Sanders told RCP.

The Biden overtures toward bipartisanship should not be confused as centrism, she insisted. “I can tell you he is not middle of the road,” the aide argued, addressing attacks from the left and delivered most notably by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Sanders is confident her boss can pass any purity test put forward by progressives. For proof, she pointed to the work he did on health care and gay marriage during the Obama years.

Biden deserves more credit for those accomplishments, said Sen. Chris Coons. The Delaware Democrat told reporters he would like to ask Bernie Sanders why he doesn’t acknowledge the work Biden did with President Obama.

“They did more than give great speeches,” he said. “They actually made progress.”

Acrimony gave way to excitement as Coons surveyed Saturday’s crowd, which numbered about 6,000 and represented states far beyond Pennsylvania. “Isn’t that amazing?” he told RCP backstage. “That Joe Biden can inspire people not to just come out and vote but drive across the country, volunteer, spend their energy and time, that’s going to build the kind of campaign that can last and win.”

Zach Ewell travelled from Virginia to be the first person in line ahead of the event. “Biden was the first person I voted for, along with Obama in 2012,” the 24-year-old said after waiting in line for three hours. “… I actually went to Obama’s last address when he was in Chicago, so I see this as full circle.”

The millennial said he probably wouldn’t have made that same trip for Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Neither would Kyle Whelton, a 26-year-old insurance agent from Wisconsin, who drove 13 hours through the night with Trevor Jung, an alderman from Racine.

“We are the most divided we’ve been since the Civil War,” Whelton said. “The conversations that we are having around identity are important and can’t be avoided, but part of the conversation has to be about identity and our collective identity as Americans.”

Many waiting for Biden’s appearance, such as Clifford Welby of South Philadelphia, described the former vice president as the only hope for Democrats to retake the White House. He dismissed candidates such as Sanders and Warren as well intentioned but unrealistic in their policies and unrelatable in their tone.

“Unless the Democratic Party can have a moderate candidate who can support middle-of-the-road approaches to solve real problems, it’s going to be Joe or bust,” Welby said. Only a centrist candidate can win the general election, he insisted. Could Biden reunify the country? “I hope so,” he said.

The soaring rhetoric of the candidate didn’t always match the behavior of the crowd. When a woman unfurled a Trump flag nearby, she was greeted with some hissing. One man shouted an epithet at the insurgent Republican.

The remark drew a loud and immediate correction.

“That is exactly where you don’t want to go,” groaned Micki Kirzecky, who drove from New Jersey to hear Biden speak. Along with her sister Nadia, she said unifying the country was her biggest concern and the reason they plan on voting for him.

“Remember Michelle Obama?” Kirzecky said in response to the profanity. “‘When they go low, we go high.’ That’s where I see Joe going.”

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